If New Zealand political parties ever become serious about recruiting members again, they will need to re-examine the roles that they afford members, rather than just regarding them as cannon fodder. Alternatively, should the parties want to reconcile themselves with the reality of the new low-membership, low-participation environment, they will need to restructure their parties accordingly. [Read more below]
New Zealand political parties now allow only a small input from rank and file members, and where they are involved, the involvement is not very meaningful or fulfilling. Michael Laws, for instance, has painted a picture of life in the 1980s extra-parliamentary National Party as being very empty and without real power: ‘The party were mere cannon fodder marching at the behest of the parliamentary wing. Useful for organising public meetings, raising money from door-to-door canvassing, delivering election year pamphlets and leaflets, but not much else’ (Laws 1998a: pp.56-57).
Laws has also written about how party activists in New Zealand ‘toil with no prospect of reward or encouragement for their party’s cause. Their activities are the political equivalent of digging a hole, filling it in again, then repeating this process until mortal release’ (ibid: p.37).
Likewise, according to one Alliance activist, involvement in the party is rather unfulfilling:
Working for the Alliance is not like working for Jesus – you don’t get life in more abundance. There is a certain amount of comradeship and a little cynical fun to be had along the way, but mostly what you get is boredom – dull meetings, dull tasks, dull policy documents to read and duller ones to write (Pigden, 2001: p.25).
Party structures based on a fiction
Henderson and Bellamy (2002: p.70) point out that ‘while party members in theory have the opportunity to be actively involved in formulating party policy and candidate selection, in practice most key decisions rest with the party hierarchies. Party conferences are useful for floating policy ideas and parties maintain policy committees, but the decisions on policy tend to rest with the party leaders and their parliamentary caucus.’
Formally, the whole organisational structures of the parties – especially Labour and National – are predicated on the involvement of their memberships, and now that they are all without such numbers, the parties need to reassess how they function vis-à-vis their membership. Certainly the parties will eventually have to adjust their party constitutions and structures to adjust for the new reality of low membership numbers. A good example of this occurred in 2003 when the National Party decided to lower the minimum number of party members that an electorate must have in order to carry out their own candidate selection. In the 1940s and 1950s the minimum was 2000 (Gustafson, 1986: p.234). From 1996 until 2003, the minimum was set at 900, after which it dropped again to 200 (Joyce, 2003).
At the moment most of the parties still carry out such functions as party conferences, candidate selection and branch organisations as if the parties still possessed mass memberships. As one conference observer has noted, ‘The trappings of a mass membership party are still there – the huge banner dwarfing the speakers, the lunch wheeled out in industrial-sized pots, the earnest picking-over of remits’ (Boyd, 1995a).
Rob Allen of the Labour Party head office has also commented on this:
I think it’s a problem in a party that is designed to be a mass membership party – where you have got a variety of processes that are based on mass membership, and if you get too small in any part of the organisation then things like selections can fall to a fewer group than you might think is desirable, or even some of the policy stuff could (Allen, 1999).
In particular, parties in the future are likely to consolidate their empty branch networks, and use electorate – or even regional – meetings more. Other more sophisticated responses such as integrating sector and interest group causes into parties will come about. These ideas have already been under investigation by the National Party:
[party official, Lindsay Tisch] said the working party was also investigating the concept of ‘cluster groups’ to boost membership. That would involve sector groups – for example, people working in the health or education fields – being linked to the party, but not obliged to take part in day-to-day party work. Apart from providing a wider catchment for membership, those in the cluster groups would provide expertise which would strengthen policy formation (Armstrong, 1994: p.1).