Whether parties should actually want to increase their memberships is an important question. For example, it might be asked if it is really such a bad thing that political parties no longer attract members for social entertainment reasons? Nowadays the parties only draw those who are genuinely interested in belonging to a party for political reasons. The reality is that having mass memberships meant that the extra-parliamentary parties risked being flabby and almost apolitical bodies that served no real purpose other than self-legitimisation. Also, the fact that very few New Zealanders now join any of the parties could be seen as a useful verdict from voters about the state of the political parties. It might suggest that the parties have a diminished legitimacy for New Zealanders. [Read more below]
Most commentators still call upon the political parties to make themselves more attractive to potential members. For example, Raymond Miller suggests the parties need to try ‘democratising decision-making processes with a view to giving membership and activism some value, and providing greater opportunity through the candidate-selection process for the revitalisation of the party leadership’ (Miller, 2001: pp.238-239). This is unlikely to happen, and by showing that they can exist adequately without large memberships, the political parties have generally made the mass party model a thing of the past.
New Zealand political parties simply do not need large memberships anymore. The new political era does not require the old army of canvassers on the ground. Reviving political parties is therefore simply not on the agenda or even the wish-lists of party leaders. The parties have proven that they can function more than adequately without a membership, let alone an active membership. Party membership in 2008 is possibly just an anachronism.
This is confirmed by age-related membership statistics, which suggest that party membership in New Zealand is perhaps just a hangover from a previous generation of voters. Very few young people join parties. The Electoral Commission has undertaken surveys that provide figures on the age of party members in New Zealand. Their 1994 survey showed that of those New Zealanders with membership of parties, ‘three-quarters were over 50 years of age, and 39 per cent were aged 70 and over’ (Harris, 1998: pp.15-16). In a sense, political parties have probably managed to retain many of their older membership – and some parties have signed up old-age voters due to the politicisation of superannuation – while at the same time having a greater problem recruiting those people born after 1950.
Likewise, a survey of nearly 1000 Alliance party members in 2000 showed that the aged made up the bulk of the party. Those under the age of 30 years made up less than two% of the membership, while those over 55 years-old made up 72% (Alliance, 8 Jun 2000). Similar trends appear to exist in Britain, where the average age of members of the Conservative Party is 62 years, and only five percent of members are under 35 (Whiteley et al., 1994). The British Labour membership, too, had an average age in 1995 of 48 (Heartfield, 1995).
There is, thus, a definite generational aspect to the decline of political party membership.