The mass membership form of the political party is clearly extinct in New Zealand. It has been superseded by the electoral-professional form of party, which has the organisational characteristics of a low capacity for membership participation and a strong reliance on capital resources and party professionals. This series of blog posts has therefore emphasised one side of the transition to the electoral-professional form of party organisation: the decline in membership numbers. [Read more below]
This transition has been outlined by showing that membership of the parties has become increasingly unpopular in New Zealand, with numbers declining substantially in the mid-1960s and again since the mid-1980s. The slump in numbers illustrates that, beyond merely receiving votes, none of the parties in Parliament have any kind of substantial enthusiastic support. The paid-up grassroots membership of both Labour and National is now only a fraction of their respective levels of even 25 years ago.
Although it is generally difficult to establish the exact membership figures for the parties, this series has investigated the numbers through a variety of sources and arrived at the following estimations. As far as can be judged, in 2008 the main political parties had roughly the following membership numbers: National, 20,000; Labour, 10,000; the Maori Party, 5000; the Greens, 4000; Act, 3000; New Zealand First, less than 2000; and other minor parties probably have another 10,000 members combined. In total, therefore, about 54,000 New Zealanders belong to political parties. In stark contrast, in 1960 – a time when the electorate was half the size it is today – the National Party alone claimed a membership of 246,000.
Party membership used to be one of the important linkages between the state and civil society. Without it now, the classical democratic view of parties as a link between the ruled and the rulers is under strain. The decline means that the parties are not performing their participatory linkage function particularly well, and it illustrates once again that political parties’ ties with society are eroding.
This series has argued that the professionalisation of the parties is one of the key reasons for the decline of participation in the parties. In the new model, party members are less useful and therefore the recruitment of members is a low priority for the party leaders. But it also works the other way, in that the declining number of members encourages the parties to professionalise further, producing a self-reinforcing cycle.
The story of declining party membership numbers is another version of how capital resources have replaced labour resources in politics. Quite simply party membership has become largely irrelevant as the style of electoral campaigning has shifted towards a more capital-intensive approach. This chapter shows that all the New Zealand parties have – to varying degrees – moved on from being labour-intensive parties to being capital-intensive parties reliant on professional labour.
Integral to this process is the commercialisation of political parties. Parties today are commodified by professional marketers. The parties today are generally professionalised election-oriented organisations. This decline in membership numbers and increase in professionalism has led to weaker party organisations. As is argued earlier, such weaker parties are not good for democracy because parties are essential to the democratic process in New Zealand. New Zealand’s electoral system is, however, party-based, which makes the decline of the public’s participation in them particularly problematic. As Gustafson argues,
if you don’t have strong parties, then you limit politics to an elite with money and ambition and access. The mass of the population, particularly the relatively poor and powerless, become alienated from the system. It is dangerous to the health of society (quoted in Bain, 1999d: p.8).
Likewise, Raymond Miller has argued, this new era of passive party membership has serious implications for the future of New Zealand democracy:
Unless citizens are given incentives to join up, parties will continue to wither as mass-base organisations. This may have little immediate impact on their ability to contest election campaigns, particularly given the level of dependency on state and corporate funding, as well as on professional expertise. However, over time it is likely to accelerate the process of public disengagement and exacerbate feelings of political cynicism and distrust (Miller, 2000: p.19).
This blog post series suggests that in moving from mass membership parties to electoral-professional organisations, the very character of the New Zealand political parties have changed. They are increasingly looking like organisations ‘of leaders’ rather than ‘of citizens’, and their activities look like the enterprise of a political elite rather than the functioning of a participatory democracy.