Parliamentary participation tends to require parties of the working class to seek electoral support outside a narrow definition of what might be seen as the working class. And, as can be seen in the evolution of the NewLabour Party (NLP), the compromises needed to gain this wide support had the effect of weakening the party’s original ideology. As the NLP moved beyond an attempt to appeal primarily to working people, its stated ideology and policies have shifted correspondingly. [Read more below]
There are several reasons why social democratic parties competing in elections have always felt that they needed electoral support beyond the working class. For a start, the working class – if defined in a traditionally narrow way – has never been the huge majority in society. Second, the working class has never been unanimous in its support for parties that claim to represent it. Deciding to focus on winning parliamentary elections, social democratic parties have thus usually become prisoners to the short-term goal of finding the majority support on which the electoral system rests. This has forced parties of the working class to try to build alliances. Post-industrial changes in the class structure of society have also meant that the need for ‘parties of the working class’ to extend their support beyond their original constituency have apparently increased.
Jack Vowles wrote in 1990:
While the NLP initially made clear that it stood for working class interests, this assertion become less emphasised over time. According to party member Cliff Robinson, ‘A lot of members see the NLP as a working class party. If we’re going to be successful at the polls, we need more than the working class’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.16).
A party of ‘the people’
The same view forms the central thesis of Przeworski and Sprague who argue, ‘To gain electoral influence for whatever aims, from the ultimate to the most immediate, working class parties had to seek support from other people, to enter into alliances, and to make compromises’ (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986: p.4). Parties claiming to represent the working class therefore become parties of ‘the people’ — thereby avoiding the use of class terms. As Bob Van Ruyssevelt, an NLP electoral candidate in 1990, put it, ‘We see ourselves as a party of the oppressed and poor, but we don’t use the term working class so much’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.16).
Consequently, it ‘is the class conflict... that is compromised when class parties become parties of the people’ (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986: p.54). Class conflict must be de-emphasised and blurred — thus deradicalistion occurs. As parties ‘diminish their emphasis on class, in their organizational practice as well as their discourse, they make room for other ideologies’ (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986: p.59). Other identifications are likely to come to the fore. A comment by Dion Martin, of the NLP’s Manawatu branch, illustrates this process: ‘Jim Anderton wants to appeal to the middle ground, the centre-left, and this makes you very wishy-washy’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.15).
Seeking non-working class support has definite implications for the policies of such working class parties:
Over the short existence of the NLP, the party was inclined to shift towards more universalistic claims about who they represented — portraying their interests as those of the entire society. (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986: p.10) So while Keith Locke, initially a senior official in the NLP, could proclaim, ‘We don’t hide the fact that the NLP advocates socialism’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.11) he was also inclined to stress, ‘We aren’t a party of any certain sector or class, but a party of policies that anyone can support’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.15).
The triumph of a cross-class approach
The Anderton group’s rout of the radical left, and the incorporation of a section of the social liberal faction, represented the triumph of a cross-class approach within the party. This later encouraged the formation of the Alliance, which was a further attempt to broaden the class basis of the organisation’s electoral appeal. As the popularity of the Alliance, and of Anderton personally, increased in the polls, the formation of an Alliance-led government became a possibility. This increased the trend in the party towards focusing on parliamentary success and moderating policy. Thus external and internal factors constantly inter-connect, reinforcing the rightward drift.
Next blog post: The 1990 general election