Political sociologist Robert Michels contended that oligarchic tendencies characterise all large organisations — even in presumably democratically administered parties an 'iron law of oligarchy' develops. He saw that simply by the process of organising, a party would begin to lose its internal democratic processes. This is because any large organisation cannot be ruled by direct democracy due to technical constraints such as the need for prompt decision-making. The process by which the division of labour and specialisation takes place, allocates more power to certain individuals in the organisation, hence the development of a leadership and the centralisation of power.
Decision-making therefore becomes an elite process, as decisions are increasingly taken by executive committees within the bureaucracy. A gulf develops between the leaders and the masses as a rigorously defined and hierarchical bureaucracy takes over. Therefore, to Michels, the very organisation that is created to represent its members ends up by largely excluding them from participation and decision-making.
Michels believed that the leadership develops its own special interests and aims. He asserted: ‘By a universally applicable law, every organ of the collectivity, brought into existence through the need for the division of labour, creates for itself, as soon as it becomes consolidated, interests peculiar to itself’ (Michels, 1949: p.196). These interests are inevitably self-serving — as more and more such interests come to represent the organisation’s survival rather than the purposes for which the organisation was established. Michels argues that once the leadership is established at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid, its primary concern becomes the maintenance of its own power, privileges and status.
Prior to this process, Michels (pictured on the right) argues, the party is still seen by leaders as a tool to be used to realise certain political ends, but before long its survival becomes an end in itself. This leads to the displacement of goals — the original or official goals are abandoned as the organisation’s survival or advancement becomes the new goal. According to Michels, the self-preservation interests of the bureaucracy will always be conservative ‘and in a given political situation these interests may dictate a defensive and even reactionary policy’ (Michels, 1949: p.373). In order to gain power, retain it, or just survive, political organisations need to win support beyond the confines of the party activists, which invariably means moderating their ideologies and policies. Summarising Michels, Blau and Mayer contend that in order for the leadership to attract more support,
they will abandon unpopular points of the program. To prevent the possibilities of a crushing defeat, they will refrain from calling a strike to enforce union demands. Step by step, the original objectives are surrendered in the interest of increased organizational strength.... [the organisation is] no longer an instrument for effecting the radical changes initially planned. What was once a socialist party has turned into a rather conservative one (Blau and Mayer, 1971: p.107).
The dominance of the Anderton group within the NLP
Thus, in the case of the NLP, although it was set up as a party of activists orientated towards the interests of the working class, it quickly became more like an electoral machine that attempted to represent ‘the people’. Ironically, Jim Anderton initially argued, in reference to the involvement of the far-left in the party, that the NLP ‘won’t be anyone’s vehicle for capture’ (quoted in Campbell, 1989: p.16). However, those involved in the Anderton group were always the people who were most likely to capture the organisation and transform it into a party that would serve their own more narrow interests of electoral success. The early actions of Anderton illustrated this tendency. Alison McCulloch, an observer at the NLP’s foundation conference, reported:
The conference saw some important policy initiatives pushed through in haste, often without enough discussion, and in the face of vocal opposition. While the inevitable time shortage was one reason, another was the dominance over proceedings of the Leader, Jim Anderton. His accessibility to the podium and microphone to put his point of view became a sore point among party members who were either denied debate or given a two minute speaking time (McCulloch, 1989: p.13).
As we have seen in previous blog posts, since the foundation of the NLP, the domination of the Anderton group steadily increased, at the expense of the radical left, social liberals, and the membership in general. In terms of their ability to influence the Alliance organisation, the NLP electoral branches and party conferences saw a relative decline over time. As the Alliance gradually developed a life of its own, organisational power within the NLP increasingly transferred to the Alliance National Council. In this body, the Anderton group were said to have even more dominance than in the NLP National Council.
The dominance of the Anderton group within the Alliance
During the Alliance’s formative phase, power was relatively dispersed, and there was a substantial unwillingness to allow any one constituent party leader to represent the Alliance. The Greens, in particular, were adamant that the Alliance’s organisational structures should not be allowed to produce a leadership in the traditional style of the major parties. However, the reality of the wider society’s political institutions meant that the development of some sort of Alliance leadership was inevitable. After all, Parliament creates leaders.
The involvement in elections entails selecting candidates to stand as representatives of the party. If elected, the representative relationship becomes magnified as the party member now assumes a greater standing and importance in the community. They become a ‘voice’ for the party, and the nature of the relationship between political parties and the media necessitates a narrowing of spokespeople. The media are inclined to want to carry the opinions of ‘authoritative’ and recognised representatives, rather than the ordinary members of political parties. Likewise, New Zealand’s political culture dictates that a known leadership is established, as people desire familiarity. So, in the case of the Alliance, realism won through, and at the Alliance’s November 1992 conference, Jim Anderton was ratified as leader, with the co-deputies positions taken by Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sandra Lee.
According to Len Richards – the NLP’s second highest polling election candidate in 1990 – ‘two thirds of the Alliance have been disenfranchised’ by an increasingly unresponsive Alliance leadership and a ‘lack of democratic procedures’ inside the Alliance (quoted in CPNZ, 1994b: p.2). According to Steven Cowan, Richards ‘maintains that political strategy and election policy is being made by the Alliance national executive with little reference to the constituent party membership’ (Cowan, 1994: p.3). Richards suggests that there has been a growing gulf between the Alliance parties’ ordinary membership and the Alliance leadership.
Bruce Jesson also suggested that despite the diversity of opinion inside the Alliance, very little debate actually took place on contentious issues (Jesson, 1991b; 1992e). Ironically, it seems that once the Alliance was formed there was in reality less diversity of discussion and policy proposals inside the Alliance than there was inside the NLP in its first 18 months. As party member, Steven Cowan has observed:
Jim Anderton and his supporters though haven’t really wanted to have political debate within the ranks of the Alliance. The Anderton team have been keen to limit any such development and simply use the membership for the usual campaigning donkey-work (Cowan, 1994: p.3).
Of course, less debate and membership involvement in party direction, policy, strategy can be good for the interests of an organisation’s leadership. According to political sociologist Angelo Panebianco, growth in a party organisation decreases the leadership’s degree of manoeuvrability (Panebianco, 1988: p.185). Similarly, a decreased membership involvement in party affairs is probably advantageous to the organisational leadership. As well as making for increased leadership manoeuvrability, a docile party membership can also make for a ready party resource for electoral campaign work.
In fact, modern political parties are capable of surviving without a large membership base, especially if, like the NLP/Alliance, they have parliamentary representation. According to Chris Trotter, ‘The resources available to an MP — free air travel, free postage, free secretarial assistance, free office space — have been conservatively valued at $250,000’ (Trotter, 1992b: p.10). The allocation of public resources to the NLP/Alliance on the basis of having an MP/MPs was a crucial source of ‘sponsorship’ and enhanced leadership autonomy. Business donations, too, served to decrease the necessity of party organisation ties to a membership. Financially, therefore, the party dues of members paled into insignificance when compared to the parliamentary funding and donations to the party. Therefore, the Alliance’s necessity for either the political involvement of members or even their financial membership was not overwhelming. Likewise, the party showed that it was capable of operating without trade union financial support.
The techniques and resources of leadership control
Robert Michels’ analysis of political parties is particularly concerned with the techniques and resources that a leadership possesses which enable them to perpetuate or consolidate their own position of dominance. According to Michels:
The leaders possess many resources which give them an almost insurmountable advantage over members who try to change policies. Among their assets can be counted (a) superior knowledge, e.g. they are privy to much information which can be used to secure assent for their programmes; (b) control over the formal means of communication with the membership... and (c) skill in the art of politics’ (Michels, 1949: p.241).
As well as these resources, Michels emphasised the use of the tactic of threatening resignation as being a key tool for leadership. It is by this mechanism that the ruling elite is able to appeal to their own functional indispensability to the organisation. Michels argued that whenever the leaderships’ decisions are challenged, the offer of resignation is, more often than not, a reminder of the leaders’ indispensability — even though it might at face value appear to be a fine democratic gesture.
It was through the use of this technique that Jim Anderton managed to persuade the NLP to adopt his own brand of economic policies at the foundation conference — despite the lack of enthusiasm for them. According to Steven Cowan:
Anderton failed to gain approval for his economic policy paper from the [economic policy] commission. He then took his paper to the conference as a whole where it was finally endorsed — but only after Anderton had told the conference that if it rejected his economic strategy they were also rejecting him as NLP leader (Cowan, 1990: p.4).
Likewise, Anderton’s resignation from the Alliance leadership in 1994 also had the effect of showing how indispensable he was to the organisation. Therefore in his return, his dominant and authoritative position inside the NLP and Alliance became further consolidated.
There seems to be substantial evidence that Anderton and his closest allies acted from the very beginning to elevate like-minded social democrats to the party leadership, while marginalising the people who wanted more radical or anti-capitalist policy measures and political strategies. According to Michels ‘Leaders have considerable say in the appointment of officials in the organization and can therefore select those that support their policies’ (Michels, 1949: p.179). This means that entry into the elite is controlled and that the leadership have at their disposal another important resource that can be used to punish and reward party activists.
The type of members selected by the leadership is, more often than not, representative of the party-hack element of party activists. Political sociologists John Orbell and Geoff Fougere explain that out of all of a party’s active membership, there will always be those activists that place a higher value on the nonpolicy incentives in comparison to policy incentives that the receive in exchange for their involvement (Orbell and Fougere, 1973: p.443). Orbell and Fougere argued that such pragmatic activists are the natural allies of party leaders because their comparative low concern for policy details means that they are likely to be more loyal to the party, regardless of party change, less disruptive, and are able to have their demands met more easily. Ironically, for this reason, such ‘people who are relatively disinterested in policy matters will have more power in the party and therefore more say in the determination of policy than those who are relatively interested in policy’ (Orbell and Fougere, 1973: p.451). This whole process leads to a decay in ideology, which has the effect of allowing more ‘opportunistic tendencies’ to predominate, which tends to make parties more pragmatic, which in turn means that parties tend to move towards the centre of the political spectrum.
Michels also believed that the position of leaders is perpetuated by the fact that the masses have a tendency to venerate and be grateful to their leaders. Due to a basic psychological need on the part of the masses for direction and guidance this ‘predisposition to subordination’ makes them inclined to confer responsibility for their affairs to others. This trust of authority makes the membership very suggestible to orators and to propaganda in general and willing to submit to the commands of leaders.
There is ample evidence of the workings of this veneration of the leadership and its impact on perpetuating the leadership of the Anderton group. For example, in her letter of resignation from the NLP in 1990, Francesca Holloway pointed out the degree of servitude operating in the party:
Essentially, the party is in ‘blind loyalty mode’. If you disagree with the actions of proposed actions of the leadership, you are expected to step aside and let other who do agree take over. This approach is depriving the party of the diversity of opinion it needs for quality decision-making (Holloway, 1990).
The existence of such a strong oligarchy in both the NLP and the Alliance is somewhat surprising, in that the NLP’s creation appeared to be partly a reaction against a oligarchic phenomenon in the old Labour Party — where original party objectives came to be displaced by the actions of an increasingly unresponsive parliamentary leadership. So it is somewhat ironic, that in organisations such as the NLP and Alliance, which preached a more equal distribution of power in society, should contain such vast inequalities of power.
Next blog post: Resistance to party change