To what extent does the
left-right political dimension still structure political party competition in
New Zealand politics? Where do the parties sit on that spectrum? What other
political dimensions now underpin our electoral politics? This extensive blog
post presents the findings of a regular survey of New Zealand political
scientists about party ideological conflict that has been carried out for the
three MMP general elections of 1996, 2002, and 2008. Explaining the results,
and drawing on some previous blog posts, it argues that the left-right spectrum
is of declining importance in New Zealand politics, and that ideological
conflict is cohered to a greater degree by post-materialist issues. The major
political parties in New Zealand now all agree on the basic post-Keynesian
economic framework that dominates discourse and policy formation. No party
fundamentally challenges the paradigm shift that occurred with the neoliberal
revolution that occurred from 1984 onwards. All parties now agree, explicitly
or implicitly, that the market is the best mechanism for generating wealth and
distributing good and services. Within this ‘new policy consensus’ there is, of
course, room for some limited discussion of when and where the state should
intervene to correct market failure, but because there is essentially no debate
of any substance around material/economic issues, what might be called
‘postmaterial issues’ now represent the arena for ideological and political
conflict in parliamentary politics. Furthermore, within this post-reform
era political conflict is underpinned by a strong pragmatism rather than
principle. Some explanations are proposed for the rise of the new consensus,
the decline of left-right conflict, and the increasing salience of societal
issues in electoral competition. [Read more below]
Part One of this blog post looks at the analytical issues in the
understanding of party politics in New Zealand. It discusses the various
dimensions, social cleavages, analytical concepts that are commonly used – in
particular the left-right dimension, but also the postmaterialist
liberal-conservative dimension. It raises the issue of New Zealand political
party conflict in recent years becoming characterized by greater centrism and
Part Two of the post reports on the findings of a survey about
party ideological conflict, examining the
nature of party ideology in the 12-year period since New Zealand’s first MMP election.
Quantifying the opinions of academic experts, it attempts to show where the
political parties have existed in relationship to one another throughout this
period on the basic left-right scale. By looking at how the parties have
shifted along this scale, and where they have managed to secure popular
electoral support, it allows us to learn more about the ideological nature of
New Zealand politics. The survey also attempts to locate alternative or
additional dimensions of ideological conflict and competition that might help
us understand modern New Zealand politics. In particular, it puts forward the
argument that party competition is increasingly configured not by materialist-economic-class
issues (that is, by the traditional left-right cleavage), but by
postmaterialist issues such as conflicts over immigration, sexual politics
(prostitution legalization), foreign policy (intervention in wars, bans on
nuclear ships), environmental issues (such as genetic modification and climate
change). As a result, a liberal-conservative dimension increasingly structures
Part Three of this post proposes some answers to the findings of the
survey. In particular it attempts to explain the increasing salience of
postmaterialist issues in New Zealand elections, and second, to propose some
explanations for the convergence and the new consensus found on the left-right
spectrum. That is – why do all parliamentary parties compete within the tightly
contested political middle ground at the centre of the left-right spectrum? It
is argued that the strong convergence on economic issues has pushed the parties
to compete more on this alternative dimension of issues. Although the parties
still share many similar non-economic policies, they increasingly differentiate
themselves by emphasising (or exaggerating) their differences in these areas. Furthermore,
it suggests a number of reasons for both the increased convergence on the
left-right dimension and the increasing pragmatic character of party politics.
The main reasons relate to the decline of class politics and the shift of the
New Zealand political parties from the ‘mass class-based’ model to the
‘electoral professional’ model. Tied to this phenomenon is the decline of civil
and class based organizations in the wider extra-parliamentary political arena.
Please note that this blog post constitutes a draft write-up of this research. Any feedback is, as usual, fully appreciated (either via the blog comments or via email: email@example.com). Note also that the visual charts for this research were very kindly put together by the very talented fellow blogger and political science junkie Blaise Drinkwater.
Understanding party political competition in New Zealand
As a society we are having
trouble understanding politics. The traditional ways of understanding and
explaining politics do not appear to be adequate, and hence the common refrain
that the concepts of ‘left and right are no longer relevant’. After all, people
look at the Maori Party and wonder why the party that they assumed to be
left-wing is in coalition with the right-wing National Party. People do not
know whether the Seabed and Foreshore Act – which was essentially an act of
nationalization – was a left-wing policy or a right-wing, racist land-grab.
Voters see the politicians of the left advocating market solutions to solve
climate change problems. We see politicians trying to restrict immigration
numbers and keep foreign imports out, and we do not know if such policies are
left or right. We see the prime minister at a gay pride rally dancing with drag
queens, and we wonder if that makes him more left-wing than previous National
Party prime ministers.
The point here is to bring up a
few issues of left-right ambiguity, and show how we continue to rely on the
left-right analytical tool to try to understand political behaviour and
policies, but often find it wanting. Whether we like it or not, we all use
various intellectual or analytical concepts to help us categorise what is
happening in politics. Traditionally the most important concept that we use has
been the ideological dimension of left and right. Yet this is a concept that is
increasingly problematic in contemporary New Zealand parliamentary politics. Hence
we need additional analytical tools, of which this blog post deals with.
The left-right dimension
According to most party scholars,
party competition in advanced industrial democracies tends to create this one
central ideological dimension that organises political conflict. The terms of ‘left’
and ‘right’ captures a variety of issues that help voters and parties make
sense of the political landscape. Traditionally, the term left-wing constitutes
a general concentration on equality, worker's rights, economic intervention, larger government
and collectivism, and combating oppression; while the term right-wing represents
a concentration on issues of efficiency, smaller government, laissez faire capitalism, protection
of individual freedom, individualism, rights of private individuals, and
general opposition to left-wing politics.
This ideological dimension is largely an economic cleavage in the sense
that the issues are primarily about the struggle for material security relating to wages, tax,
the provision of healthcare, education, and welfare, and so forth. Also, its economic basis is derived
from the fact that it inherently reflects social stratification (classes or
socioeconomic divisions and gradations in society). In this sense, the connection between New Zealand’s
political parties and their social bases of support is often stressed by
political scientists and commentators. This is because Labour has traditionally
derived most of its support from lower socioeconomic voters in the cities,
while wealthier voters in both urban and rural areas have formed National’s
voter base. Labour also traditionally defined itself as a working class, or a
pro-working class, party and it was initially largely based on trade unions.
National traditionally had a close and organic relationship with both urban
business/employer associations and with rural farmer groups including Federated
Farmers. This relationship
between social structure and the distribution of votes has also been seen as
strongly driving the ideologies of the parties, allegedly making the Labour
Party a left-wing (or perhaps even ‘socialist’ oriented) party and the National
Party a right-wing and free enterprise oriented party. For fifty years New
Zealand politics orientated to the basic socioeconomic cleavage in which Labour
and National were in dynamic competition. That class and a basic economic
cleavage underpin the way New Zealand politics is carried out has become an
almost unchallenged assumption for some.
The postmaterialist liberal-conservative
Alternative societal cleavages are also sometimes identified, such as
those based on ethnicity, geography, gender, age and religion. In addition, a
postmaterialist liberal-conservative political cleavage is also increasingly
identified – one that might be seen to encompass most of these alternative
cleavages and broadly represent non-economic societal issues.
This blog post argues that these alternative cleavages are becoming relatively
stronger, and that the traditionally dominant socioeconomic cleavage has lost
much of its potency within the realm of parliamentary politics. Part of the
evidence for this is found in the results of the survey of experts on party
Increasingly it is argued that politics in industrialised democracies is
based around a set of issues that do not directly relate to the traditional
class-economic-materialist left-right cleavage, but which fit broadly into a
postmaterialist cleavage, in that they are not concerned with the struggle for
material security (as seen in conflicts over income, tax, state social support,
economic power and so forth) but instead less tangible issues such as justice,
the environment, and immigration.
This alternative postmaterialist dimension is
usually interpreted in terms of either a simple liberal-conservative dimension,
whereby the liberal side of the spectrum is associated with progress,
modernity, libertarianism, and the conservative side is associated with order,
tradition, and authoritarianism.
Conflating the left-right and liberal-conservative dimensions
The socially liberal-conservative spectrum is usually overlaid on the
left-right scale so that ‘liberal’ equates with ‘left’ and ‘conservative’
equates with ‘right’, and although it is true that there is often a strong
correlation in politics that makes this appear warranted, there is nothing
intrinsically related between the two dimensions, and there are plenty of
examples that contradict it. For example, the Fourth Labour Government was considered
to be right-wing on economic issues and liberal on postmaterialist (or
societal) issues. Generally the Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party of the mid-1980s was
similar. In terms of contemporary politicians, Jim Anderton is considered to be
left-wing on economic issues but conservative on societal issues, while Prime
Minister John Key is considered mildly right-wing on economic issues but also
mildly liberal on societal issues.
Therefore it seems sensible to regard the two dimensions as somewhat separate,
and for this reason some theorists present the liberal-conservative spectrum in
a vertical form so that it can then be laid over top of the left-right scale,
cross-cutting it to form an X-Y axis or a square.
Such an approach allows for a more adequate plotting of modern Western party
systems. This blog post also takes this approach in examining the growing
centrality of political conflict with regard to postmaterialist issues and,
crucially, how this trend relates to the growing economic consensus.
(The image on the right is from Gregory Stephens' excellent MA thesis on the National Party).
To some degree these issues can be said to exist on a separate political
dimension to the left-right scale. According to theorist Seymour Martin Lipset,
this postmaterialist political dimension is increasingly de-coupled from both
the traditional left-right spectrum and from social cleavages such as class:
Issues revolving around morality, abortion, ‘family values,’ civil rights, gender equality, multiculturalism, immigration, crime and punishment, foreign policy, and supranational communities push individuals and groups in directions that are independent of their socioeconomic position (Lipset, 2001: p.62).
Lipset points out that the postmaterialist cleavage has not been
incorporated into the existing class dimension of conflict, and as such is not
simply a reflection of a social cleavage. Postmaterialist issues – for example,
abortion or state censorship – often crosscut social cleavages rather than
reinforce them. 
Yet traditionally the parties of the left in New Zealand have eutralize
similar postmaterialist themes, as well as being associated with liberal
stances such as the anti-nuclear legislation, anti-racism, ‘softer’ policies on
crime, human rights, and prostitution law reform. Meanwhile, the parties of the
right have often taken up what might be called the socially ‘conservative’ side
of the postmaterialist cleavage, but this has occurred far less uniformly or
In many ways the liberals of the postmaterialist cleavage have won most
of the arguments on postmaterialist issues, just as the right-wing have
generally won the arguments on materialist issues – leading to a consensus that
is economically right-wing and
socially liberal. As this cleavage becomes more eutralize there appears
to be pressure on the parties to incorporate postmaterialist issues into the
traditional left-right dimension, but this is only ever partially successful.
Increase in postmaterialist
Certainly the last three decades of New Zealand political history have
seen the emergence of growing debate around issues such as law and order
policy, Treaty of Waitangi policy, drug reform, and environmental policy. And in
recent general elections, postmaterialist issues have dominated the campaigns,
as most political parties have run campaigns that centred on societal issues.
On environmentalism virtually all New Zealand political parties now go
to lengths to illustrate that they are strong advocates of the environment. The
Green Party, likewise, has tended to run ‘quality of life’ campaigns – a
distinctly postmaterialist issue. Like the old Values party, the new Green party
is thoroughly postmaterialist, with policies that indicated the influence of
members who had been involved in progressive politics against war, racism, and
sexism. In this sense the Greens are largely a continuation of the new social
movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Immigration had been one of the most contentious postmaterialist issues since
the mid-1990s, with parties such as New Zealand First and Act putting such
issues at the centre of their campaigns. In fact, it is indicative that New
Zealand First’s much-heralded major issues in recent years – immigration,
crime, and the Treaty of Waitangi – are all non-economic/societal issues. While
the party had been formed on mainly economic grounds – namely opposition to the
neoliberal policies of Labour and National – it eventually accepted the economic
paradigm shift of the 1980s and 1990s and switched its focus to societal
issues, attempting to score all
of its political points on socially conservative postmaterialist issues.
The issue of violence and crime in society has also increased in
importance in recent years, after a period when crime was not heavily
political. In recent elections nearly all the parties have adopted hard-line
law and order policies. In particular, it seems all the parties of the centre
and centre-right have been attempting to outbid each other in order to
differentiate themselves as the party of law and order. National, Act and New
Zealand First all took harder lines on crime in recent years than previously.
Yet much of their rhetoric was stronger than their policies. Labour has also
shown little differentiation, and in office, initiated legislation to lengthen
sentences for serious crimes of violence.
On the more socially liberal side of the postmaterialist divide, the
salient issues have related to ethnicity issues, cultural freedoms, and gender
and sexual politics – in particular with the lowering of the drinking age,
prostitution law reform, debate around civil unions and gay marriage, and
general issues of women’s equality.
The new policy consensus (1996-2008)
The policy upheavals of the 1980s and early 1990s resulted in a new
synthesis in terms of what defined the political centre. All parliamentary
political parties have now become oriented to this ‘new centre’ on the
political spectrum. This new policy regime is one in which the parties agree on
the basic policy parameters in which New Zealand politics operate. The spread
of opinion has narrowed considerably within the party system, and the flank
parties to the left and right of the new centre are not pushing for a total
overturn of the status quo. Conflict between parties still exists, but it is
not based on such sharp ideological differences. Where conflict between
political parties appears severe and sharp it often entails a gross
exaggeration of policy differences between political parties and is based on
superficial point scoring by political actors. Sharpened political discourse
around minor differences between political parties can be compared to
advertisement campaigns which vigorously promote one form of a product against
similar or near identical competing versions of that same product.
The re-orientation of the parties to the new centre does not mean that
they have moved back to the centrist position that existed before the neoliberal
reforms commenced in the mid-1980s, but that those reforms have established a
new policy marker for what is ‘normal’, ‘common sense’ or mainstream. The new
centre is generally much further to the right than it was prior to 1984, and it
is generally more socially liberal as well. It means that after a turbulent
period of party and ideological breakdown and rearrangement, a new orthodoxy
has been created, which has narrow parameters and asserts a strong pull on
today’s parties. Although it is to the right of the old centre of politics, the
new centre is also one that has retreated somewhat from the extreme position
that National and Labour were advocating in the 1980s and early-1990s. The
neoliberal reforms have been deemed to have gone too far, and the new centre
therefore involves a ‘corrective’ that nearly all the parties in Parliament
The shift by New Zealand’s political parties towards a new centre of the
political spectrum is made clear by the fact that there is now a real lack of
significant disagreement among the parties on economic policy fundamentals, as
the parties all share similar principles and assumptions.
Indeed, the 2008 general election showed that there were few significant
economic issues that separated the two main parties. The content of recent
Labour and National election manifestos reveal that these parties are now in
broad agreement on all the major economic issues. Basically they both believe
in free trade, free enterprise, mild government interventionism, the Reserve
Bank Act, low taxation, debt repayment, leaner government, balanced budgets,
and to a general extent the current industrial relations framework. On all
these issues the minor political parties are also increasingly in agreement or
at least not stressing their disagreement anymore. It is this shift towards the
centre by the minor parties that has allowed the establishment of a durable new
In line with this, the 2008
general election showed that there were few significant issues that separate
the parties. In general, National attempted to run a relatively policy-free
campaign. Little detail was given for what a National government would do in
terms of the economy, health, education, the environment, industrial relations,
and infrastructure development that was different from what Labour had been
doing. In particular, very few economic policies were detailed and commentators
noted that despite the unfolding economic crisis there was a lack of a coherent
economic vision from Key and his finance spokesperson Bill English. What little
economic policy that was actually presented was criticized from both the left
and right as being neither visionary nor a comprehensive enough response to the
global economic crisis that was widely predicted to impact strongly on New
Zealand. Although a month before the election National launched an ‘economic
management plan’ for the crisis, this appeared to be simply a re-packaging of
the same collection of policies the party has been promoting for some time.
Rather than stating what the
party would actually do in power, National spent the campaign distancing the
party from its past by clarifying all the things that it would not do if elected.
National pledged not to reverse the nuclear-free policy, eutraliz state assets,
alter health spending, or significantly alter the Employment Relations Act.
National’s adoption of a whole range of Labour’s policies included embracing
Kiwibank, Working for Families, the Superannuation Fund, the 66 per cent
universal superannuation policy, and income-related state housing rents.
Therefore, in most significant – and previously controversial – areas National
had fallen into line with Labour. For this reason National was often referred
to as ‘Labour-lite’ by the media.
Another important reason that
National did not focus on policy was, therefore, that there was little to
differentiate itself from Labour. National had deliberately closed the
ideological gap between the two parties, producing a large common ground of
policy. It was obvious that National was anxious to avoid being painted by
Labour as a neoliberal and socially conservative party of the right. Key even
labeled himself in one television appearance as ‘a money man with a heart’.
This strategic lesson did not
just apply to keeping National from being too ideologically extreme, but also
from being too bold. To present itself as a party of strong conviction and
principle would have been too reminiscent of National under Brash. Therefore a
certain degree of blandness was actually deliberate. Advertising and billboards
were therefore subtle rather than strong (Ansell, 2008).
As National was riding high in
the opinion polls, the party took the politically strategic approach of
presenting as small a target as possible to its opposition. Instead it banked
on the incumbent government losing the election by default. In being reticent
in releasing policy detail, National was able to more easily shift into a position
of being ‘all things to all people’ and upset as few voters as possible.
Even National’s main point of
difference at the previous 2005 election – tax cuts – was relatively invisible
in National’s 2008 electoral strategy. Although during the campaign National
launched a scaled-down $16 billion package of personal tax cuts, this was not
significantly different to the $10.6 billion package that Labour had actually
implemented five weeks out from election day. Tax was thus a relatively
neutralized policy issue, in stark contrast to the previous election when
National promised larger tax cuts and Labour was opposed to any at all.
Labour was also characterized by
a lack of policy differentiation from National. After nine years the government
could still not stake out a significant policy area that separated it from
National. The Working for Families package, interest free student loans, and
KiwiSaver were all significant initiatives but they clearly benefited middle
income earners the most. It was not difficult for a party of the right to sign
up to these initiatives, and hence Labour’s ability to differentiate itself was
Labour therefore had to fight on
valence issues, whereby it could only promote the idea that Labour had better
policy rather than wholly different policies. This was in contrast to 2005
whereby litmus test issues such as tax cuts pointed to real differences between
the parties. Labour itself had closed down this policy difference itself by
implementing $10.6 billion personal tax cut package, timed to take effect soon
before the election. Commentators saw Labour’s tax cut initiative as a
strategic move to eutralize the advantage National had enjoyed over it in 2005.
Not only did the Labour and
National parties move closer together, but the minors were able to agree on
many issues. Even the Greens and Act – parties who supposedly pitch themselves
to people of principle and conviction rather than to the middle ground – have
also been moving fast towards the centre, moderating their programmes.
relying on descriptive or qualitative research, this blog post seeks to more
quantitatively obtain evidence that New Zealand politics is now more centrist. I
have utilised and extended a survey of academic experts on politics to help
come to a quantitative conclusion of whether parties in New Zealand have moved
to a centre along the left-right spectrum. If it can be shown that most
parliamentary parties have moved to a new defined left-right centre, then this
would aid my argument that the materialist-economic spectrum is less relevant
in describing contemporary ideological difference between major political
actors. If this quantitative research shows that major political actors are
spread out along the left right political spectrum, then this would counter my
argument that post-materialist differences are now central to political
discourse in New Zealand. This section details the results of my research,
after first discussing ways of measuring ideological change.
Empirical research options
To understand the
nature of party conflict it is helpful to measure the ideological or policy
dimensions of the parties. There are five basic methods of measuring party
ideology and analysing policy dimensions:
(1) party manifestos can be analysed;
(2) the actual record of parties can be
evaluated, either when the parties are in government (looking at policy
outcomes) or in legislatures (looking at voting records);
(3) party and MP statements, speeches, and media releases can be analysed.
(4) public opinion surveys can identify
(5) experts can be surveyed about party positions
To be most
useful, these methods need to convert party behaviour into locational positions
on some sort of unidimensional or multidimensional scale. Then, these positions
can be analysed over time to evaluate shifts in ideology. The positions on the
scale can also be used to calculate the degree of polarisation in the party
system. The most commonly used scale up until now has been the left-right
method mentioned above is the study of parliamentary records to determine the
actual behaviour or record of parties in government or parliament. A number of
scholars have carried out detailed empirical research on what different types
of political parties do in government.
Similarly in some legislatures where party discipline of MPs is low, the voting
data on lawmaking can be analysed to determine the ideological positions of
individuals and parties (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: pp.5-6).
method that can be utilized is the study of party and MP statements, speeches,
and media releases. This can be used to establish the ideological histories of
parties in certain periods. This technique might lack the strong scientific
methodology of the previous methods mentioned, but it allows for a rich
analysis of party developments.
The fourth and
fifth methods involve using either the public or experts to provide a picture
of the ideological placement of parties. To research the public’s views
requires substantial (and therefore expensive) surveying, and this, of course,
also involves respondents who know little about party politics.
by contrast, can be cheaper and are regarded as more reliable. A questionnaire
is normally mailed to political academics, which asks the respondents to place
parties on a ten-point left-right scale. The most significant cross-national
surveys have been carried out by Francis Castles and Peter Mair (1984), Michael
Laver and W. Ben Hunt (1992), and John D. Huber and Ronald Inglehart (1995).
The main problem with using this technique for analysing ideological diversity,
is that it tends to overstate polarisation and centrifugal competition. This is
because respondents tend to spread their placements of parties across the whole
0-10 scale, paying greater attention to how the parties relate to each other on
the dimension than how they relate to the centrifugal or centripetal nature of
party competition. Thus parties that are only moderately left or right are
often placed at a more extreme place on the spectrum in order to differentiate
the parties from those in the middle of the spectrum (Castles and Mair, 1984).
Survey research for the elections
of 1996, 2002 and 2008
This blog post utilises the results from the survey of political scientists
in New Zealand conducted for the elections of 1996, 2002 and 2008, which asked
respondents to locate the positions of the parties on a left-right scale where 1
equals ‘left’ and 10 equals ‘right’. It also allows respondents to create
additional scales to represent any other significant political conflicts they
The expert survey was created by two visiting German political
scientists, Thomas Brechtel and Andre Kaiser. In 1997, Brechtel and
Kaiser asked 23 New Zealand political scientists to comment on party
competition at the 1996 general election. This was a simple two-page
questionnaire asking the respondents about dimensions of party competition in
New Zealand, and about where they located the parties on a left-right
continuum. The selection criterion for the survey recipients was the involvement
in teaching ‘New Zealand politics’ in a New Zealand university. Brechtel and
Kaiser reported their findings in an article in the Political Science journal (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999).
In 2003, I replicated the survey (with the permission of Brechtel
and Kaiser), sending out the questionnaire survey to 32 academics and asking
them to plot the parties based on their positions at the prior 2002 general
election. Of the 32 questionnaires sent out, 20 were returned – a reply rate of
63 percent. I used some of the findings within a chapter of my 2003 PhD. Then
in August 2009 I converted the questionnaire into an online survey about
political party ideological competition in the recent 2008 general election. I
emailed an invitation to 36 academics to participate, of which 18 participated
(a 50 percent reply rate). Hence this
blog post is based on regular data for every second MMP election, starting in
1996, then 2002, and then 2008. The results are one of the ways used to
establish the ideological positioning of the New Zealand parties, so as to
ascertain ideological change over time.
As with all previous surveys, the
2008 questionnaire asked respondents to plot the positions of the parties on a
1-10 left-right scale, then to evaluate the importance of the left-right scale
(out of 5). The survey then asks whether the respondent identifies any further
policy dimensions that were important in the election, inviting them to submit
the details of the dimension, give the position of the parties on that scale,
and evaluate the importance of that scale (out of 5). Images of the online
survey can be seen below.
could identify up to four policy dimensions, repeating the above process. At the
bottom of the questionnaire, respondents were also able to leave additional
comments before submitting their results – see below.
Left-Right dimension results
The results of
the survey for 2008 are discussed below. They are contextualized within the
results for the previous surveys. Chart 1, below, does not form part of the
analysis, but is included for additional comparison. This chart uses the data
from another expert survey carried out by Huber and Inglehart (1995) in the
early 1990s. Although the survey results are of interest, a very different
methodology was utilised, and thus comparisons should be treated with caution.
The following charts (numbered 2 to 4) represent the surveys for the elections
of 1996, 2002 and 2008. The coloured dots represent the different points on the
left-right scale that constitute the mean averages based on the expert survey
results. They are colour-coded for each party – see the chart key to the left.
The dots are also weighted in proportion to the party’s popular support at the
election of that year – i.e. those parties with a higher party vote have larger
Chart 1: 1990-93 left-right dimension
Chart 2: 1996 left-right dimension
Chart 3: 2002 left-right dimension
Chart 4: 2008 left-right dimension
The expert survey for the 2008 general election located National at 6.6
on the 1-10 left-right scale – confirming it as a party of the centre-right.
The range of responses for National were between 5 and 8, with a low standard
deviation of 0.8. This location of 6.6 was closer to the centre than its 1996
score of 7.3 and its 2002 score of 7.1 (and also only 0.2 percentage points
away from United Future). This shift reflects National’s slow but steady shift
away from an association with its former radical neoliberal economic programme
and policies of the 1990s.
The survey of experts located the position of the Labour Party at the
2008 general election at 4.3 on the 1-10 left-right scale. The range of
responses varied between 2 and 6, and had a low standard deviation of 0.9. The
same survey carried out in 1996 located Labour at 4.6, and then 5.2 in 2002.
Although all of these positions confirm Labour as a centre-left party, the
different evaluations between 1996 and 2008 suggests that the party moved slightly
to the right in the middle of its period in government, but back to the left
again towards the end of its time in government.
The expert survey for the 2008 election located the Green Party at 2.9
on the 1-10 left-right scale, effectively labelling the party as left-wing.
Previously the party had been at 3.1 on the scale, however, it should be noted
that as part of the Alliance in the previous survey of 1996, the party had once
shared a more left location of 2.3, suggesting that the Greens are now in a
more centrist position than the party was in the 1990s. Although the Greens are
the most left party on this spectrum, there is still a considerable gap to the
left of the Greens, leaving the most left part of the spectrum empty.
The survey of
experts put New Zealand First at 5.5 on the 1-10 left-right scale for the 2008
election – exactly in the middle of the spectrum. This compares to its 1996
location of 7.0, suggesting significant movement into the centre since then. The
party’s standard deviation has
also reduced from 1.2 in 1996 and 1.1 in 2002 to 0.8 in 2008 – reflecting that
the experts are in greater agreement about its location.
The Act Party was placed at 8.3 on the 1-10 left-right scale for the
2008 election – placing it firmly on the right of politics. Yet the party has
edged further towards the centre, after being located at 9.1 on the scale for
1996, and then 8.8 on the scale for 2002. Although the Act Party is the most
right-wing political party on the spectrum, there is still a considerable gap
to its right on the scale.
The Maori Party, which was formed in 2004 is only included in the more
recent survey, for which it is given the location of 4.5 on the scale – thus
defining it as a centre-left party, albeit slightly to the right of Labour. The
standard deviation for this figure was relatively high at 1.1, as the
estimations varied considerably. One respondent noted in the questionnaire that
the placement of the Maori Party was very difficult.
United Future has also shifted
towards the centre according to the experts. While for 2008 it was located at 6.1 on the 1-10 left-right scale,
this is clearly to the left of its previous results (6.8 in 2002) and also to
the left of both the 6.6 result of the United Party in 1996, and considerably
to the left of the Christian Coalition’s score of 8.1 (which Future New Zealand
was a part of).
The expert survey for the 2008 election located Jim Anderton’s
Progressive party at 3.2 on the 1-10 left-right scale,
somewhat to the left of its 4.1 result from 2002 – although it should also be
noted that the party is a split-off from the Alliance, which was once located
at the more left-wing position of 2.3 in 1996.
For the full details of the party positions on the left-right dimension,
click on Table 1.1 below.
Polarisation and convergence
whether the party system has been subject to centripetal or centrifugal changes
since the first MMP election, it is useful to measure the degree of polarisation
of the party system at different times. This is done by weighting each party’s
summary left-right score with the party’s share of the votes or seats at each
election, so that each party’s contribution to the diversity score is
proportional to its level of support in the party system. This produces a
quantitative score out of ten that represents the level of party system
polarisation. (A score of
0 out of 10 would occur when all voters supported one or more parties located
in the middle of the left-right political spectrum, whereas a score of 10 would
occur when votes are evenly distributed amongst at least ten political parties
at even points across the entirely spectrum).
Kaiser’s survey for 1996 produced a left-right polarization figure of 3.29. In comparison, Brechtel and
Kaiser pointed out that ‘in a multi-country study on party system in Western
Europe, Hazan found an overall average of 4.23 for the 1979-1989 period’ (Brechtel
and Kaiser, 1999: pp.7-8). They noted that in New Zealand ‘the party system
exhibits low polarisation, because the two largest parties, Labour and
National, although to the moderate left and right of the centre, are clearly
centre-oriented’ (ibid: p.25).
For 2002 the polarization figure declined further to 2.07 - which
suggests that the degree of polarisation in the party system declined by about
a third over six years.
A visual representation of the polarization (combined with the variance in the
expert survey classifications) can be seen in Chart 5.
Chart 5: 2002 left-right dimension weighted
For 2008 the degree of polarization was 1.85, suggesting that the diversity
and breadth of ideological conflict had reduced further since 2002. While the apparent leftward shift of Labour
for 2008 (5.2 to 4.3) acted to increase the polarization in the party system,
the party’s proportion of the popular vote also dropped significantly (41% to
34%). The shift of National towards the centre (7.1 to 6.6), together with its
increased vote (45% in 2008 compared to only 21% in 2002) probably played the
most significant role in reducing the polarization figure.
The reduced support for minor parties – especially the non-centrist ones
– also reduced the degree of polarization. I.e. the Greens’ vote reduced from
7% in 2002 to 6.7% in 2008, and Act’s support declined from 7% in 2002 to 3.7%
A visual representation of the degree of polarization in 2008 (combined
with the variance in the expert survey classifications) can be seen in Chart 6.
Chart 6: 2008 left-right dimension weighted
It is also notable that the
representation of minor parties has dropped considerably in the 1996-2008
period. Voting for minor parties reached an all-time high at the first MMP
election in 1996 when 786,885 people out of 2,072,359 (or 38 per cent) cast
party votes for minor parties, leading to 39 minor party MPs being elected. The
two largest minor parties at that time – New Zealand First and the Alliance –
received 30 seats between them in the first MMP Parliament. But by 2008, both
these original minor parties had been removed from Parliament, and of the
2,344,566 party votes cast, only 494,288 (or 21 per cent) were cast for minor
parties, leading to a mere 21 minor party MPs being elected. Meanwhile, the United Future, Progressive
and ACT parties only remain by virtue of their leaders winning electorate seats
– and therefore have not needing to reach the five per cent threshold. Much
of the cornucopia of minor parties has been effectively filtered out of
Parliament and the party system.
dimensions in New Zealand political party competition
Is the left-right political
dimension the only significant ideological conflict in modern parliamentary
politics, or are other dimensions emerging to make New Zealand politics
multi-dimensional? For the 1996
election, less than half of the survey respondents (47 percent) classified New
Zealand politics as multi-dimensional, i.e. given the opportunity to mention
any other policy dimension in addition to the economic one, most choose not to
(Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: p.7). By contrast, in the survey for 2002, three-quarters
of respondents now classified New Zealand politics as multi-dimensional, and
for 2008 the proportion was almost the same (72 percent) – see Table 1.2 below.
Table 1.2: The number, identification and strength of political dimensions
Respondents classifying NZ as multi-dimensional
Respondents identifying some sort of postmaterialist dimension
Importance of left-right scale averaged (out of 5)
Importance of liberal-conservative scale averaged (out of 5)
Clearly there has been a significant shift in either the nature of
ideological conflict or else in the understanding of this conflict by political
scientists. Either way, we can regard the electoral competition in New Zealand
politics as now being multi-dimensional, regardless of when the dimensionality
Just what therefore is the nature of the additional policy dimension(s)?
Is there one major alternative policy dimension, or many? Brechtel and Kaiser’s
survey and analysis for 1996 supported the idea that most of this additional
ideological conflict falls under the umbrella of the postmaterialist dimension
of liberal-conservative policy (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: p.7). This dimension
was mentioned by six out of 17 experts for 1996 (ibid). In classifying
those dimensions put forward by the respondents as being part of a
postmaterialist dimension, Brechtel and Kaiser used a wide definition that
included ‘issues such as environmental concerns, participation,
internationalism, but also moral order, social conservatism, and religious
values’ (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: p.10). With reservations, this study has
used the same methodology.
In 2008, 13 of the 18 respondents proposed various additional
dimensions, all of which might be thought of as part of the postmaterialist spectrum.
Sometimes these were explicitly so, with some respondents labeling their
spectrums as ‘Social/moral liberal-conservatism’ or ‘Postmaterialist-materialist’,
while others proposed spectrums based on ‘Law and Order’, ‘Environmentalism’,
‘Race Relations’, and so forth. These have all been aggregated into this
secondary postmaterialist dimension.
However, just as Brechtel and Kaiser recommended caution in regard to
their results (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: p.10), the same is true for the 2002
and 2008 postmaterialist data. First, the methodology is not particularly
robust – as a number of differently labelled dimensions are collapsed into the
one scale, and the respondents all obviously had different methods and logic
for their structuring of the dimensions.
Second, the ranges and standard deviations indicate a high level of uncertainty
and difference of opinion between these experts. Third, the ordering of the
parties on this dimension is so similar to the economic left-right scale that
its independence is doubtful – as with the 1996 data, ‘Differences are few and
of minor importance’ (ibid). Nonetheless, the results are presented and
The results of
the survey for 2008 are discussed below. They are contextualized within the
results for the previous surveys. The following charts (numbered 7 to 9)
represent the surveys for the elections of 1996, 2002 and 2008. As with the
left-right charts, the dots represent the different points on the liberal-conservative
scale that constitute the mean averages based on the expert survey results.
They are colour-coded for each party – the same as for the left-right charts.
The dots are also weighted in proportion to the party’s popular support at the
election of that year – i.e. those parties with a higher party vote have larger
Chart 7: 1996 liberal-conservative
Chart 8: 2002 liberal-conservative
Chart 9: 2008 liberal-conservative
In 2008, the liberal-centre is clearly occupied by Labour on 4.0, the
Maori Party on 4.3 and the Progressives on 4.5. For Labour, its position at 4.0
represents a significant increase in social liberalism, as previously its
position was 5.2 in 2002. The more radical liberal end of the spectrum – but
not the extreme end – is occupied again by the Greens, on 2.7 (a slightly more
moderate position after previously being categorized at 2.3).
The conservative-centre is occupied by United Future on 5.9 (previously at
6.7 in 2008) and National Party on 6.3 (previously at 7.2 in both 2002 and
1996). Representing the conservative right is New Zealand First at 7.1 and the
Act Party on 8.6. Act has been constantly becoming more conservative – moving
from 6.5 in 1996 to 8.2 in 2002, then to 8.6. Previously the conservative end
of the spectrum has also been shared by the Christian Coalition in 1996 (9.0)
and then Christian Heritage in 2002 (7.8), and National.
In general, the parties appear to have shifted to more liberal positions
on the liberal-conservative spectrum, and the centre now dominates.
For the full details of the party positions on the liberal-conservative
dimension, click on Table 1.3 below.
Degree of polarization on the
Although recently the postmaterialist dimension has been growing in
importance, there has also been a substantial movement since the mid-1980s towards
a consensus on the postmaterialist issues as well as economic ones. This means
that the new centre developing since the 1990s could be said to involve a
right-wing position on the economy (with the left parties having to accept the
continuation of the modified neoliberal framework as established by Douglas and
Richardson), and a liberal position being adopted on social issues (with the
conservative parties like National, New Zealand First, Act and United Future
having to accept the socially liberal framework established by Lange, Bolger
and Clark). Certainly a strong liberal conformity developed amongst National
and Labour on certain issues such as Treaty settlements, the nuclear ship ban,
an independent foreign policy, and so forth. The shift to more liberal societal
positions was noted by the experts surveyed by Banducci and Karp: ‘Instead of
the parties moving toward the ends of the political spectrum – the liberal side
becoming more liberal and the conservative side more conservative – all parties
have shifted in a liberal direction’ (Banducci and Karp, 1998: p.150).
Brechtel and Kaiser’s survey also found that ‘polarisation on this
second [postmaterialist] dimension is considerably lower than on the dominant
[economic] one’, with no parties in Parliament being located in the extremes of
this spectrum (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: p.11).
Yet six years later, in 2002, the spread of the parties on the
postmaterialist dimension was greater, particularly as some parties had moved
towards the conservative end of the postmaterialist scale, and the Greens now
represented the liberal extreme. As the economic
consensus firmed up in the late 1990s, divergence on societal issues again opened up, since the parties recognised the
need to convey some difference to voters. By 2002, for instance, United Future,
New Zealand First and Act had revised their positions on many societal issues,
thus repositioning themselves as more socially conservative. On issues such as
welfare, immigration, crime, environmentalism and minority rights, most of
these parties had been adopting populist and conservative positions. This
appeared to be the case again in 2008. The degree of polarization (taken by
weighting the position of the parties on the political spectrum against their
share of the party vote) was 2.04 (which compares to the lower rate of 1.85 for
the left-right spectrum).
The relative strength of the
When the 1996 respondents were also asked to estimate the relevance of
the economic left-right dimension on a five-point scale from 1 (very low
importance) to 5 (very high importance) they provided a mean value of 4.0,
which Brechtel and Kaiser classified as ‘high importance’, concluding that this
‘value leaves no doubt that the economic left-right dimension fundamentally
shapes party competition in New Zealand’ (ibid). By contrast, for 2002, the
survey found the mean value of the economic left-right dimension had declined
to 3.2 (i.e. moderate importance), and by 2008 it had declined further to 2.8
In contrast to the declining relevance of the left-right dimension,
those survey respondents stating that some sort of additional dimension exists,
have been evaluating it as of increasingly importance. In 1996 the average
relevance rating of the liberal-conservative dimension was deemed to be only
2.8 (out of 5), but this has steady climbed in importance to 3.1 in 2002 and
3.6 in 2008. Hence, although the survey respondents had deemed the
liberal-conservative dimension to be of less relevance than the left-right
dimension in both 1996 and 2002, this changed in 2008 and for the first time
they deemed it to be more relevant than the left-right spectrum.
Combining the left-right and
The two political dimensions used within this research obviously have
some interaction and relationship to one another. The series of charts below
combine the two dimension for each election, plotting each political party on a
X-axis for the left-right dimension, and also on the Y-axis for the
liberal-conservative dimension, allowing comparisons to be made.
Chart 10: 1996 left-right and liberal-conservative
Chart 11: 2002 left-right and liberal-conservative
Chart 10: 2008 left-right and liberal-conservative
By way of comparison, Chart 12 is a reproduction from the popular
- which seeks to plot party systems on a similar left-right, socially
liberal-conservative ‘political compass’ based on a lengthy series of questions
proposed of the parties. Some similarities appear to exist between this and
Chart 12: 2008 left-right and liberal-conservative
Part 3: Some
Explaining the increasing salience of postmaterialist issues
How is the increased visibility of liberal-conservative postmaterialist
conflict to be explained? Why do societal issues now dominate political
discourse? For what reason did the New Zealand political scientists deem the
postmaterialist dimension to be the most relevant for the 2008 election?
It can be argued that the strong convergence by political parties on
economic issues has led to parties competing on this alternative dimension of
issues. Although in reality New Zealand political parties also demonstrate
significant convergence on non-economic policies, they increasingly
differentiate themselves by emphasising (or exaggerating) their differences in
these areas. The new policy consensus has largely centred on economic issues,
and therefore party conflict in New Zealand now occurs mostly around
non-economic or postmaterialist issues.
What has led to
the dominance of this non-economic cleavage? Fundamentally, it has been the weakening
of social cleavages that has opened
the way for the development of this postmaterialist cleavage. It seems that one
result of the decline of the traditional class cleavage is that the parties
have to find alternative cleavages (or enemies) to define themselves against,
thus other issues arise to become more central. Therefore, on the right, the previous
prime generator of public paranoia, communism (or at least ‘creeping socialism’),
as well as the perceived militancy of trade unions, has been replaced by issues
like crime and immigration. On the left, issues that relate to ‘quality of
life’, such as the environmental concerns or cultural diversity, have
increasingly superceded a former concentration on issues of economic inequality.
The ascendance of contentious social issues as the dominant concerns of
parties since the 1990s suggests that the postmaterialist consensus that had
been developing earlier in the 1990s has been partially broken down. This is
largely due to a concerted effort by conservative parties to differentiate
themselves from the parties inhabiting the centre. It seems that because the
new centre is mostly based around the economic, third way consensus, any
parties that wish to differentiate themselves must find non-economic points of
difference. In the past, when polarisation on the main socio-economic spectrum
was greater, the parties could afford to move into a consensus on social
issues, but once the spread on the left-right economic scale shrunk,
polarisation on postmaterialist issues was triggered. Most parties have chosen
societal issues and positions on ‘identity politics’ as a way of asserting
points of difference.
This is especially the case for parties of the right in opposition, as they
cannot make any progress by emphasising their centrist economic policies since
the parties to their left have already claimed the economic centre as their
own. Instead, the parties of the right offer a move to more conservative social
stances to complement their orthodox economic orientation.
The National Party has had to campaign on socially conservative issues
in recent years. Because the party has become increasingly similar to Labour in
economic policy, National has had to find other non-economic issues in which to
differentiate itself, leading to socially conservative policies on issues like
law and order and immigration. But essentially, National found it impossible ‘to
contest the middle ground in a way that is sufficiently differentiated from
Labour’s approach without scaring off moderate voters’ (Gamlin, 2002).
The more radically neoliberal Act party has been similarly affected. With
the continuing decline in the popularity of neoliberalism and firming support
for the centrist third way approach, Act has very obviously been swimming
against the political tide. Rather than being on ‘the side of history’, as the
party might have felt when it was formed, Act has more recently been in
retreat. It has slowly jettisoned both its original policies and its raison d’etre of implementing Roger
Douglas’ ‘unfinished business’. Gone are the days when it unashamedly and fundamentally
stood for ‘much more extensive deregulation: very low income tax, more private
funding and delivery of health care, personal choice in education, including
private providers, low government spending, rapid privatisation of government
assets, and extensive dismantling of economic and planning regulations’ (James,
2000: pp.74-75). Replacing these policies and goals is a pragmatic party that
focuses its pitch, according to Colin James, ‘on populist issues aimed at less
well-off voters who might normally be expected to lean towards Labour: lower
taxes (sold as a populist measure); cuts in welfare (aimed at stirring
"downwards envy" towards able-bodied people who were not working);
harsher measures against criminals; and the Treaty of Waitangi
"sunset" targets’ (ibid pp.74-75).
On the left, the parties have also been using postmaterialist issues to
differentiate themselves. For example, since the late 1990s Clark has been
using culture in an attempt to differentiate Labour from National. Raymond Miller
says ‘Since the mid-’80s, both major political parties have been identified
with neoliberal economic ideas and are trying to shake off those memories. Both
are having to present themselves as middle-of-the-road while also trying to
show their differences’, which is why Clark took on the cultural affairs
portfolio (quoted in Catherall, 1999: p.C3). By concentrating on low-budget
areas like arts and culture, Labour has been able to increase its own profile
and distinctive brand with little effect on budget restraints. Such an approach
allowed the Labour Party and Clark to associate themselves with nationalistic
concepts such as promoting ‘nationhood’ and ‘national identity’ (James, 2000:
The use of postmaterialist campaign issues is most obvious in regard to
the Green Party, which campaigned in both 2002 and 2008 almost entirely on
postmaterialist – or as they put it, ‘quality of life’ – issues such as GM and
safe foods, and climate change. Just as Act tried to ‘convince voters that New
Zealand is headed towards complete lawlessness, with criminals waiting to
pounce at every corner’ and New Zealand First pushed ‘the message that
disease-ridden immigrants are pouring over the borders looking for the promised
land’, the Greens equally played on fears by suggesting, for example, ‘that
letting the genetic modification genie out of the bottle could result in mutant
corn and four-eyed fish’ (Mold, 2002).
According to Mold, all the parties have been forced by apparent economic
satisfaction to search ‘around the margins for an issue that will resonate with
voters and appeal to their insecurities’ (ibid).
Explaining convergence and the new
In his landmark
book, An Economic Theory of Democracy
(1957), Anthony Downs constructed a predictive model in which he assumed that
parties are like entrepreneurs seeking profits in a marketplace, and that
citizens acting like rational consumers, give their votes to the party which
they consider provides them with the best personal outcome. This theory views
parties as pragmatic office-seeking organisations. Parties therefore alter the
many facets of their parties (policy, image, leadership etc) in order to
maximise their share of total votes. Politicians and voters always act out of
self-interest and Downs believed that, especially in a socially homogeneous,
two-party system, parties compete for the political centre (converging in
pursuit of the ‘median voter’) and largely take their traditional left- or
right-wing supporters very much for granted.
choice theory has always been criticised for its assumption that political
parties act purely in order to win power. The consensus in the party literature
is that Downs construed party motives too rigidly, when it is true that parties
– particularly traditional mass-type parties – do generally seek to influence
policy, and they do not follow the goal of power at any cost, especially
because of the constraint of party members. Downs is also criticised for the
non-sociological nature of his theory. His model ignored the fact that Western
political parties are traditionally integrated and aligned with social classes
and other social constituencies which act as brakes on the free movement of
political parties along the left-right political spectrum. The political
sociology approach, exemplified by Lipset and Stein Rokkan (1967),
showed that the traditional party system was based on social cleavages, and
parties generally related to different groups of supporters in the electorate,
meaning they were not simply free to move along the ideological spectrum until
they reached their respective vote-maximising positions. Although Downs saw
party changes in ideology as being reflections of changes in social preferences,
he did not see parties as particularly driven by changes in social class. Hence,
as long as New Zealand political parties operated as mass, class-based
organisations, Downs’ model did not accurately reflect their interaction with
ideology in New Zealand elections. Yet in recent years we have been witnessing
the political parties shift away from the mass, class-based model towards an
electoral-professional model of organizing. In a sense, by being freed up from
the constraints and pressures of social classes and other constituencies,
politicians are more likely to act in the way that Downs suggested.
political party theorist Otto Kirchheimer (1966) also argued that a
transformation was occurring from parties of ‘mass integration’ to what he
called the ‘catch-all’ party. Parties were making strong attempts to broaden
their social bases of support, and this required a reduction of their
dependence on specific ideological appeals and a downgrading of the role of
their mass memberships.
In the attempt to be many things to many voters, instead of trying to represent
and appeal to a particular social constituency Kirchheimer argued that the
class mass parties were losing touch with their traditional constituencies,
their ideological distinctiveness, and thus their original reason for
existence. In The Transformation of the
West European Party Systems Kirchheimer noted that parties were moving away
from having a comprehensive ideology to focus on specific issues, as they
attempted to maximise their share of the votes so that the potential for a parliamentary majority was maximised.
worried that without strong parties integrated or attached to particular social
constituencies, politicians would simply reflect moods of the electorate or the
influence of pressure groups battling for scarce resources. In doing so, parties
would suffer a legitimation problem, ceasing to involve citizens in political
affairs and politics would become increasingly meaningless. In this sense
political parties were becoming more like the office-seekers that Downs characterised them as, rather than policy-seekers. Downs’ rational choice
model of understanding parties became more meaningful as political parties took
on the characteristics of the catch-all type – parties attempting to appeal to
the electorate at large.
Kirchheimer believed that the link between parties and voters was changing
largely due to a decline in class, arguing that the erosion of traditional
social boundaries meant a weakening of formerly highly distinctive identities,
leaving parties without strong constituencies (Maor, 1997: p.204). Arguably, it
has been a decline in class conflict, rather than actual class divisions, that
has led to parties losing their distinctive identities and socio-economic based
constituencies. This erosion acted to both pressure and provide opportunities
for parties to appeal to a wider audience. Kirchheimer saw this as a negative
phenomenon, in which the appeal of immediate electoral success robbed the
parties of their original value because they deemphasised ideology, preferring
to focus on innocuous issues and put a stress on personality. According to
Maor, this produces competitive ideological convergence:
A key outcome of this process is the prevalence of centripetal over centrifugal forces. The characteristic trend of party systems affected by this process is a persistent shift of votes from one or both of the extreme ends towards the centre. This, in turn, gives weight to one direction of electoral competition, the centripetal one. As a result, students of politics start witnessing a process – similar to the one presented in the Downsian model – in which parties accommodate themselves to the preferences of the electorate at large, rather than to specific sectors of the electorate (Maor, 1997: p.205).
There was also
an organisational aspect to Kirchheimer’s thesis. He believed that mirroring
the ideological change was an organisational shift of power to the leadership
and those with technical and managerial skills, leading to professionalisation
and intensive campaigning. Corresponding to this, there was a marginalisation
of party members and activists. Taking a similar organisational perspective –
which was also in the tradition of Robert Michels – Leon Epstein (1967)
suggested that a decline of class mass parties was taking place, with their
replacement by more professional organisations. Epstein explained that this was
due to the growth of modern technology and the professionalisation of media
skill, but also due to social changes such as rising educational levels and an
enlarged middle class. He believed the political implication of this was that
modern polling techniques, advertising methods, and public relations strategies
were starting to dominate the arena of the electoral campaign at the expense of
issues of ideology and doctrine. The function of parties was also changing, and
paid professionals were replacing volunteer workers, because the new style of
campaigning required competent professional skills. Epstein believed that
business-oriented middle-class parties would dominate the future.
Michels, Kirchheimer and Epstein, Angelo Panebianco (1988) also argued that by
the 1980s the class mass party had evolved not just into the catch-all party,
but into what he referred to as the ‘electoral-professional party’. While the class
mass party was associated with bureaucracy, membership, ideology and a
dedicated electoral base, Panebianco described the electoral-professional
type-party as characterised by wide electoral support, the promotion of issues
and leaders rather than ideology and most of all, a strong reliance on
professional staff with extra-political and extra-party skills. In this new
type of party, the emphasis given to ideology is replaced by the importance of
leadership and issues, and ‘true believers’ are displaced by careerists and
representatives of interest groups. The normal result of this is a move by the
party towards political orthodoxy. Panebianco drew attention to the decline in
party membership, their professionalisation, and their subsequent
re-orientation towards the state to finance this development. According to
Panebianco, as a result of these trends, ideological competition has declined
in significance and party policies have become more malleable in the hands of
party leaders and professionals. The measuring of public opinion by opinion
researchers becomes a significant determinant of party direction.
A number of
other theorists have looked at how the professionalisation of parties has
contributed to convergence. Farrell and Webb (2002) say that the way political
parties now organise for elections makes them appear as ‘increasingly
unprincipled, opportunistic power-seekers who will fail to offer voters clear
or meaningful choices’ (Farrell and Webb, 2002: p.124). Expanding on
Panebianco, they say that the professionalisation of party campaigning under
the electoral-professional party-type has meant that there has been a
perceptible and critical shift in the marketing approaches of modern parties. Where
marketing once took a predetermined ideology and attempted to sell it, the new
marketing approach centres around adjusting the product to suit the market.
This shift from ‘selling’ to ‘marketing’
is partly to do with the increasingly sophisticated means of accumulating
feedback and the desire to test opinion. This new professionalised model of
party malleability is therefore more in-line with Downs’s model of party
competition because they are both ‘overwhelmingly preference-accommodating
rather than preference-shaping’ (ibid: p.106).
view of political competition is thus at the heart of discussion of ideological
erosion, as Downs suggested that parties are (1) prone to convergence on the
median voter, and (2) prone to office-seeking rather than policy-pursuing. In
the past many theorists have disputed that party politics operates as simply as
this, because other factors constrained party leaders from operating as free
agents with the ability to adjust their party policies in a Downsian sense. In
particular, parties were said to be constrained by their ties to particular
social constituencies and their large extra-parliamentary party organisations.
However, it is questionable as to whether these constraints still exist on
party leaders in New Zealand. Alternatively the New Zealand political parties
might be best understood as electoral-professional parties – as described by
theorists such as Kirchheimer and Panebianco. Such parties are little more than
collections of individual leaders that are not reliant on party members for
resources, are largely unconnected from strong social constituencies, are
increasingly regulated by the state rather than those involved in the party,
and are highly reliant on professionals and capital-intensive
campaign-techniques to get MPs elected. Instead of integrating themselves into
society and attempting to reshape the political preferences of voters, such
electoralist parties act as opportunistic followers of centrist political trends,
which is why we are witnessing such convergence now. The detachment of political parties from their social constituencies has
obviously resulted in a reduction of pressure on political parties to act on
behalf of particular social groups.
The decline of class conflict discussed in Part One means that the
distinctiveness (or sense of separateness) of parties is less and less
apparent. And as they all share more and more characteristics, the various
parties are finding themselves sharing the same electoral market (Mair, 1997:
p.135). This decline in societal class conflict has reduced pressure on the
parties, allowing convergence in the political styles of politicians and
parties. Having been shorn of their close relationships with social groups,
parties are now behaving more in terms of Anthony Downs’ abstract model of
maximising political party behaviour which takes no real account of politicised
social cleavages. Instead, in this model, each party aims to win the middle
ground support, and therefore parties increasingly adopt similar programmes or
borrow electorally popular ideas from each other. Each party’s support is
fluidly related to broad attitudes within the community, rather than resting on
a firm social and ideological base.
There is also a sense in which
the decline of real ideological conflict also owes itself to a new anti- or
post-ideological public mood in which there is less space for parties of
principles or those advocating significant change. The decline of ideology goes
hand-in-hand with the increasing unpopularity of so-called ‘extreme’ politics.
Obviously the new moderation in parliamentary politics means that anything
outside the sphere of orthodoxy is painted as extremism. In this new climate
there is a tendency for minor party politicians to say nothing rather than risk
causing offence. This further propels them towards a type of ‘politics without
The 1980s and 1990s were a time of radical reform and a relatively
polarised party system lacking political consensus. However, since 1999 a new
policy consensus had developed on economic issues. Most importantly, the neoliberal
reforms have now been deeply embedded. Yet while polarisation is decreasing on
the materialist/socio-economic scale, it appears that on societal issues (or
the postmaterialist dimension), polarisation is again increasing – or at least conflict is occurring on this dimension,
even if policies actually remain similar. There appears to be a relationship
between these two movements. Most political debate in the 2000s has therefore
centred on social issues.
Today it seems that – despite MMP – there is little difference between
the parties on all of the big economic issues and even on societal issues the
differences are less than the party conflict on these issues would suggest.
This situation should dispel the idea that an intensification of party
competition necessarily increases the political choice available to voters,
ideologically revitalizing politics. As Kelsey has written, ‘The re-emergence
of party differences in the 1990s created an illusion of political choice while
stabilising the change’ (Kelsey, 1995: p.316). Voters are now being offered
similar political projects – only they are packaged in the form of a fragmented
party system. In fact, the differences between the parties probably appear
bigger than they actually are. This is largely because the differences are ‘magnified
by partisan rhetoric’ (Parenti, 1983: p.202). Much like other commodified
products in the marketplace, the parties have to exaggerate their differences.
Therefore the very absence of real political differences makes it all the more
necessary for the parties to stress the ideological differences – or at least
the ideological symbolism – that differentiates them from other parties.
However at the same time it would not be accurate to characterise the
parties in Parliament as being identical. The parties still rely to some degree
on their traditional blocs of class and other societal variations, and
therefore require some obvious or manufactured differences between them to
continue to reinforce past loyalties. However, the question that needs to be
asked is: Are these differences of any significant consequence, or are the
similarities of more importance than the differences?
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 See: Vowles and Aimer (1993: p.205).
 Some political commentators and academics expected the introduction of MMP to facilitate the establishment of alternative dimensions of political conflict (and thus parties). See Nagel (1994).
 The polarities of this alternative dimension are sometimes labelled as ‘libertarian’ and ‘authoritarian’, perhaps with reference to the more extreme ends of social liberalism and social conservatism. According to Brechtel and Kaiser, the postmaterialist dimension is associated with issues of ‘tradition, moral order, moral conservatism vs moral liberalism, ecology, materialism vs postmaterialism’ (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: p.7).
 The term ‘societal issues’ is used by James (1992: p.140) to encompass this area of issues and differentiate it from ‘social policy’ (such as health and education), which largely fits into the economic/materialist dimension.
 For an example of this method, see: Mulgan (1997: p.248) and Vowles et al. (1995: chapter eleven).
 See: Diamond and Gunther (2001: p.xi).
 Nonetheless, there has been some congruence between the parties of the left and certain postmaterialist values, with Lipset pointing out, that 'the parties of the left, although still identifying themselves as social democratic or socialist, have largely reconstituted themselves as liberals in the American sense of the word, emphasizing postmaterialist themes like environmentalism, equality for women and gays, minority rights, and cultural freedoms' (Lipset, 2001: p.62). A different view is put forward by Berman, who argues, ‘The troubles mainstream parties faced during the 1970s, therefore, were best understood as political fallout from this broad shift in values; social democratic and labour parties were hit the hardest because many postmaterialists felt themselves to be on the left but did not share the traditional left’s materialist agenda’ (Berman, 1997: p.102). Some have written about the rise of identity politics, suggesting that this dimension is displacing the economic conflict.
 See: Jackson and McRobie (1998: pp.299-300).
 As political reporter Richard Harman put it, ‘it sometimes seems as though we are living in a one-party state in which mainstream thinking on most topics and the ideology and programme of the Government have converged’ (Harman, 2002: p.1).
 For example, in the New Zealand case, Richard Mulgan (1997) argues that the policy in election manifestos has always been ‘deliberately imprecise in its wording and many decisions which government took were not covered in the policy at all’ (Mulgan, 1997: p.115). Also, see Mulgan (1990) for a useful account of the weakening influence of election manifestos in guiding government action in New Zealand. Furthermore, under MMP, it seems that there are fewer ‘detailed policy statements/manifestos because they may be seen as constraints on future negotiations for a place in a coalition government’ (Wilson, 1998: p.174).
 See Riccardo Pelizzo (2003), who examines why the left-right scores generated by party manifesto analysis ‘do not do a very good job, in terms of face validity, of describing parties’ locations on the left-right dimension’ (Pelizzo, 2003: p.67). He argues that such methods produce ‘a considerably distorted picture of the Italian party system’, and that they have also proved ‘problematic in terms of face validity in the cases of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands’ (ibid).
 Most famously, Richard Rose (1980), published his book Do Parties Make a Difference?
 For examples of this approach in the New Zealand case see: McLeay (1994), and Barker (1998).
 See also: Pennings and Keman (2000), who say that ‘The expert estimations predict far more extreme policy positions’ than using manifesto analysis and comparison.
 The range of scores for the Green Party was between 2 and 4, providing a relatively low standard deviation of 0.7.
 Other micro parties competed for the left-wing party vote in 2008. The Workers party of New Zealand gained 932 party votes (0.04 per cent of the vote), and the Residents Action Movement (RAM) received 465 party votes in the general election (or 0.02 per cent of the total vote).
 Previously the now-defunct Christian Heritage Party had been placed at 8.2 on the scale in 2002, and the Christian Coalition at 8.1 in 1996. Other micro parties competed for the right-wing party vote in 2008. The Libertarianz party received only 0.05 per cent of the party vote (1,176 votes), the Kiwi party won 12,755 party votes (0.54 per cent of the total), the New Zealand Pacific Party won 8640 party votes (0.37 per cent), and the Family party won only 8,176 party votes (or 0.35 per cent of the total vote).
 Respondents scores for United Future ranged from 5.5 to 8, providing a standard deviation of 0.9.
 The Progressives received scores between 2 and 5 providing a standard deviation of 1.0.
 Some researchers calculate polarisation based upon the distribution of parliamentary seats across the political spectrum rather than actual popular support expressed in terms of party votes (For example: Brechtel and Kaiser (1999). Arguably, it makes more sense to use the measure of votes, as in many electoral systems – including the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system present in New Zealand prior to 1996 – the distribution of parliamentary seats does not proportionally represent the spread of public support for parties.
 This declining polarisation was due to the following shifts: the Alliance, Greens and the Progressives all moved to the right (by 0.4, 0.8 and 1.8 respectively) and their collective party votes dropped from 10.1 percent to 9.3 percent. Labour shifted 0.6 points to the right (putting it nearly exactly in the centre of the political spectrum), while increasing its vote from 39 percent to 41.3 percent. National’s slight movement towards the centre (7.3 to 7.1) also reduced the level of polarisation.
 In fact a number of respondents proposed more than one set of party conflicts that fitted into the postmaterialist dimension.
 Postmaterialist issues have become useful tools for political parties to use to differentiate themselves in the electoral marketplace. As Easton argues: ‘Off spectrum issues, like law and order, are ways of differentiating a party from others in the melee of the centre’ (Easton, 2002). The very absence of substantial economic differences makes it all the more necessary for the parties to stress or create the non-economic issues that differentiates them from other parties. This is particularly important for those parties in opposition, as ‘an opposition in near-constant agreement with the government would be unlikely to persuade the voters to elect it to office’ (Cole, 1999: p.172). Crucially, however, much of the dissent that now occurs in non-economic policy is more rhetorical than substantial – parties make much of their differences but propose policies that under scrutiny are not widely divergent.
 As the parties of the right – National and Act especially – edged closer to the new centre of politics and abandoned promoting further free-market reforms, they attempted to adopt non-economic policies that would differentiate themselves from the parties in government. Such a move to the right on the social scale can be seen to complement a move to the centre on the economic scale – or at least to ameliorate its blandness for the parties’ conservative core vote. For the parties of the right, campaigning on societal issues also taps into the disquiet about the social dislocation and disintegration caused by neoliberalism and change. As Bale has argued, ‘It de-emphasises that aspect of National’s policy which puts people off (the knee-jerk neo-liberalism), while tapping into the flipside of anxieties about socio-economic change’ (Bale, 2000).
 Similarly, in the mid-1990s the Alliance and New Zealand First have stressed their desire to promote the ambiguous policy of sovereignty, which is related to concepts of nationhood and national identity. Act also played on concepts of ‘values’ – epitomised in the slogan ‘Values. Not Politics’ – to promote a postmaterialist element of the party.
 In their important 1967 essay, Lipset and Rokkan argued that, ‘Most parties have core supporters located in particular segments of society, which provides a solid, long-term grounding. These links between parties and social groups usually develop at crucial points of conflict in a country’s history. Such moments define new social cleavages (that is, divisions) from which parties emerge and which they then reinforce, producing what is often called a "frozen" party system’ (Hague et al., 1998: p.135). These enduring political divisions thus provided a tight framework within which parties could develop and position themselves.
 Because catch-all parties are responsive rather than expressive, and their raison-d’etre is to win office, Kirchheimer thought they operated with the ideological flexibility needed to react to shifts in electorate opinion.
 Caul and Gray: ‘As the ideological and traditional group bonds that structured party competition diminish in potency, Kirchheimer theorized that parties would integrate an ever greater number of voters drawn from an increasingly disparate set of categories. In other words, the weakened partisan ties… should encourage centrist policies in pursuit of the median voter’ (Caul and Gray, 2002: p.209).
 According to Maor, Kirchheimer’s theories also fitted with Downs’ economic rationalist approach in another way: ‘The approaches of Kirchheimer (1966a) and Downs (1957) converge in that both accept the law of the "political market" and the connection between this and party response using preference-accommodating strategies. Thus, a party’s choice of policies is based on an evaluation of voters’ preferences which are thought to be "intrinsic", i.e. determined by factors which are assumed to be exogenous to the process of party competition. Parties’ electoral strategies are designed in response to changes in electoral tastes brought about by various economic, social, or other environmental factors’ (Maor, 1997: p.206).