Kiwis are not joining Political Parties

13 Jul

It seems that Kiwis are happy to go to the polls but are not all that interested in joining a political party.

This has huge ramifications for all political parties but none more so than new entrants that offer real alternatives to the political elite.

Whilst researching this issue I came across this article written by Liam Hehir, writing an opinion piece in Stuff on Oct 30 2018. 

'There were two interesting pieces of commentary on MPs and their backgrounds last week. The first, by my old editor Rob Mitchell, detailed the increasing prevalence of "career" MPs without substantive experience outside politics. The other, by Matthew Hooton, looked at the same phenomenon in the context of the hollowing out of our political parties.

That our main political parties continue to be hollowed out is not really in question. The days when joining a party was a normal thing are long gone. Membership numbers are not public information, but it is accepted by all that they are a fraction of what they were in decades gone by. 

It is common knowledge that, in membership, the National Party is the largest party in New Zealand. In 2018, however, that status can be achieved with just 20,000 or so members. And yet in 2002, when National's electoral report receded to its lowest ebb, the party won more than 425,000 votes.

Labour is the second largest party. It probably has about half as many individual members as National does. When its vote collapsed in 2014, however, it won close to 605,000 votes.

So parties have hundreds of thousands of stalwart supporters who, while never dreaming of voting for anybody else, do not have any interest in becoming actual members.

In 2018, there are several categories of political party members. In the first place, there are elderly and middle-aged people who first became involved with the party when doing such things was an ordinary aspect of New Zealand life. Then there are true believers who believe only the party can redeem the world. Lastly, there are strivers who want to be elected to Parliament.

That's a simplification, of course. People are complicated and so are organisations. I have friends in their 20s and 30s who are party members for all the right reasons. 

But by definition, you don't join a political party unless you are interested in politics. And politics is about power and the people most interested in power are often those who covet it for themselves. So it's no surprise that the ambitious are among those most attracted to party membership.

As the older group gets older, they are not generally being replaced. With every passing year, therefore, the membership becomes smaller, more ideological and more grasping. They become less and less like the rest of the country.

Given that our system of electing members of Parliament now revolves around political parties, this is not ideal.

So what is to be done? To ask that question is to assume something can be done. It's not clear that this is the case.

Declining membership and involvement in political parties mirrors the decline also being experienced by churches, trade unions and service and sports clubs. 

Here are three organisations I have been involved with in my life: the National Party, the Catholic Church and Rotary. All three have ageing memberships. Each of them struggles to attract new blood. 

Most voluntary associations will tell you the same thing. It is very hard to get people engaged in any membership-based activity unless there is the promise of immediate financial reward or no more than a trivial amount of effort and bother is required. Civil society is withering on the vine.

These trends have been in place for a long time. In the 1990s, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote an essay and then a book called Bowling Alone. It looked at the decline of social organisations in the United States and took its name from the fact that, while participating in bowling had increased, participation in organised bowling leagues had decreased.

Putnam examined a number of candidates as the cause of declining social capital and settled on technology as the primary culprit.  We have so many leisure options today, all tailored to our individual desires. The hard work and patience that come with belonging to a community group struggle to compete.

Whatever the cause, it is unlikely that New Zealand's political parties will be the ones to reverse it. Perhaps the best that can be managed is mitigation of the trend. And it would help if MPs had more appreciation for the members supporting them.

For example, there used to be an MP who, according to rumour, discouraged locals from joining the party. The seat was a safe one and so the MP did not need to rely on a large number of volunteers to ensure re-election. You can see why members, in such circumstances, would be a bit of a drag. There's the hassle of having to deal with them, increased fundraising obligations imposed by party HQ and an increased risk of being challenged for selection. Who needs that?

Well, the country does. So if you naturally gravitate towards one or the other, why not become a member? Think about it, even if you're not intensely partisan.'

Actually, scratch that. Think about it especially if you're not intensely partisan.

Liam Hehir is a Palmerston North lawyer and columnist for Stuff.

As is usual with Liam articles, they are well written and thought provoking

National received 1,152,075 votes in 2017. With a party membership estimated at  20,000 this equates to 57.6 votes per member.

Labour Received 956,154 votes in 2017. With a party membership estimated at 10,000 this equates to 95.61 votes per member.

This clearly shows that whilst Labour supporters do not join the party they support them at the ballot box.

The Conservative Party on the other hand are estimated to have 1,000 members and received only 6,253 votes or 6.25 votes per member.

This demonstrates that they were not able to appeal to enough non members to get into Parliament.

The purpose of this research was to help us determine our strategies moving forward.

Watch this space.


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