Parties are political life blood

21:44, Aug 17 2014

With a General Election in just five weeks, it is party time - political party time.

Parties are the life blood of our political system. Through them we organise the election of our MPs and so determine our government.

Parties are the go-between the voters and the elected, passing messages to and from voters and the elected, and those who seek election. For some the messages are focused and specific. For others they are many and complex.

Over the last century the nature and composition of political parties in New Zealand have changed significantly.

The mass membership parties (Labour, National) were a feature for much of the 20th Century and dominated our elections.

Now we have a multi-party system consisting of many more parties, none of them with the mass membership of old.


Yet still two main parties continue to dominate elections.

Labour continues to draw strongly on the support of workers and the unions, while National continues to rely on the support particularly among the business communities.

Both parties have broadened their membership and these days count on support from a rather wider range of groupings.

We have moved beyond the older political dividing lines in our main parties. Back in the 1970s voters showed their disenchantment with the two major parties - Labour and National - by turning increasingly to support minor parties.

One example of this has been the Greens which originated from the Values Party back in the 1970s and is now our third main party.

Other parties have not made the same progress. We have become a multiparty system, as this election confirms. Some 19 parties have registered to compete for seats this election with around 7-8 parties expected to win at least one.

In 2011 there were 13 parties with 8 winning seats. In 2008 there were 19 parties of which 7 won seats; in 2005 there were also 19 parties of which 8 won seats. Some 14 parties stood in 2002 with 7 winning seats.

Close to half of the parties standing for Parliament have won seats this century, with two main parties dominating the voting. Voters have, this century, made it clear that they are not of a mind to embrace the minor parties to any extent, indicating that voters are able to work out how to cast an effective vote. This election is likely to see the end of some parties in Parliament. The Maori Party is poorly placed to return, and ACT's prospects are, at best, marginal, courtesy of National and MMP. United Future is another party with a shrinking future.

Of the new comers, there is not much prospect of any seats for the Conservatives.

Of major importance will be the turnout for the main parties - National and Labour - and also for the Greens which have increasingly been presenting themselves as mainstream rather than the rather haphazard collection of various interests which has been a feature of the Greens in the past.

Support for the Mana Party and its links with the Internet Party is far from clear because, apart from opposition to the Government, it is not clear what common values and visions there are.

It was formed as a party with a very short life and while the link has made for many news headlines, it is voting support which matters on election day.

Dotcom has little appeal for Mana supporters, and they and other Maori voters can happily cast their vote for clearly Maori issues and parties.

Hone Harawera has shown himself to be a real pragmatist in grasping the Dotcom cash to use for Mana's electioneering. And Laila Hare has also seen the possibilities of riding on the coat-tails of Mana and Dotcom.

Dotcom's strategy is a very personal one and lacking much support, and Laila Hare has focused more on political scraps rather than core issues of the left.

National has been running an effective party organisation in recent years, and with John Key firmly in control it will stay that way.

After several troubled years of disunity David Cunliffe has brought some order to the Labour Party which augurs well for the election.

The Greens have also established an effective working Party which should see them return with the same level of support as in the last election - around 11-12 per cent.

New Zealand First is, as usual, Winston Peters and relies on him to deliver. NZ First relies on disgruntled supporters of the main parties.

The Maori Party has come to the end of the road, but Mana stands to gain from the Maori Party failures.

Good party organisation has a powerful influence on an election outcome. Leadership is obviously important, but of at least as much importance is the party's capacity to mobilise voter support, distribute party publicity, get supporters to the voting booth, check who has voted and who has yet to vote, and doing all the hard work behind the scenes.

Elections depend heavily on political parties and their effectiveness.

■ Dr Alan Simpson is a senior lecturer in political science at Waikato University.

Waikato Times