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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Parties may be defined as organised groups which seek to control the personnel and policy of government. In democratic countries they pursue this aim by competing for votes in elections. Indeed, the existence of competing parties is often considered to be the main defining feature of modern democracy. There is much to be said for this view since this electoral competition does produce a significant degree of popular control over government policy.

The relationship among parties over a period of time is normally referred to as “the party system”. The most common classification of party systems is into one-party systems, two-party systems, and multiparty systems. A one-party system may be totalitarian or democratic. In a totalitarian one-party system, like that of the Soviet Union, only one party is permitted to exist. In a democratic one-party system, parties may form and compete in elections, but for one reason or another — for example, fragmented opposition or the existence of a single dominant issue — a specific party is regularly able to win elections and be returned to office. Modern examples are India, several southern States in the United States of America, and perhaps South Africa. A two-party system is one in which elections are regularly won by one of two specific parties which alternate in office. A multi-party system is one in which at least three parties regularly win a large number of seats in Parliament, with the result that no party is able to take office unaided. Most of the countries on the Continent of Europe have multi-party systems.

New Zealand, like the United Kingdom, has a two-party system, though in this country it is of relatively recent origin. Before 1936 party politics were very fluid. It would probably be inappropriate to classify this situation in terms of party systems, since “system” implies a degree of stability. There do seem, however, to be three separable, though merging periods in the historical development leading up to the present two-party system. In the first period, ending about 1887, there were no parties worthy of the term, but only shifting parliamentary factions revolving around local leaders. In the second period, from 1888 to 1911, there were elements of a one-party system, the Liberal Party dominating New Zealand politics for most of this period. This party originated among various factions opposing the Atkinson Government. These were organised at first under a committee of management and, later, under a common Leader of the Opposition, John Ballance, and they fought and won the 1890 general election with one leader and an agreed policy. The Liberal Party capitalised on its advantage of being the first party in the field and was not threatened in its control of government until it lost its parliamentary majority in the 1911 general election (although it struggled on in office for a few more months). It lost many of its seats to the rising Reform Party and, to a lesser extent, to various forerunners of the present Labour Party. In the following period, from 1912 to 1935, there were three main parties sharing seats and votes: the Liberal Party (fighting elections under the names “Liberal-Labour” in 1922, “National” in 1925, and “United” in 1928), the Reform Party, and the Labour Party (formed in 1916 from previously warring groups). The Reform Party was the strongest party in this period either holding office along (from 1912 to 1915 and from 1919 to 1928) or sharing it in a coalition (from 1915 to 1919 and from 1931 to 1935) with the Liberal Party under the name “National Government”. It was completely out of office only in the period 1928 to 1931, when the United Party, which had won as many seats as the Reform Party in the 1928 general election, took office with Labour support and later held it with Reform support. But the Reform Party was able to win an absolute majority of seats in the House of Representatives only in two general elections (1919 and 1925). The present two-party system began in 1936, when the New Zealand National Party was set up to oppose the newly elected Labour Government following the crushing defeat of the National (Coalition) Government in the 1935 general election. The existence of a two-party system was confirmed in 1949, when the National Party came to power, and in 1957, when the Labour Party became the first party in New Zealand history to regain office without any support from other parties. Alternation of parties took place again in 1960, when the National Party replaced the Labour Party in office.

The National Party retained office in 1963 by 45 seats (a loss of one) to 35.

Characteristics of the System

The party system pervades New Zealand's politics and government. Since 1946 all members of Parliament have been members of either the National or the Labour Party. The party obtaining a majority of seats at a general election has formed the Government and the party with a minority of seats has become the Opposition. Both parties in Parliament have strong internal discipline and vote solidly on most occasions. The main exceptions are private members' Bills, local Bills, and certain issues of conscience, for example, capital punishment, liquor laws, and gambling. Common viewpoints are developed at the “caucus” of each of the parliamentary parties. A consequence of party solidarity is that decisions on legislation are not normally made by Parliament (except in a very formal sense), but by organs of the majority party, namely, the Cabinet and the caucus. The role of Parliament is now to contest policy, not to make it.

Another aspect of the present system is that at New Zealand's three-yearly elections the two main parties, as well as minor parties, commit themselves to specific policies which they promise to convert into legislation should they become the Government. Candidates of the parties are strongly committed to their party programme. This means that election campaigns are not fought about the virtues of rival candidates, but about the records and policies of the parties.

It is evident, therefore, that the way in which parties select candidates, elect leaders, and develop policy is of vital importance to the operation of New Zealand's political system. Each party has a complex structure consisting of a parliamentary caucus and an extra-parliamentary organisation. The extra-parliamentary organisations of the National and Labour Parties differ in that the former is based on individual membership alone, while the latter is based on both individual membership and membership through affiliated trade unions. Each organisation has an annual conference of delegates from local units and a pyramid of committees with local branch meetings at the base and a central executive committee at the apex. By comparison, the organisation of the parliamentary parties is very simple. The caucus consists of all members of a parliamentary party, whether in the Cabinet or not. Caucus committees examine special policy fields for consideration by the caucus.

Within this complex structure, each party has evolved its own procedures for selecting candidates and leaders, for developing policy, and for organising support in the electorate. In the National Party candidates are selected by local selection committees, while in the Labour Party there is a combination of local and central choice. The parliamentary members of each party choose their leader from among themselves (confirmed in the National Party as leader of the party by its Dominion Council); he becomes the Prime Minister in the case of the majority party. National Government Cabinet ministers are chosen by the Prime Minister, but Labour Ministers are chosen by the parliamentary caucus and allocated their portfolios by the Prime Minister. Policy arises in three main ways. In the first place it is made through the decisions of each party's policy committee (consisting of representatives of the parliamentary party and of the extra-parliamentary organisation) as to the programme to be put before the electorate at each three-yearly general election; the policy committee considers ideas from all sources, taking especially into account those put forward as recommendations by the party conference, and seeks to produce a happy compromise between the views of its main party activists and the need to appeal to other sections of the community for support. Secondly, it is made through the normal decisions of the Cabinet of the majority party on the implementation of the party's programme and on other issues that arise. Thirdly, it is made through the decisions of the parliamentary caucus on issues as they arise in Parliament. In policy matters generally, the influence of the parliamentary party greatly exceeds that of the extra-parliamentary organisation, and within the majority parliamentary party the Cabinet's influence is very great. Finally, organisational work is the responsibility of the extra-parliamentary parties. These employ organisers and provide both funds and voluntary assistance to aid party candidates in their election campaigns.

Basis of Party Support

The electoral basis of the parties reflects and contributes to the main issue at stake between them, namely, the distribution of the national income. Each major party is based on sectional interests from which it receives the bulk of its funds and its most solid organisational and voting support. Labour is based on the trade unions, with which it has formal links, while National is based on business and farming interests. The consequence in terms of the geographical distribution of votes is that National is strongest in rural and small-town areas and in higher-income suburbs, while Labour is strongest in central city areas and in lower-income suburbs. Marginal seats are to be found in medium-sized towns (20,000–50,000 people) and in moderate income or mixed high-low income city areas. In order to win electoral support, both parties endeavour to appeal to other sections of the population, as well as to their strongest supporters, and in doing so they have become virtually identical in outlook on many issues. One effect of this is a fairly even balance of the parties in the electorate, a balance maintained by party loyalties. Thus in the last 25 years neither major party has won less than 40 per cent of the total valid votes cast at a general election and, though other parties (for example, the Social Credit Political League in 1954, 1957, 1960, and 1963; the Democratic Labour Party in 1943; and the Communist Party have contested general elections from time to time, the highest percentage attained by any of them was that of Social Credit in 1954 with only 11·17 per cent of the total vote. Moreover, when the balance of the parties shifts at a general election it does so at a fairly uniform rate throughout New Zealand, emphasising that, compared with the major factor of party voting, local issues and the personalities of individual candidates are of relatively slight importance. Their importance, however, may be increasing; in 1963, at an election which produced a negligible shift in the party balance, they contributed to a rise, sometimes very marked, in the electoral support of most sitting members.

Factors Shaping the Party System

It is useful to look at some of the more important factors which have shaped New Zealand's party system and now maintain it in existence. A convenient way of doing this is to suggest, first, the factors leading to disciplined and organised parties, and then the factors contributing to the two-party as distinct from a one-party or multi-party system.

The relative importance of factors leading to disciplined and organised parties is not easy to judge, since research in this field is still at an early stage. One of the most important factors appears to have been the centralising effects of the unitary system of government in New Zealand. In this regard the abolition in 1876 of provincial governments, which had absorbed the energies of many able politicians and handled many matters of importance to the ordinary elector, must have played a part. Since that date political energies in New Zealand have been mainly concentrated on winning control of the central government machinery. In this connection it is significant that New Zealand adopted the British constitutional convention that to retain control of the central government machinery a party must maintain a majority in Parliament. This has made the achievement of a stable parliamentary majority appear highly desirable in politicians' minds, although it was not until the 1890s that this objective was actually reached in New Zealand.

Another very important factor, or set of factors, has been the gradual decline of local and regional loyalties and the rise of nation-wide sectional interests. Admittedly, parties themselves have contributed to this centralisation of New Zealand politics, but there have been other causes as well. The development of communications between different parts of New Zealand has helped to break down the strong local feelings that originated from separate settlement, although this trend was slow until the 1880s. Further, the high rate of immigration during the 1870s probably contributed to this result. Another factor has been the recurrence of fluctuations in New Zealand's economic life. These have tended to sharpen and intensify sectional interests in national politics and to encourage that solidarity of economic interest so useful as a basis for cohesive and disciplined party groupings. Thus the Liberal Party came to power in a depression, with the support of small farmers and urban workers, and was able to build up its discipline on this basis. It lost power when inflationary conditions increased tensions among its supporting groups, especially between farmers and industrial workers, contributing to a great increase in voting support for the Reform Party, based on North Island dairy-farming areas. The Labour Party in its turn was able to develop, and eventually to obtain, an electoral majority, because continued fluctuations aided working-class solidarity. This has probably also fostered the solidarity of opposing interests on the other side of the party fence. All these developments have resulted in a marked preference on the part of electors to vote for one or other of the major parties rather than for minor parties or independents, and to vote for the party they favour virtually irrespective of the personality and ability of the particular candidate it offers.

A different kind of factor has been the growth of the New Zealand electorate, partly as a consequence of immigration and natural increases, reflected, for example, in an increase in European population from 266,986 in 1871 to 625,508 in 1890, and partly as a consequence of the extension of the franchise to all adult males in 1879 and to females in 1893. Until the 1890s candidates were able to win elections largely on the strength of their local reputation. The rise in the number of voters made this increasingly difficult, thereby encouraging the growth of party organisation and making a party label relatively more attractive to candidates. It can be argued, then, that parties have become the necessary machinery for fighting elections.

Influence of Political Leaders

It is against the background of such strong long-term forces that one must view the innovations of individual politicians and others. John Ballance made a significant contribution when he managed to induce all those in the House who opposed the Atkinson Government to fight and win the 1890 election under his leadership and with an agreed policy. Until that date governments were mainly coalitions of factions following different leaders and policies. Richard John Seddon consolidated Ballance's achievement by developing techniques for securing his majority (for example, by obtaining written undertakings from candidates and by offering public works in members' electorates), by encouraging the development of local Liberal associations (consolidated in 1899 into the Liberal and Labour Federation), by giving his endorsement to official Liberal candidates, and by “stumping” the country to put forward his party's case. With these and other methods Seddon helped to make the electorate think in terms of voting for parties, rather than for local candidates. The success of the Liberal Party in elections and in the House obliged the Opposition to follow its example. In the first decade of this century the Liberal Party had to face its rising rival, the Reform Party, led by W. F. Massey, with its extra-parliamentary arm, the Political Reform League. The further development of these parties and, later, of the Labour Party and the National Party, gradually squeezed out the remaining independents and unofficial party candidates. The steady spread of party organisation into all electorates and the improvement of candidate selection methods, in combination with the increasing tendency for electors to vote for parties rather than for individuals, were very influential in this direction. The outcome has been that since 1943 no independent or unofficial party candidate has been elected in a general election. Neither the Liberal Party nor the Reform Party, however, ever developed an organised mass membership on the scale of their successors. In spite of elaborate constitutions, both parties consisted mainly of local associations of supporters held together at the apex by parliamentarians and active only at election time. In contrast, Labour developed a strong and active extra-parliamentary membership, which provided a model for the remnants of the defeated National (Coalition) Government in 1936. At that time a drastic reorganisation was brought about on the non-Labour side of politics. Since then there has been a strong emphasis in the National Party upon securing as large and continuous a membership as possible and on maintaining an efficient organisation at all levels of the Party.

The Two-party System

Turning to the question of why New Zealand has a two-party system, one of the most important factors has been the absence of the deep ideological divisions, reflecting confessional differences or disagreement on the most appropriate form of government, which form the basis for multi-party systems in many countries in Western Europe. Nor is there any dominant racial or nationalist issue which could keep one party in power for a very long period. In New Zealand any conflict between groups and between parties is mainly over economic matters, upon which politicians and groups are willing to compromise in order to obtain a parliamentary majority. For example, the Liberal Party, the Reform Party, and the National Party have all been rural-urban coalitions. That such coalitions should endure in New Zealand may be partly due to the close geographical proximity of town and country, and partly to the high rate of mobility in and out of farming, as well as to divisions of interest among farmers themselves.

Given the fairly homogeneous nature of the New Zealand population, the structure of government has favoured a reduction in the number of parties. By putting a high value on maintaining a parliamentary majority, it has led to compromises among politicians in order to prevent splits in existing parties; to the combination of separate parties into consolidated groups (as in the case of the creation of the National Party; and to the discouragement of new parties. The unitary system of government has obliged parties to fight their battles in the national arena and either to survive there or die, since there are no provinces or states where they can build up strong regional support. A further aspect of great importance has been the single-member electorate and first-past-the-post electoral system. Under this system, which has been in operation for most of this century, minor parties are crushed, since they tend to be second or third in contests throughout the country and voters are reluctant to waste their vote on lost causes. A party is only able to make a breakthrough, as the Labour Party did, if its supporters are sufficiently concentrated in particular areas to win parliamentary seats. The electoral system also encourages the major parties to seek to absorb or crush new parties for fear of vote splitting.

Another major factor in promoting a two-party system has been the polarising effect of the rise of the Labour Party. This drastically affected the fortunes of the Liberal Party, which lost its former manual-worker voting support at the same time as it was losing much of its farming support to the Reform Party. It was able, however, to continue to compete with the Reform Party for non-Labour votes until 1928. The Labour threat encouraged these two parties to fight the 1931 general election as a coalition of parties and to fight the 1935 election with a single extra-parliamentary organisation, the National Political Federation. A great realignment of voting attitudes took place between 1931 and 1935 under the impact of the depression and the Government's handling of it. This was reflected in the expansion of the Labour vote, which gave it an overwhelming victory in the 1935 election of 53 seats to the National Government's 19. This in turn led to the creation of the National Party as a party uniting all those in opposition to the Labour Government. The realignment of attitudes was confirmed in the first three years of the Labour Government and has persisted to the present day.

In accounting for the persistence of the two-party system, the importance of party loyalties cannot be overemphasised. People tend to develop a sense of personal attachment or belonging towards a political party. Not only do most people vote for the same party for most of their life, but also their party loyalties are frequently handed down to their children. Thus parties can be seen to have a large reserve of support in the electorate whatever might happen. Third parties have a difficult task to win over voters, while a victorious party at most can win only a few extra seats. Party loyalties thus provide stability for the present party system. In this regard it can also be argued that the great electoral successes of the Liberal Party at the beginning of this century were due to the lack of party attachment of voters at that stage of New Zealand's history, while that party's survival in the 1920s may have been largely due to the enduring loyalty of many of its supporters.

Finally, there is the problem of why parties alternate in office. Alternation is generally brought about by an unfavourable reaction of the uncommitted members of the public to the record of the party in power. This may take place rapidly or be brought about by a slow erosion of support. A party, however, which succeeds in coping with problems believed to have been badly handled by its predecessors may actually increase its electoral support. The attitudes and activities of the party in opposition are mainly important as an accelerator or a brake on public reaction to the Government's record.

Functions of the Party System

The party system in New Zealand performs three main functions. First, it provides a means of organising elections. Representative government is based on the simple fact that ordinary citizens are neither interested nor informed enough to make decisions on complicated matters of public policy, although they are capable of expressing opinions on broad lines of policy. In order to give citizens the opportunity of bringing their opinions to bear on the conduct of public affairs, some kind of agency is needed to define the alternatives open to the community, to make clear to the voters what is involved in the choice among those alternatives, and to encourage them to make the choice. In New Zealand, as in other democracies, it is the parties that carry out these tasks. They provide leaders, nominate candidates, and prepare election programmes, which may contain valuable ideas and which help to reconcile divergent viewpoints in society as to priorities of value and time; they thus reduce the number of alternatives to a manageable number. They organise, finance, and conduct campaigns, and thus acquaint the voters with what is involved in the choice among alternatives. They supervise the operation of the electoral machinery, stimulate people to vote, and thus encourage the voters to make their choice. These tasks are performed in all kinds of party systems but are probably most efficiently performed in two-party systems. Whereas in multi-party systems the voters have little direct influence in choosing their government, the composition and policy of which are usually determined by negotiations among the parties in Parliament, in a two-party system, as in New Zealand, the voters are given the opportunity to dismiss their government and to determine which party is to hold office.

The second main function of the New Zealand party system is that it produces strong and responsible government. It does this by concentrating great power in the hands of Cabinet and by ensuring that Cabinet is sensitive to public opinion. Cabinet possesses great power because it is essentially a committee of the majority party in Parliament. As long as it is responsive to the wishes of its party supporters in Parliament, it is able, without fear of parliamentary defeat, to produce clear and coherent policy, which Parliament ratifies in the form of legislation. But the possession of this great power by one party also implies that it alone is responsible for the actions of government. Its responsibility is driven home by the activities of the minority party in its role as the Opposition. By its criticism and suggestions, the Opposition party seeks to demonstrate to the electorate that it can provide an alternative and better government and that the existing Government should be dismissed. Policies are contested with the next election in mind and both Government and Opposition for this reason are highly sensitive to public opinion and try to influence it. Under the two-party system, then, Government and Opposition are given maximum effectiveness in their different spheres by their respective identification with the majority party and minority party.

The third main function of the New Zealand party system is that it promotes closer agreement in the community on important issues. Parties provide the framework of sentiment and logic within which individuals and groups are made to feel part of the community and are able to accept great changes in the social and economic organisation of society. The two-party system is very effective in this respect. It gives people of all economic or geographic sections the belief that they are able to add their own personal contribution to the decision on who is to rule them, as well as the feeling that their party is in power or will be sooner or later. Perhaps even more important is that differences within society are reduced because parties concerned with winning a parliamentary majority must seek to gain support from individuals and groups not attached to them or perhaps allied with the other party; to do this they develop moderate policies and abandon ideas which have proved unpopular among voters. In this process they carry their party supporters with them. Thus, differences within society are kept at a minimum, even though great social and economic changes may be taking place.

These three main functions of the New Zealand party system reveal it to be a highly efficient device for ensuring popular control of political leaders. Improvements, however, could probably still be made in the operation of the party system. For example, the selection procedures of the parties might be improved to ensure that more candidates of high calibre were nominated for safe seats. Another improvement might be an increase in the research facilities available to the parties. This would be especially useful to the Opposition party in formulating its election programme and in considering the Government's legislation and administration. Improvements such as these may well provide the most likely directions for the future development of the New Zealand party system.

by Alan David Robinson, M.A.(N.Z.), M.SOC.SC.(HAGUE), LL.D.(AMSTERDAM), Lecturer in Political Science, Victoria University of Wellington.