A ‘national’ party
In the 1930s National first emulated and then outstripped Labour in building a large low-fee membership. By the mid-1970s it claimed to have around 200,000 members. There were party members in almost every society and group. These networks kept a wide pool of non-party people informed of party and government actions and thinking – and kept the party in touch with a wide range of views and special interests. This two-way interaction affirmed National as a party of power and legitimacy, and restrained National from becoming too ideological. In this way National could validly claim to be the ‘national’ party, widely representative of the nation. Some called it the natural party of government.
Of National MPs elected from 1936 to 1986, 40% were farmers, 20% in business, 17% lawyers and 6% accountants. By 2005 farmers had lost ground: of the MPs elected in that year, 13% were farmers, 27% were from business and 17% were lawyers.
National’s networks weakened from the 1970s. New Zealand society became more mobile and diverse, party membership declined (as with other mass parties in democracies), and Robert Muldoon had alienated many supporters. By 2000 the membership had dipped to about one-tenth of its peak. In 2005 membership numbers and vitality had revived somewhat, but National’s membership lacked the diversity of wider New Zealand society. From 2008 there were concerted attempts to include minorities in its electoral candidate list.
Broadening National’s appeal
National had earlier attempted to broaden its appeal to Māori, women and youth.
National has drawn support, and MPs, from Māori of two sorts: those with high iwi rank and those who do not go on the Māori electoral roll. The latter group (about one-third of Māori in the early 2000s) has significantly affected the result in some general electorates.
Labour has had much more support in the Māori electorates, and National stopped contesting these seats. However, it has recognised that it needs wider connections with Māori. In 2008 Prime Minister John Key signed a support deal with the Māori Party, which then held five of the Māori electorates, and made the two party co-leaders ministers outside cabinet. Among the concessions were Whānau Ora – a whānau-based health initiative.
Women attended the party’s founding conference and since then have played a major role in canvassing new members, raising funds and organising social activities. In 1976 Dorothy McNab became the first women to chair a party division – Otago-Southland. In 1982 Sue Wood was elected as National’s first woman president. In 2020, 20 of National’s 55 MPs were women.
A junior division of the National Party emerged in the late 1930s and by the late 1940s was booming. Social events – dances, barbecues, debates and outings – were key attractions, but by the late 1950s membership was falling. In 1967 it changed its name to the Young Nationals and became more politically focused.
In 2011 the party organisation existed in cooperation with, but independently of, the parliamentary wing. It comprised:
- an executive board and president, selected at the party’s annual conference with a two-year term for members, and comprising the leader (elected annually), a National MP and seven elected party members
- five semi-autonomous regions, led by a regional chair, with each council consisting of representatives elected by electorate committees
- electorate committees in every electorate, where they canvassed support for their local MP and the wider party, and chose their MPs through a democratic process
- a national headquarters in Wellington, comprising a general manager and a small group of operational staff.
Electoral candidates have to go through a three-stage process before representing the party. Firstly, the board approves nominations; secondly, a pre-selection committee is set up, made up of two representatives selected by the president, two from the regional chair, and five from the electorate; and thirdly, a selection committee of at least 60 party members is democratically appointed. These voting delegates then choose the candidate.
Annual conference and policy formation
The party holds an annual conference to elect its executive board, hear from senior MPs and discuss policy remits from regional conferences. These are then fed through to the parliamentary wing for consideration. As well as the Young Nationals, three other special-interest groups within the party provide policy input: the SuperBlues, for voters over age 60, the BlueGreens, an environmental advisory group, and Internats, for supporters living overseas.