Political parties are an integral part of a well-functioning democracy. They draw people into the political process and provide electoral choices by creating and informing voters of policy alternatives. Parties compete to win office and form governments, and so provide a link between people and the state. The competition and interaction between political parties is what makes up a ‘party system’.
Although parties provided the organisational base for New Zealand political life both inside and outside Parliament, they were not a formal part of the constitutional framework until the Electoral Act 1993. With the introduction of mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), parties became an essential and formally recognised part of the political system.
New Zealand’s institutionalised party system arose later than in most other Anglo-American democracies. Until the late 19th century members of Parliament stood as independents. Some MPs became part of factions, but these usually formed around prominent individuals, such as Julius Vogel, after the MPs were elected to Parliament rather than before. As with other settler societies, these early parliamentary factions tended to centre on issues related to free trade versus protectionism and the regulatory role of the state.
The 1891 Liberal government
The formation of the Liberal government in 1891 signalled the beginning of a more formal party system. The Liberals developed a network of branches and financial supporters and set out formal policies that constrained the behaviour of its party members in Parliament.
Initially the Liberals were the sole party, but in the 1900s their dominance was challenged by the creation of other formal parties on the right and left. The most significant was the Reform Party, created in 1909. More conservative than the Liberals, it focused on the interests of farmers and business. It won enough seats in the 1911 election to form a government in 1912.
Formation of the Labour and National parties
The Labour Party formed in 1916 incorporated a number of small parties of the left that had emerged from the early 1900s. Several of them had held seats in Parliament.
By 1919 New Zealand’s party system was dominated by three parties: the Liberal (later United) and Reform parties on the right, and Labour on the left. These represented the defining social and economic dividing lines of the time – business, farmers and workers. This continued until 1935, when Labour won a landslide victory.
In the decade prior to Labour’s win it had become clear that the two parties on the right no longer had sufficient policy differences to justify competing against each other. Pragmatism overrode ideology when the United and Reform parties merged into one party – the National Party – in 1936.