Following the 1936 merger of the United and Reform parties, New Zealand shifted to a two-party system with National and Labour dominating politics and Parliament. Over the next 50 years the two-party system became embedded within New Zealand’s political culture. Between 1935 and 1978 it was not uncommon for the combined vote of National and Labour to be close to 100% of the total vote. Independents such as Harry Atmore (first elected to the Nelson seat in 1911) and candidates of smaller parties such as Social Credit were elected at times, but these interruptions were irregular and did little to undermine the two-party dominance.
From the 1950s until the mid-1980s National appeared to be the ‘natural’ party of government. Labour had held power for 14 years from 1935–1949 but only won two more elections prior to 1984 (in 1957 and 1972), and governed for only one term on both occasions.
Capturing the political spectrum
There are several reasons why such dominance was able to prevail. Both parties had been able to consolidate their core support base, but had also widened their appeal to attract voters located around the centre. For National this meant creating an organisation and policies that was attractive to farmers and conservative urban white-collar workers.
Labour consolidated its inner-city support of blue-collar workers and public-sector white-collar workers. It also expanded its voter base with an alliance with the Rātana movement, which in turn delivered Labour all four Māori seats from 1943. While the two parties targeted different groups of voters, there was often little to distinguish their policies when they were in government. The legacies of Labour were also often reinforced by National in government. National and Labour grew and nurtured party identification and loyalty with little threat from alternative, smaller parties.
The nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system, in place until 1996, rewarded large, well-organised and well-resourced parties that had geographically concentrated support bases. Parties were important in practical terms under first-past-the-post as it was identification with a particular party rather than an individual candidate that tended to influence voters choice at the ballot box. The candidate with the most votes was declared the winner of the seat.
Rural seats were easily won by National candidates, while Labour was able to retain inner-city seats, those in suburbs where working-class voters lived, and many provincial urban seats. Across the country minor parties could gain a significant percentage of the overall vote, but unless they had a candidate that got the most votes in an electorate then they won no seats in Parliament. This was the major criticism of the first-past-the-post electoral system – the minor parties’ political support did not translate into representation in Parliament.