Elitism and the Election

Just How Out of Synch Are the Interests of the Political Party Elite with Those of the Voters?
Listener: 13 July, 1996.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Once upon a time voting for a party for many people was a marriage for life. Nowadays it is more like a one night stand, consummated once every three years. This loss of loyalty leads to considerable anxiety by parties about their image, and the potential clients’ beliefs. Some insight is thrown on the inconsistency in the book Towards Consensus, by a group of university political scientists, Jack Vowles, Peter Aimer, Helena Catt, Jim Lamare and Raymond Miller. Their research is based on a sample of nearly 3000 New Zealanders who responded to a lengthy questionnaire at the time of the 1993 election. The book is rich with fascinating insights about political behaviour, but here we look at only voter and party elite attitudes to welfare and economic issues.

Usually there considerable consistency between voters and the activists. Some 75 percent of voters said they supported free health care for all, while so did 81 percent of candidates of the four main parties. Similarly 71 percent of voters said supported free education from preschool to tertiary, and 80 percent of the candidates.

There was one major party inconsistency. National voters support free health and free education at a rate of 58 percent and 57 percent respectively. Presumably the proportion was even higher in 1990, for three years later National lost a quarter of its 1990 voters, in many cases because they were disgusted with the introduced policies. However only 23 percent of National’s 1993 candidates supported free health, and only 15 percent supported free education. No other party showed such an enormous mismatch.

There was greater diversity on economic policies. Labour candidates and delegates tended to be 15 percentage points more favourably disposed toward their unions than their voters. Alliance elites were at least 10 percentage points more anti-privatization, pro-welfare, and pro-unions that their voters. National’s elites were also more than 10 percentage points out of kilter with their voters, being more pro-privatization, pro-regulation, anti-welfare, and anti-union. Only New Zealand First voters and elites matched one another at all well.

In this context the strategy of United makes a lot of sense. It appears to be trying to place itself where the National voter is, driving a wedge between them and the National caucus. Alas they are charisma challenged. Jim Bolger may suffer the same problem, but he has used his position as prime minister sensibly (his sacking of Ruth Richardson makes a lot of sense in terms of the revelations of the book), and has been shifting the governments policies towards his voting core, not always with the whole hearted endorsement of his cabinet colleagues.

On the other hand it is difficult to find a place in the voter spectrum for ACT. While they have scaled down Roger Douglas’ claim that over half of voters would support his party, their target remains much higher than the base which this book, or its predecessor study, suggests. A revealing analysis in the latter, Voters’ Vengeance (by Vowles and Aimer), suggests the New Right core was about 6 percent at most. Recent opinion polls confirm that their policies attract only a small group of New Zealanders.

Can they make up for this handicap by their spending? (It is said their war chest is $2m.) Recent data on political advertising during the 1993 election released by the Advertising Decision Support provides some background. Between them National and Labour spent $1.25m, equivalent to 97 cents a vote. The Alliance got a return of one vote for every 74 cents it spent on advertising (and Christian Heritage had to spend $2.16 for each vote). On the other hand New Zealand First spent 2 cents a vote, which suggests that the war chest works best when the population is with you. This is even more evident in the referendum where the Campaign for Good Government poured $1.13m into advertising, almost as much as National and Labour combined. Each vote cost it $1.27, whereas the poverty stricken Electoral Reform Coalition, spent only $53,000. Each of their votes cost 5 cents.

What is worrying is that the nation’s ruling elite, who generally do not belong to political parties, are somewhat to the right of the voter. The Governor of the Reserve Bank’s policy proposals on privatization and welfare, made to the London based right-wing think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, puts him with ACT, rather than the populace. In this respect he is little different from many of the current key formal and informal advisers and business people. The likelihood is the next parliament will consist of members who more accurately reflect the nation as a whole, while that no party has an absolute majority means that probably the government will better reflect the voters too. (At least that is what the voters were hoping when the chose MMP.) The hysteria of the political elite towards the parties of Jim Anderton and Winston Peters suggests that the elite is willing to cling to its own interests even where they contradict the wishes of the democracy. Unless the elite is willing to accommodate itself shortly after the election, the country may get into a most uncomfortable mess.