When asked on Morning report last Monday how many people had attended United Future’s annual conference the previous weekend, Peter Dunne replied ( http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/20101115):
“It varied during the day but around about 40 to 50 at most points.”
The National Party could expect that many people at many of its electorate AGMs and there would still be some areas where they’d worry if they didn’t get that many at a branch AGM.
But then National is the only party which can say it’s got a reasonable grassroots membership. It’s not measured in six figures as it used to be, but it can still claim tens of thousands of members.
Labour would be scratching to make it to five figures – and I suspect that would be when union membership is counted. The wee parties would be lucky to muster much more than the 500 required to register – and some may not even make that.
That makes them not so much parties as interest or lobby groups.
Declining membership isn’t peculiar to political parties. Sports and service clubs, churches and most other groups which depend on volunteer members are in the same boat.
But these organisations don’t get to run the country, political parties do and under MMP parties and their leaders have more power.
Most National and Labour MPs are electorate ones so they are not only answerable to party members, they are also answerable to their constituents.
Maori Party MPs are too but only because of the Maori seats which by definition and in practice are not broadly representative.
Most MPs from the other wee parties, with the exception of the two one-man parties United Future and whatever Jim Anderton’s current incarnation is called, are list MPs, chosen by their parties and answerable to them.
Given how small their memberships are that’s not very healthy.
We’re supposed to be an open and representative democracy. It’s difficult to be that when participation for most means no more than voting once every three years, if that.
Update: Maybe we need to make politics more like this: http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2010/11/now_this_is_a_great_get_out_the_vote_advertisement.html (warning sexual imagery).