Are Political Parties Too Tribal?

Credit: Original article can be found here

Political parties play a significant role in democratic
systems, including in New Zealand. They provide a means of
organising political representation and facilitating the
functioning of the government. However, the question arises
whether political parties, with their inherent tribalism and
policy conformity, are necessary for a functioning
democracy. The shortcomings of political parties are
apparent on an almost daily basis with elected
representatives and supporters encouraged to maintain a
blind support for party policies even when faced with
legitimate criticism. The adversarial nature of the
Westminster system makes it difficult for politicians to
admit mistakes and the net effect is an exacerbation of

When New Zealand’s parliament was
first formed, there were no political parties. Members of
Parliament were independents, who were voted into Parliament
by their local electorates. The first formal political party
was the Liberal Party, which won enough votes to become the
government in 1891. Grouping together as a party gave them
advantages in gaining votes and financial support. In 1909
the opposition came together and formed the Reform

This early model allowed for a more fluid
system in which representatives could form alliances based
on specific issues or shared values, akin to the ad hoc
alliances of senators in Ancient Greece. This approach
fostered independence of thought and the ability to question
policies without fear of party backlash.

however, political parties offer several benefits compared
to independent candidates in political systems which is why
they have become so ubiquitous in modern times. Firstly,
political parties provide a platform for like-minded
individuals to come together and collectively advocate for
their shared ideologies, policies, and principles. This
collective strength allows parties to pool resources,
mobilise supporters, and build a stronger political

Secondly, parties provide a structure for
organising and coordinating political campaigns, making it
easier to reach a broader audience and compete effectively
in elections. This allows parties to offer a clear choice
for voters, as they provide a recognisable brand and set of
values that can help voters align their preferences with a
broader political ideology.

Additionally, parties also
offer stability and continuity in governance, as they
provide a framework for forming governments and implementing
policy agendas. By fostering a sense of collective
responsibility, parties encourage collaboration and
compromise among their members, leading to more coherent and
effective policy-making processes.

However, as
political parties have become more institutionalised over
the last fifty years, they have inevitably become more
detached from the public. In the first instance, MPs who
once owed their loyalty solely to their constituents now
face split loyalties given they are elected by their
constituents but are selected through the party

Thus, on one hand, MPs are expected to be
responsive to the needs and concerns of their constituents,
as they are elected representatives meant to advocate for
the interests of the people they serve. They have a duty to
represent their constituents’ views, address local issues,
and act as a voice for their communities. On the other hand
however, MPs are also bound by party loyalty, as they owe
their selection and potential re-election to their party’s
support and infrastructure. This duality of loyalty can
create tension, as MPs may face the challenge of balancing
the desires of their constituents with the demands and
expectations of their party leadership.

New Zealand,
of course, now uses the MMP electoral system, which includes
the use of List MPs that provide proportionality to the
system. These MPs essentially owe their complete loyalty to
the party, and they may well have secured a position of the
party’s list due to their connections to the party. This
aspect of the MMP system can raise concerns regarding the
accountability and representation of List MPs. There really
is no incentive for List MPs to deviate from their party’s
agenda at all, nor to collaborate or exercise any
independence of thought.

A recent example of these
types of tensions, was the controversy surrounding Gaurav
Sharma’s expulsion from the Labour Party last year. Amidst
a number of accusations, Sharma alleged that the then party
whip, Kieran McAnulty chided Sharma, reminding him that his
first loyalty was owed to the party and then to the country.
Although McAnulty denied having said words to that effect,
the alleged exchange offered a glimpse inside the party that
rang true for many in the country.

Beyond split
loyalties, political parties tend to exacerbate
polarisation. The presence of distinct party ideologies,
with a range of policies associated with each, creates an
“us versus them” mentality. Supporters are often
unwilling to engage in dialogue or consider alternative
viewpoints, as questioning party positions is perceived as
disloyalty. This tribalistic mindset hampers compromise,
cooperation, and the search for common ground, leading to
heightened divisions within society.

These issues were
touched upon by Labour MP, Louisa Wall in her valedictory
speech to Parliament last year when she alleged that party
president, Claire Szabó, had taken “unconstitutional
actions” to have Wall deselected as the party nominee for
the Manurewa electorate despite Wall maintaining the strong
support of the local selection committee.

Wall made a
point of emphasising her desire for more collaboration in
Parliament, saying “I have learnt that working across the
House is the best way to make effective and long-lasting
change. I have always been grateful to my colleagues in
other parties who are willing to listen and are open to
discuss issues, and I acknowledge that the engagement of
colleagues on this side of the House has often been
influenced by matters outside the issues. In my view, there
is no place here for an us-and-them mentality. We need to be
more kaupapa- rather than personality-driven.”

Wall discovered, belonging to a political party often
entails an expectation of supporting a range of policies as
articles of faith, even if individuals may only agree with
some of them. This can present a dilemma for party members
who find themselves in disagreement with certain party
positions. Questioning or challenging these policies is
sometimes perceived as an act of disloyalty, undermining the
cohesion and solidarity within the party.

political parties are not simply monolithic institutions
with one ideology. Factions within a political party can
give rise to internal conflict that can significantly impact
the primary work of politicians representing their
constituents. These factions often emerge when different
groups within the party hold divergent policy preferences,
ideological beliefs, or personal ambitions.

We see
this issue at the moment with the Green Party and the
decision of its MP, Dr Elizabeth Kerekere to leave the party
amid an internal investigation which many suspect to be
little more than a witch hunt designed to drive Kerekere
from the party. At its heart, lies an internal power
struggle between two warring factions. On the one side is
the social justice faction of the party which is focused on
progressing decolonisation, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and
rainbow issues. On the other side lies the environmental and
climate faction.

Tensions within the Green Party have
been rising for years. Last year, the co-leader James Shaw
needed to be re-elected to his leadership role and then was
forced to step aside from his long-held candidacy in the
Wellington Central electorate due to pressure from the
social justice faction. All of this detracts from the work
that politicians should be doing on behalf of the

Perhaps the key is to strike a balance
between the benefits of political parties and the need for
more flexible and fluid approaches to governance. This could
involve promoting a more inclusive and open political
discourse, where dissent and disagreement are encouraged,
and loyalty to the public interest takes precedence over
loyalty to the party. It could also involve greater use of
independent candidates and ad hoc alliances, while still
recognising the value of political parties in promoting a
unified voice and clear platform for their candidates. Such
an approach would encourage representatives to evaluate
policies on their merits, rather than blindly adhering to
party lines.

Additionally, New Zealand could consider
adopting mechanisms to enhance citizen engagement and
participation in decision-making processes. This could
involve implementing more frequent referendums or citizen
assemblies, allowing for direct input and deliberation on
important issues. By including citizens directly in
decision-making, the tribalism associated with political
parties could be mitigated, promoting a more inclusive and
diverse democracy.

Internationally, several countries
have embraced mechanisms to enhance democracy through
increased citizen engagement and participation. Switzerland,
known for its direct democracy system, regularly holds
referendums on a wide range of issues, empowering citizens
to directly influence policy decisions. Iceland’s use of
citizen assemblies, such as the Constitutional Council, has
allowed for direct input from randomly selected citizens in
the constitutional reform process and Ireland has utilised
citizens’ assemblies to deliberate on significant topics,
including abortion rights and climate change, leading to
informed recommendations for legislative changes. In British
Columbia, Canada, citizens’ assemblies have been employed
to address electoral reform, enabling citizens to actively
participate in shaping the electoral system.

while political parties have historically played a crucial
role in organising political representation, their drawbacks
cannot be ignored. The blind adherence to party policies and
the exacerbation of polarisation hinder democratic discourse
and decision-making. Exploring alternatives, such as a
return to a more fluid system or implementing mechanisms for
citizen participation, could help address these challenges.
By fostering independence of thought, encouraging open
dialogue, and promoting inclusive decision-making, New
Zealand can strive for a more vibrant and inclusive
democracy, moving away from the tribalism associated with
political parties.

For more articles and
videos go

Cranmer, The Common

© Scoop Media