For nearly half a century the Labour Party was solidly a party of the working class. Established in 1916 as the political wing of the trade union movement, it aimed to increase ‘the visible, physical presence in Parliament of representatives of the working class’ (Gustafson, 1989: p.211). It now functions to give a presense in Parliament for politicians from the middle classes and to formulate and market policies that are attractive to voters from all classes and income groups. [Read more below]
Survey evidence of Labour’s change in class base
Where survey research exists prior to the 1980s, it points to the Labour Party’s strong hold over the votes of the working class. Mitchell’s 1960 survey of voters in the Dunedin Central electorate showed that Labour had the support of 87% of ‘unskilled blue-collar’ workers and 74% of ‘skilled and semi-skilled blue-collar’ workers (Mitchell, 1962d: p.176). Labour had the following support in Dunedin Central: 12% of ‘upper professional and company directors’, 25% of ‘lower professional, self-employed, and business people’, 44% of ‘white-collar’ and ‘uniform’ workers, 74% of ‘skilled and semi-skilled "blue-collar" workers’, and 87% of ‘unskilled "blue-collar" workers’ (Mitchell, 1962d: p.176). In a follow-up survey two years later, Mitchell found that Labour had the following support: 5% of ‘big sheep farmers, 7% of ‘directors of big companies, 5% of doctors, 15% of ‘bank tellers’, 28% of ‘teachers’, 44% of ‘clerks’, 62% of ‘shop assistants’, 70% of ‘foremen’, 80% of ‘carpenters’, and 89% of ‘wharf labourers’ (Mitchell, 1967: p.6).
R H Brookes and Alan Robinson’s 1963 Palmerston North electorate survey also revealed strong support for Labour amongst the working class, moderate support amongst middle-income earners, and much lower support amongst the more highly-paid occupations (Robinson, 1967: p.97). [This survey used subjective class categorisation, and indicated the following support for Labour: “working class”, 63%; “middle class”, 25%; and “upper middle”, no support (Robinson, 1967: p.98).]
The 1975 nationwide survey by Levine and Robinson found that 53% of ‘unskilled workers’ voted Labour, (compared to only 24% for National). Labour also had 43% support from the ‘unemployed’ (compared to National’s support of 25%) (Levine and Robinson, 1976: p.139). Labour had the following support: 6% of farmers, 53% of ‘unskilled workers’, 43% of unemployed, 27% of students, 27% of ‘housewives’, and 23% of ‘professionals’ (Levine and Robinson, 1976: p.139).
By the 1980s, however, Labour was obtaining a smaller proportion of its votes from its traditional section of the class structure. In his surveying of three Auckland electorates in 1984, Vowles found that ‘almost 36% of manual wage earning trade unionists had not voted Labour for three consecutive elections’ (Vowles, 1987c: p.17). However, most of the working class continued to vote for the Labour Party. At the same time the party continued to increase its support amongst the middle class.
Furthermore, an important element in Labour’s election in 1984 was the support of the business sector. The party leadership had carried out intense lobbying of business, indicating to them that a Labour government would be pro-business. At the same time business was growing increasingly unhappy with the economic management of Muldoon’s National Government, and a landmark 1984 National Business Review poll of business leaders revealed a majority in favour of a Labour victory (NBR, 2 Jul 1984). Such support also extended to many businesses switching their usual donations from National to Labour.
The class support of the Fourth Labour Government
Labour’s economic strategy in government after 1984 can be read as an attempt to reconfigure the party’s support base using neo-liberal and socially liberal reforms to attract further middle class support. At the 1987 general election the reconfiguration strategy was clearly evident and proving successful. The influx of former National and New Zealand Party voters into the Labour Party’s vote meant that the 1987 election was so characterised by class dealignment that NZES data showed no correlation between household income and party choice in the election, and manual and non-manual workers divided evenly between the major parties, although professionals were actually more likely to vote Labour (Gold, 1989). According to Aimer, electoral surveys in 1987 and 1990 pointed out that a substantial dealignment of working class voters had taken place, with less than half of those in manual occupations voting for the Labour Party (Aimer, 1992: p.334).
Labour’s modern class dealignment
This class dealignment was starkly evident also in the geographical distribution of votes, in that Labour enjoyed unusually high levels of support in seats that were either traditionally held by National or were marginal, while it lost support to National in many safe Labour seats. The fact that the bulk of the working class did not return to Labour in the following election was illustrated in the 1990 NZES survey data which showed ‘Labour’s normal lead over National among manual workers had wasted away to nothing. Thirty% of the manual group supported each party’ (Aimer, 1992: p.334). In fact, at the 1990 election, ‘a quarter of manual workers did not vote, by far the highest proportion of any occupational group’ (Aimer, 1992: p.334).
In 1993 Labour’s support from manual workers and lower-socioeconomic voters improved – but not significantly (Vowles et al., 1995: pp.17-24). For example, unionists voting Labour rose from 36% to 39% (ibid: p.24).
In the 1996 general election Labour continued to attract votes from across the broad socio-economic spectrum. McRobie’s electorate analysis (comparing the election results with census data) showed that compared to other parties, ‘Labour’s electoral support was much more evenly distributed across all [income] quintiles regardless of the sub-variable considered’ (McRobie, 1997: p.171). He concluded that ‘Labour’s transformation from a party of the working class to a party supported by better educated, more highly skilled and better paid voters... is clearly in evidence’ (ibid: p.173). McRobie also commented that, ‘Labour’s support was also greater in the upper occupational groups. In the less highly skilled occupational categories, however, the reverse applied’ (McRobie, 1997: pp.171-172). McRobie was also surprised by the ‘strength of support for National amongst the semi-skilled and unskilled – over 36% of the party votes and electorate votes cast by electors in the quintile with the most semi-skilled or unskilled people went to National’ (McRobie, 1997, pp.171-172).
Also of interest, is Ganley’s socioeconomic analysis of NZES data on 1996 Labour supporters, which found that only 30% fell into the category of low income voters, compared to 19% of National voters and 35% of New Zealand First supporters (Ganley, 1998: p.25). In line with this, Perry and Webster’s 1998 survey research showed that although there were still differences between the social composition of Labour’s support and that of other parties, these differences are much less pronounced than they used to be. For example, Labour only had the support of 39% of ‘unskilled manual’ workers – a group who in Brookes and Robinson’s 1967 survey gave Labour 87% support (Perry and Webster, 1999: p.28). There were only two categories where Labour was able to get more than half of the survey respondents’ support: ‘armed forces or security personnel’ (58%), and ‘never had a job’ (53%) (Perry and Webster, 1999: p.28). Labour also had the support of 32% of ‘employers or managers 10+ employees’, 34% of ‘employers or managers less than 10 employees’, 34% of ‘professionals’, 49% of ‘skilled manual’, 49% of ‘semi-skilled manual’, and 12% of ‘farmer-owns farm’. Overall the survey gave Labour support of 35% (ibid).
During the 1996-99 parliamentary term, while in opposition, the Labour Party gained the trust and support of the business community to govern again. An important indicator of this was a landmark 1998 business survey carried out by the Independent business newspaper which reported that business now felt more positive about the election of a Labour-led government. In the survey of 30 business leaders, all but three said they were ‘resigned to – or comfortable with – a Clark-led Labour Government’ (McManus, 1998: p.12). Likewise, following the 2002 election the DominionPost reported that ‘Labour’s resounding victory was a sign that the Government had won the respect of the business community over its term’ (DominionPost, 2002a). The newspaper reported that the Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce was welcoming the re-election of the Government, and also said that ‘Business leaders spoken to by The DominionPost were unanimous in their support for Labour’s victory’ (ibid).
As other blog posts on political finance show, Labour is now one of the preferred party of business. National has always received the huge bulk of donations from business, but in the 1999 election year both parties received similar levels, and in 2002 business donated significantly more to Labour. According to Labour president, Mike Williams, the corporate donations have been given to the party in ‘acknowledgment that the Clark-led Labour Government has helped create a stable and healthy business environment’ (quoted in O’Sullivan and Small, 2002). The Clark Labour Government has closely collaborated with business to maintain a business-friendly economy. Although Labour’s policies are very similar to National’s, where they differ, Labour’s are sometimes actually more in line with business.
The Labour Party now draws even the support of a number of prominent National Party business people. For example, Dryden Spring, a former corporate fund-raiser for the National Party, and former chairman of the New Zealand Dairy Board agreed to be the keynote speaker at a Labour Party conference. Former Auckland divisional head of the National Party, Ross Armstrong became a close friend and supporter of Labour leader Helen Clark, and worked closely with her government. Another champion of the party, is a former ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ and millionaire vice-chairman of the Business Roundtable, Bill Day (Talbot, 2002).
The social composition of Labour caucuses
The social composition of Labour caucuses has also changed significantly since the party’s arrival in Parliament. In the Labour Cabinet between 1935 and 1940, former trade unionists made up ten out of thirteen ministers – and there was only one minister with a professional background (Hanley, 1988: p.12).
Even by the time that the Second Labour Government came to power in 1957, much of the working class component of the party had dropped out, and ‘only five of sixteen ministers had trade unions backgrounds’ (Webber, 1978: p.183). Yet in general, and as late as the 1960s, the occupational background of Labour MPs still differed markedly from National’s. By the 1960s, Robinson reported that Labour MPs were typically ‘from lower-income groups, such as manual workers, teachers, and civil servants’ (Robinson, 1967: p.102). Making up over a third of the caucus in the late 1960s, the unionists outnumbered the next biggest group, the lower professional and lower business MPs, as well as the small group made up of farmers (Mitchell, 1969b: p.8). The candidates in the 1966 general election were also, according to Mitchell, made up largely of active members of trade unions, with 36 trade union candidates and a further 13 candidates who had been ‘active in those bulwarks of a more middle class unionism, the Public Service and Post Primary Teachers Associations’ (Mitchell, 1969b: p.10).
Things got worse for trade unionists in the Third Labour Government, with ministers from trade union backgrounds numbering only six out of 26 (Webber, 1978: p.183). After the 1975 election, according to Weber, 31% of the Labour caucus were ‘professionals’, 28% were manual workers or trade union officials, 22% were public servants, and 6% were white collar workers (Webber, 1978: p.193). That the working class dominance was being overturned was also obvious in that trade unions ‘ceased (as of 1975) to be active participants in Labour’s internal politics’ (Webber, 1978: p.191). The working class influence was also reduced with the party’s dramatic loss of membership in the mid-1970s. Although membership was again built up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the new recruits were mainly drawn from the middle class. Thus, although before ‘1957 eight or nine of every ten members were manual workers’, by 1970 this had declined to only one out of every two, with the proportion falling even further throughout the 1970s and 1980s (Gustafson, 1989: p.210).
By 1984 the Labour Party as an organisation had a very different social composition to that of the First Labour Government, and power in the party was increasingly held by the middle class membership, ‘which accordingly selected candidates and devised policies in its own liberal image’ (James, 1987a: p.32). Inverse to the incorporation of the new social liberals into the party, the working class element declined, and the new look party organisation became alienating to working class New Zealand. See: James (1993: pp.68-69).
The party had given up on its original goal of promoting working class leadership and now acted more to give a presence in Parliament for politicians from the middle classes. Barry Gustafson has pointed out that of the Labour caucus in 1984 ‘almost three out of four MPs came from the professional class, including nineteen who had been teachers or university lecturers and ten who had law degrees’ (Gustafson, 1992b: p.277). The Fourth Labour Government contained very few MPs who were not from ‘the professional middle classes: lawyers, accountants, lecturers, teachers, bureaucrats and the like’ (James, 1992a: pp.141-142). The Labour Cabinet also ‘contained, among its twenty members, seventeen from professional/semi-professional occupations, including eight former teachers and six with law degrees’ (Gustafson, 1992: p.277). According to Grant Klinkum, ‘The proportion of Labour MPs in New Zealand from the professions increased from 18% to 73% between 1935 and 1984’ (Klinkum, 1998: p.86).
Unsurprisingly, the proportion of current Labour MPs with union backgrounds remains low – making up 15% of a recent caucus, which compares to almost 90% after the first general election that the party contested in 1919, and 27% in 1972 (Webber, 1978: p.183). Furthermore, although a small number of ex-trade unionists still exist in the Labour caucus, there is no identifiable trade union faction or agenda amongst the MPs. The relatively narrow middle class grouping from which the caucus is drawn means that there is a distinct lack of commonality between the party and working class voters. Jack Nagel (1998: p.241) also argues, ‘they no longer had any visceral identification with poor and working class people; their own interests, associations and lifestyles led them to identify with New Zealand’s affluent classes; and their "leftism" lay in non-economic issues, to which most of them gave priority’. Consequently these MPs are less likely to represent such interests in Parliament. As Gustafson has argued, the new type of MPs ‘are involved in values issues rather than the old bread-and-butter economic issues which the unionists were very strong about’ (quoted in Venter, 1999a: p.6). The changing social background of its MPs has thus altered the very political nature of Labour Party.
[This blog post will be updated with new data - any feedback and information is appreciated]