The origins of the NewLabour Party (NLP) are obviously closely linked to the history of the New Zealand Labour Party. Since, in a sense the NewLabour Party attempted to represent the continuation of the tradition of earlier Labour Party governments, examining the history of the Labour Party allows an insight into possible explanations for the later transformation of NewLabour. In many ways the history of the Labour Party provides a classic example of social democratic deradicalisation. Labour’s story contains both the confirmation of social democracy’s deradicalisation trend and a partial explanation for that trend. This post continues the series on the history of the NLP, using research carried out on this political project back in 1995. [Read more below]
Despite the parliamentary nature of the Labour Party, its origins were decidedly ‘bottom-up’ — coming out of the fragmented labour movement of the early century. The formation of the party was an attempt to establish a political wing for the industrial labour movement. Its grass-root base was therefore made up of activists from the trade union movement. The New Zealand labour movement had involved a number of strands and there had been various attempts to build a political. When the Labour Party was finally formed, it involved a substantial number of people from the more militant sections of the union movement — in particular those who had been involved in the ‘red’ Federation of Labour which, according to RS Milne, stood out in the New Zealand context as ‘“extremist” in its reliance on the strike weapon and in its disdain for the hitherto almost sacrosanct arbitration system’ (Milne, 1966: p.38). The radicals of the ‘Red Feds’ went on to play a crucial role in the Labour Party, eventually making up ‘seven of the thirteen members of the first New Zealand Labour Cabinet of 1935’ (Milne, 1966: pp.38, 39).
The formation of the Labour Party in 1916 was, according to Colin James, ‘the marriage of two principle strands of anti-capitalist thought’: Marxism and Fabian socialism (James, 1993: p.65). The party therefore began as a ‘programmatic radical party seeking “socialist” reform’ (Mulgan, 1994: p.225). This was reflected in the Labour Party’s constitutional objective of the ‘socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. However, the party wholeheartedly adopted a parliamentary strategy.
According to historian Bruce Brown, ‘In the years from 1916 until about 1925, the Party retained a generally socialist temper. The radicalism of the period was evident especially in the land policy, and in the general platform planks for the extension of state ownership to many spheres of New Zealand’s economy. (Brown, 1962: p.216). This occurred under the leadership of Harry Holland (pictured on the right). However, due to this largely socialist and working class focus, the party was unable to make much headway:
This inability to increase Labour’s electoral prospects, led the party to a ‘conscious attempt to adjust policy more closely to political realities, existing and foreseeable, and resulted, after 1925, in the Party moving several paces to the right’ (Brown, 1962: p.216). These realities were, most obviously, the fact that the party could never hope to govern without a broader basis of electoral support. This meant the need to expand its appeal, not only to middle income voters, but also to the rural interests. The party had to both widen and moderate its political platform so as to accommodate these interests. The party thus changed its character, from a labour party to a party of ‘the people’.
The major stumbling block to achieving rural support was the Labour Party’s ambiguous policy on land nationalisation. Despite these ambiguities, the policy generally held, that in accordance with the party’s socialisation objective, a Labour government would gradually nationalise all privately held land. According to Bruce Curtis: ‘Labour Party policy on land was portrayed as Bolshevik and unworkable. A great deal of confusion was generated regarding the intricacies of the policy and the threat of compulsory land nationalisation’ (Curtis, 1989b:, p.14).
Not surprisingly, farmers generally rejected Labour during the elections of the 1920s. In particular, the 1925 election was a substantial set back and the result compelled the party to re-evaluate its land policy. Its leaders were convinced that the land policy was a barrier to their rural appeal, and consequently substituted it for a much more moderate policy.
The success of this policy transformation in improving the party’s electoral standing encouraged other retreats, and by the 1930s the Labour Party’s ideology amounted to little ‘more than humanitarian liberalism or, in Savage’s phrase, “applied Christianity”’ (James, 1993: p.66). Residual commitments to ‘socialism’ remained but were ‘gradually diluted’ and the constitutional socialisation objective became virtually ‘inoperative’ (Milne, 1966: p.49). According to Douglas Webber:
As it sought to broaden its electoral appeal, Labour gradually retreated from its original socialist objective.... By 1933, the party’s election manifesto made virtually no mention of any socialist objective. Indeed, the party’s election manifesto in 1935 proclaimed that Labour’s objective was ‘to utilise to the maximum degree the wonderful resources of the Dominion’ (Webber, 1978: p.186).
When the Labour Party finally won office in 1935 under the leadership of Micky Savage (pictured right), it had already undergone a substantial moderation of image and policy. In terms of its attitude to social change, the party was now firmly in favour of a ‘top-down’ approach that sought to modify rather than overthrow the existing economic system. Bruce Jesson maintained that,
Labour in 1935 still identified with the manual working class, but instead of seeing their interests as being in opposition to capitalism, as they had in their more militant days, they now sought to establish these interests within capitalism. The election of the first Labour Government meant a long-term reconciliation with capitalism (Jesson, 1989a: p.17).
The first Labour Government not only reconciled the party with the management of capitalism, it also adopted policies on other issues which were strongly at variance with the earlier stands taken by a number of its main leaders:
During the Second World War, men such as Peter Fraser, who had been jailed in the First World War, showed an authoritarian streak of his own. John A. Lee was driven from the Labour Party. Strikers were jailed. Conscientious objectors were interned. Conscription was introduced, firstly during the war and then in peace-time. By the time that National returned to power in 1949, Labour had been completely drained of any capacity for dissent or resistance (Jesson, 1989a: p.20).
In the context of conservative post-war New Zealand, the Labour Party lost both its radicalism and its reforming zeal. For a period of 23 years (1949-1972) the Labour Party was in government only once. This period of National Party domination of New Zealand politics was a time of general prosperity and conservatism. The Labour Party was now becoming increasingly concerned with portraying itself as a better manager of the status quo than its National Party rival. In 1951 the party dropped from its constitution the socialisation clause in favour of the much more mild objective: ‘to promote and protect the freedom of the people and their political, social, economic and cultural welfare’ (quoted in Webber, 1978: p.186) - this was the year of the waterfront dispute, the Korean war had begun the previous year, and the Cold War was in full swing. When Labour returned to office for a second time in 1957, it neither promised nor delivered any major social or economic reforms.
Labour leaders spent much of the post-war period playing down divisions of class in society and stressing national unity (Gustafson, 1989: p.204). More and more, Labour projected itself as a party of all New Zealand, instead of as a party of the working class or ‘disadvantaged’. Douglas Webber, again:
Both Walter Nash, in his term as party leader from 1950 to 1963, and Arnold Nordmeyer, his successor, tried to turn the Labour Party into a national, as opposed to a class party. The philosophy of Nordmeyer, architect of Labour’s controversial “new look”, was that New Zealand was classless, or else entirely middle-class, and that there was therefore “no place today for what used to be known as the class struggle” (Webber, 1978: p.188).
Likewise, Norman Kirk, the Labour leader from 1966 to 1974 argued that, ‘The New Zealand Labour Party is the New Zealand Labour Party. The words “New Zealand” are as important as the word “Labour”’ (quoted in Gustafson, 1989: p.204).
Labour’s blandness and lack of vitality during this period meant that the organisation lost many of its members, becoming, in a sense, ‘an organisational shell’ (Jesson, 1989a: p.24). Attempts were made in the 1970s to return the party to its supposed heritage of socialism, but ‘leaders such as Kirk, Rowling, and Lange continued to project Labour as a party motivated by the much more general concept of “social justice for the whole nation”’ (Gustafson, 1989: p.204).
By the mid 1980s when the party was back in control of the government benches for the fourth time, it had not only given up on its previous ‘socialist’ or even egalitarian visions, but began implementing policies which ‘were diametrically opposed to the socialist preference for collective action and state management of the economy’ (Mulgan, 1994: p.226). By implementing a particular mix of neo-liberal and monetarist economic policies the Labour Party caucus arguably became the most right-wing Labour government in the world, and jeopardised any claim by the party to the social democratic label. Indeed, the Labour Party did not simply shift towards the centre of the political spectrum to compete with the National Party but in terms of economic policy at least, it moved far beyond the centre and well towards the right.
Next blog post: Origins of the NewLabour Party