What about the workers? A historical view, John Roberts

The Forgotten Worker: The Rural Wage Worker in Nineteenth Century New Zealand 
John E Martin,
Allen and Unwin/Trade Union History Project, Wellington, 1990, $35.95

New Zealand Working People 1890-1990
Stevan Eldred-Grigg
Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1990, $34.95


Nuclear Free: The New Zealand Way
David Lange,
Penguin Books, Auckland, 1990, $24.95 (out of print)

Environmental Politics: A Greenprint for New Zealand
Geoffrey Palmer
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1990, $24.95

John Roberts, who has had a lifelong family and professional interest in labour relations, reviews two important new books and comments on the philosophies of two former Labour Prime Ministers.

To the innocent onlooker with a taste for academic bloodsports there is nothing more diverting than disputes among historians. The longue durée seems to be an arena for the scholarly version of martial arts. Yet among all the Sturm und Drang the new vigour in historical research is providing us with analysis that penetrates well below the surface membrane of kings, popes, politicians and generals and disposes of richer analytical resources than those comprehended by the dismal myopia of economic theory. Whether it he the path-breaking enquiry such as E.P.Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class or Le Roy Ladurie’s brilliant exploitation of court records in Montaillou, the historians are devising ways to dispel the fog of ignorance that has lain over the unrecorded lives of the passing generations. As it happens, such works are of particular significance at this moment in New Zealand’s political history. The biggest realignment of allegiances and programmes since the mid-thirties is now assuming its forbidding shape.

Our need for historical clarity is particularly acute as we consider the Labour Party, corroded by internal conflict and an object of external contempt. The most telling and usual criticism alleges that Labour has gone whoring after false gods and has abandoned the imperatives of its working class origins.

To approach this matter with any confidence we need to understand the nature of the constituency that Labour could call upon and enlarge from the time of its rather belated entry into the lists in 1916Clearly, we are entitled to hope that the work of John Martin and Stevan Eldred-Grigg will help us. On my reading they have done so. We might also expect that anyone who has been Prime Minister in a Labour Government would have made this matter the first consideration in his political ruminations after a major collapse in political fortunes. In fact, the two occupants who were compelled to surrender that office in the Fourth Labour Government have chosen to publish books in which they demonstrate no obvious interest in Labour’s constituency.

The working class in New Zealand has certain characteristics that flow from the fundamental structure of the society. In the first place, the inhabitants were personally free. In earlier British colonial ventures the labourers were often unfree. Many were slaves, others were tied to their occupation by indenture, many were transported to years of bondage as convicted criminals. Secondly, the main opportunities for employment lay in the dominant farming industries and in the creation of a transport network. By nature much of the available employment was at best casual and at worst narrowly seasonal. Since the greatest early success lay with vast pastoral and grain growing ventures in the South Island large numbers of workers lived a nomadic life seeking work at shearing or harvest time. They were often at odds with the managers of these primitive agribusinesses whose owners dominated political and economic life. There is no doubt that this tension lingered well into the heyday of the Labour Party when the ‘squattocracy’ were installed as prominent commanders of the class enemy. It is heartening to see that this history is now being recovered and analysed in the Trade Union History Project. The Forgotten Worker explores the sources cogently and impartially and Mr Martin is careful to provide extended accounts of the work process itself. Thus we can follow the effect of changing technology and its effect upon the demand for labour. This may not be unique among historians but it is not common in my experience. Let us hope that his colleagues will follow Mr.Martin’s example.

There is evidence that the bosses felt they were being held to ransom by arrogant workers. John Martin quotes some bitter sarcasm on the point which ends ‘This is a glorious country for a labouring man !!!’ Stevan Eldred-Grigg points out that ‘Average incomes were higher than in Australia, much higher than in Britain and the United States’. It seemed that there was no ground upon which a radical working class movement could challenge the capitalists. Nonetheless, exploitation of the weak persisted. The booms were inexorably followed by busts in which the shearer and the seamstress, the seaman and the domestic servant, contemplated penury. The unions acquired sharp political lessons from their failed strikes on the waterfront and the goldfields. The politicians, observing the growth of working class radicalism legislated for state-supervised industrial bargaining. The marxist leaders of the so-called ‘industrial’ (to distinguish them from the ‘craft’) wing of the working-class movement tried to cobble together a syndicalist challenge to the capitalists. As Erik Olssen has pointed out in his account of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour, this failed utterly before the superior militancy and enthusiastic brutality of the newly elected Reform government. The Labour movement accepted the inevitable and in 1916 formed – with no great enthusiasm among those who distrusted bourgeois parliaments – the New Zealand Labour Party.

The programme provided uncompromisingly for the ‘socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. Was there a constituency? Labour seemed to be in another universe of discourse from an ascendant conservatism rooted in the freehold landed estate. Martin and Eldred-Grigg provide clues. A large, itinerant work force in the early days learned the virtues of an independent spirit coupled with solidarity in asserting their interests against the land-owners. They battled with primitive conditions of work on farms and construction jobs, not only in New Zealand but also in Australia where their search for work often took them. The seamen, the miners, the wharfies were also well-instructed in the strategy and tactics of class conflict and the need for solid industrial organisation. But the underlying conditions were changing.

The break-up of the large estates had cleared the way for the creation of the small dairy and sheep farms relying largely on family labour. The consolidation of urban economies in the great Liberal era changed the nature of the society and the aspirations of the workers. The onset of war complicated the ideological conflict and stimulated the economy. Leaders of the new Labour Party found themselves the target of vicious campaigns and legal proscription and acquired a reputation for disloyalty that stuck to them to the end of their lives. Labour made slow progress in an era of modest prosperity when, as Eldred-Grigg points out, unions worked within the conciliation and arbitration system for the interests of a working class which was fragmented into small industrial organisations. The conservative ascendancy was uninventive but firmly in control. Labour struggled to build a winning constituency. Despite the signs of economic trouble when a conservative coalition took office in 1931no one would have predicted an imminent and massive shift to Labour. Yet, with the honourable but belated exception of the Reform leader Coates, the laissez faire politicians marched stolidly into the dustbin of history.

The shift was consolidated in two stages. Labour had abandoned the aggressive marxist programme in favour of policies designed to insulate the economy against fluctuations in export prices, protect and promote employment providing local industry, step up public works programmes such as hydro-electric and state house construction and, most famously, to establish comprehensive systems of income maintenance embodied in the Social Security Act of 1938.

The second stage consolidated the organisation of the working class. In 1936, Labour provided that membership of Unions registered under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act would be compulsory for workers covered by the relevant award. Since many unions were affililiated to the Labour Party this increased the opportunities for politicisation of the workers. This was no doubt useful but was not as important as the formation of the Federation of Labour. There had been previous unsuccessful attempts to coordinate union power. It is possible that the FOL. would have failed also had it not been given a position of immense influence over national policy by the arrangements made to achieve economic stabilisation at the beginning of the Second World War. This lasted until the present day but ironically, proved to be as useful to the National Party as it was to Labour.

The National Party not only adopted Labour’s income-transfer programmes and extended them to their middle-class supporters; they also consolidated the practice of mediating among the baronies of interest, chiefly the Federated Farmers, Employers Association and the FOL. National also identified more quickly than Labour the urgent post-war passion for material progress and responded with vigorous promotion of private housing supported by extensive public works programmes. At the same time, they played astutely upon the public unease about trade unions, never losing an opportunity to expose the apparent power conceded to the Unions by the Labour Party constitution. National presided over the years of full employment. Labour, though it held on to a respectable proportion of the vote, held office for only six of the thirty years between 1950 and 1980. The Party fell into the hands of middle class activists and idealists who found little to enthuse about in the stale bread of traditional Labour politics. Eldred-Grigg makes the point that ‘Protests, picket lines and demonstrations developed as a new sport for the middle class. Workers sometimes supported them. Workers more often were suspicious of them. Working people as a whole were spectators not scriptwriters or actors in this ‘street theatre’ of middleclass power’. This passage is a useful clue to Eldred-Grigg’s purpose which will be recognised by those who have read Oracles and Miracles. He wants to struggle out of the academic straitjacket and force us to confront our prejudices about class. The risks he entertains, and unhappily does not always avoid, are a loss of clarity and an absence of convincing proof. The two great fields for ‘protests, picket lines and demonstrations’ were of course war and the environment. The bright young graduates who came to dominate the Labour Party were open to the imperatives of this political world and dutiful rather than passionate in the face of the woes accumulating for the working class. The youngish lawyers who formed the majority of the inner councils of the Fourth Labour Government had an experience of life utterly different from the former manual labourers who predominated in the First Labour Government. They inherited power from a bankrupt government which left a financial crisis and an interventionist administration in tatters. Small wonder that Labour turned to a radical solution directly opposed to the traditions of their Party.

The consensual economy evolved from the old stabilisation system required that the Government would hold the ring by means of the interventionist machinery of subsidies, import controls, wage orders and so on designed to maintain a balance among the organised economic interests. This in turn depended on a massive state sector which could be manipulated to support the desired allocation of resources. Among the inexperienced new leaders there was one man with a proven record of parliamentary and ministerial achievement who earnestly believed that this intervention had crippled the economy. In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king and Roger Douglas had his way.

Although economic recovery dominated the political agenda, Labour faced another major challenge even before the process of taking over from the Muldoon administration had been completed. The Labour Party then, and now, is scarcely a shining example of comradely unity, but there is a consistent and substantial majority for the proposition that New Zealand should disassociate itself from policies that contemplate the use of nuclear weapons. This immediately called into question New Zealand’s continued membership of the ANZUS alliance and its credit as a member of the western bloc. While anti-nuclearism (and the measure of anti-Americanism that goes with it) were not necessarily an electoral liability, it was another matter altogether to jettison New Zealand’s ability to call on the assistance of powerful friends.

A formula was invented to fudge this difficulty by asking the United States to refrain from sending nuclear equipped or powered ships to New Zealand while sustaining the ANZUS pact. This was the state of play when what David Lange calls the ‘extraordinary decision’ was taken to persist with an ANZUS Council meeting called two days after the General Election in 1984. This botched diplomacy propelled David Lange on to the world stage. The odd circumstances, the intransigent American position, the David and Goliath symbolism dressed the new Prime Minister in a little brief authority to take part in the international nuclear debate.

Whether this helped or hindered the Labour Government is doubtful. It seems evident that it was not an issue that was of any particular concern to the workers who looked to the Party for economic recovery. Mr Lange, despite his performance in the nuclear debate remained marginal to the Labour Government’s success or failure. Whether that can be fairly said about Sir Geoffrey Palmer is less certain. While many of his cherished constitutional reforms failed to secure the support of his colleagues, there is no doubt that he was almost frighteningly industrious and had crucial influence on key legislation. Perhaps the fault is that of overconfidence. Impatient for reform, he reached beyond his capacity to manage the political system. It is typical of Sir Geoffrey’s brief but meteoric political career that he should end it with a book that records his failure to put the legislative capstone upon a remarkable sequence of policy innovation.

For the Labour Party environmental management is a double bind. On the one hand many of the party’s activists are also enthusiastic environmentalists. On the other the immediate effect of much environmental policy is to sequestrate resources from exploitation or impose job-threatening controls. Like defence, environmental policy provides an international stage for the ambitious politician and Sir Geoffrey publishes his speeches to international conferences in a book that has been assembled rather than written. I am sure that his undoubted industry and intellectual distinction shone through on these occasions. 1 doubt that they recaptured many disenchanted working class voters for Labour.

For what was urgently wanted by the workers and their employers was a fair, workable and flexible regime for access to resources. Labour tackled this immense job and, after laborious consultation produced a strategy and a structure that might have succeeded. Then, at the last minute, they failed to push it through Parliament. The Resource Management Bill is now at the dubious mercy of the National Party.

One can only hope that it will not collapse into the confusion that attended previous National attempts to reform in this area in the brave days of Mr Martin’s hardy itinerant workers the world may have been tough but it was filled with infinite alternatives. Some of this expansionist spirit remains in the period covered by Eldred-Grigg. Today the grim fact is that we are pushing against the limits of the biosphere as Sir Geoffrey makes clear. In the light of history, the Fourth Labour Government will be applauded for confronting reality. Yet it failed to give its natural constituency a voice in the councils that will decide how the balance between the exploitation and conservation of our resources is to be struck. The key to the resurrection of Labour’s fortunes will be found in the application of energy and intelligence to that problem.

A rule has been propounded by an American journalist for those considering the effusions of politicians. ‘Always ask yourself the question, “Why is this bastard lying to me?”‘. Politicians who write books at least confirm the eternal optimism of the species. As authors, Mr Lange and Sir Geoffrey Palmer are polar opposites. Mr Lange writes with an easy narrative flow largely about his personal triumphs and disasters in the anti-nuclear campaign. Sir Geoffrey writes awkwardly about the prospects for shaping a survival strategy for the environment. Their books not only reveal their better qualities but also the deficiencies that led to their downfall.


John Roberts was formerly Professor of Public Administration at Victoria University of Wellington. His monthly radio programme ‘The Roberts Report’ has won widespread recognition as a commentary on politics, international affairs and the arts.



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