Changing times, David Grant

The New Zealand Labour Party 1916–2016
Peter Franks and Jim McAloon
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781776560745

Researching a history of conservative political parties in New Zealand would be relatively straight-forward. The Reform/National Parties have, from their early beginnings to the present day, varied little ideologically – from centrist, to centre-right, to right – leaving the “far-right” tag essentially to those on that fringe, such as the Democrats in the 1930s, and ACT in more recent years. The same cannot be said of the New Zealand Labour Party, which veered from doctrinaire socialism under its first leader Harry Holland to, at the other extreme, unabashed neo-liberalism under David Lange (but led essentially by Roger Douglas) in the mid-to-late 1980s.

Yet, as Peter Franks and Jim McAloon have exposed in this commemoration of the party’s first 100 years, such a far-reaching transition was not surprising given the vagaries of time, drastic societal changes, and that the party was the home of a wide range of constituents, from Christian socialists, to liberal progressives, rationalists, social democrats, across both the working class initially, and more latterly middle-class liberals and, during the Lange hiatus, brazen free-marketeers.

Moreover, Holland’s socialism was a natural desire to find a meaningful political role for the country’s overworked, underpaid, and often poverty-stricken underclass, in reaction to the “bullies of capital” – whereas the Lange government’s free-market economic reforms were, at least in part, a reaction to Robert Muldoon’s increasingly intransigent “interventionisms” in the years that preceded its leadership. Muldoon’s overspending, as most of the country knows, nearly sent the country broke in 1984.

Writing such an expansive history requires judicious use of sources, both primary and secondary, to achieve a coherent narrative including both information that has been in the public domain (such as, to quote one obvious example, the party’s world-leading social welfare reforms of the late 1930s) alongside the party’s organisational development, the preserve of party members only, recorded at conferences and meetings.

The authors have achieved this task with intelligence and equanimity. While both acknowledge that they are party members, it is not, contrary to some opinion, a commissioned history, but undertaken by two respected historians, experienced in labour history, who have put aside any semblance of partiality in their research. It is not a blind recapitulation of earlier reminiscences of party apparatchiks, or in any way a repetition of biased or uninformed previous histories of Labour people or events. Nor is it a dry academic treatise, and I applaud the authors for this. It is an accessible, lively and sometimes hard-hitting examination of the party’s successes and failures, the broad coalitions of political thought and activity that Labour has experienced over the years.

There was no sudden rise of electoral success for the Labour Party between its founding in 1916 and its accession to government nearly 20 years later. Such achievement ebbed and flowed through the late 1910s, the 1920s and early 1930s. New Zealand voters are intrinsically conservative and, to the chagrin of Labour leaders, too many among working-class voters continued to cling to the fading Liberal Party. The authors have clearly delineated the causes for these changing fortunes and the growing diffusion of ideological purity that accompanied it, as the Party increasingly sought compromise to gain more widespread support. They make a persuasive case in this process to accord Holland a greater ideological flexibility than has previously been ascribed to him.

Of particular interest to this reviewer was the uncovering of lesser-known facts about the Labour Party and its people; moves from 1924, for example, to reach a dialogue with sympathetic Māori who could identify with the party’s working-class agenda – and which led, quite quickly, to the link with the Rātana morehu, a fruitful connection that was both political and spiritual, which endured for decades. James McCombs, in the party from the beginning, was the key originator of the party’s economic policy until his death in 1933. But, because he never served in a government, his name has largely disappeared. It is good that the thoughts and actions of Walter Nash, who succeeded McCombs as its economics spokesman, gets a full and informed coverage. Undoubtedly, this is due to McAloon’s expertise in financial matters.

Also fascinating was a full disclosure of the party’s problems after the 1938 election, including John A Lee’s leading a group of discontented back-bench MPs (particularly after Savage refused to sanction a vote by caucus that they choose the cabinet after the 1938 election) and, later, his unwarranted attacks on Savage’s leadership, leading to his expulsion from the party. There follows the most dispassionate and full description of Lee’s machinations and double-dealing in his hatred of Savage: I read, with some surprise, of the extensive support Lee had, especially from a raft of party members in Auckland, even after his scathing personal attack on Savage in Tomorrow’s December 1939 edition.

Peter Fraser’s empathy with, and moves to implement, Māori aspirations, both before and after WWII, get due exposure; the 1951 waterfront lockout receives full and balanced coverage, in explanation of Nash’s somewhat ambiguous role in the conflict, as does the aging Nash’s inability to delegate in subsequent years, even more so during his three years as prime minister. Contrary views on the necessity and impact of the 1958 “Black Budget” are clearly articulated. It is less well known that it was not condemned by all.

The most remarkable period in the party’s history, at least to this reviewer, was its capture by the right-wing from 1984, and, even more intently, between 1987 and 1990: leader Lange wanted a break for a “cup of tea”, as many in the party felt the neo-liberal reforms had gone too far, while Minister of Finance, Douglas, wanted to keep pursuing his deregulatory path. Douglas largely succeeded: by 1990, just the labour market had not been derestricted.  Yet, it was at the expense of party unity and public angst, particularly among workers, many now disenfranchised, which saw the party thrashed at the 1990 election.

It is worthy that the authors recognised the key, yet often fraught, role that presidents Margaret Wilson, Rex Jones and Ruth Dyson played, between the party and government, between 1984 and 1990, between the deregulators on the right and the membership, many of whom were at best uneasy, at worst hostile, to the economic reforms, particularly workers who had already lost, or were about to lose, their jobs in the privatisation of state-owned assets.

There are niggles in the book, however. The authors argue, rightly, that the one campaign that drew in all the shades of “moderates” and “militants” in agreement to form the first united Labour Party (with the exception of a small, but vocal, rump of pro-conscription labourites in Dunedin), was the opposition to the introduction of military conscription late in 1916 and, more particularly, the Massey government’s decision to conscript men and not wealth which had been a rallying call for socialists throughout the war.  By 1939, four of these agitators and Labour Party members (Fraser, Bob Semple, Tim Armstrong and Paddy Webb), who had been incarcerated for publicly rallying against conscription, were now in cabinet, led by Fraser. In May 1940, early in the war, the cabinet introduced military conscription, earlier than was probably necessary. This was one of a number of measures that the government took to tighten, quite drastically, any semblances of dissent, particularly from the left. Oligarchy replaced democracy, essentially, as a raft of emergency measures ensured that no public criticism of the war, or the New Zealand government’s pursuit of it, would be tolerated. Miscreants were punished harshly.

The authors identify this, but do not explain why this phenomenon occurred. Specifically, they proffer little clue as to the reasons for this drastic turnaround from anti-conscription – historically an immutable article of faith in the party – to pro-conscription, which seems fundamental to understanding a completely new direction in party policy. They mention, as Nancy Taylor and I have recorded, that the first war was an imperialist conflict, whereas the second was about a survival of democracy.

Indeed, the reasons for the turnaround go deeper than that. Unbending and self-assured, Fraser, who had autocratic tendencies when it suited him, was less concerned with democratic scruple when the chips were down than an overwhelming desire that everyone agree with him, especially in times of stress. In October 1939, Cabinet Minister Tim Armstrong told prominent pacifist Ormond Burton that he would be “a very disappointed man” if Labour ever lent itself to military conscription. In July 1940, when cabinet approved Fraser’s demand for its introduction, there were no dissenting voices.

Fraser, who was embarrassed at this time to be reminded of his anti-conscriptionist past, also enacted regulations that led conscientious objectors to be treated more harshly in New Zealand than in any other allied country. In hindsight, while Fraser’s very tough stand against dissenters was not surprising (whereas Great Britain’s remarkable liberality towards them was), yet these insights are missing in this book. While I agree with the authors that Fraser deserves attention as one of our greatest prime ministers, particularly in his educational reforms and his leading role as a powerful voice for small countries setting up the United Nations after the war, this “alternative” version needed to be explained. It is interesting, and less easily explained, that Fraser’s crackdown on dissent continued after the war, although the party had fallen in numbers and struggled in the 1943 and 1946 elections. His determined manipulations to ensure that his desire that peacetime conscription was implemented in 1949 makes intriguing reading.

It was also amazing to read that the authors allocate just four lines to Norman Kirk’s remarkable decision to send a frigate to protest against France, an erstwhile ally, which was exploding atmospheric nuclear bombs in our backyard, at Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia. This was action that not only captured the world’s attention but also led to a court case in the Hague – which New Zealand won. Eventually, after years of international argument, France was forced to explode them underground, and then finally to abandon them altogether after the first Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. Kirk’s action was also the stimulus for a later Labour government to establish an anti-nuclear policy – a fact which Lange later admitted – and which has remained immutable until the present day, despite “punishments” from the country’s allies, notably the United States of America, because we refused to allow nuclear-powered and -armed warships to dock in the country’s ports.

But these objections are minor in the overall scheme of things. McAloon and Franks have produced a comprehensive, hugely-researched and often intuitive and nuanced history of a major political party which has experienced huge change, in its ideologies, membership, and strength over the decades. They are to be congratulated. Not only is it required reading for any political aficionado, it will also be a major reference work for students wishing background for more specific topics involving the party and its people.

David Grant is a Wellington-based historian whose last major publication, The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk, was a finalist in the NZ Post Book Awards for non-fiction in 2014.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
Search by category

See more

Recent issues: subscriber-only access

Subscribe to NZ Books to access the issues above