Reading comments by Matthew Hooton on the damage Labour has done to itself by entering its agreement with the Greens brought to mind the problems faced in earlier times by the New Zealand Liberal Party. And how little our modern Labour Party knows about its history and its own climb to power. In this centennial year of Labour’s birth that really is unforgivable.
After a couple of centuries of Whig politics in Britain and more than two decades with John Ballance, Dick Seddon and Joseph Ward leading successful Liberal governments in New Zealand 1891-1912, the Liberals here, as elsewhere (except Canada) found their votes being preyed upon by a new political force, the trade unions and their political entities.
In 1916 they christened themselves the New Zealand Labour Party. Earlier, the Liberals had been a wide church with North and South Island backblocks farmers and a rapidly increasing number of urban workers. As late as 1905 King Dick’s Liberals won 54% of the overall vote. But it was all down hill from there. Bill Massey’s Reform Party gradually stripped away the Liberals’ rural support, first in the North Island, while union-backed groups chomped away at the Liberals’ city votes so that by 1919 there were few urban seats left.
Faced with this challenge, the Liberals moved leftwards, running on a very left-wing platform in 1919 in the hope that urban workers would choose them rather than the mushrooming Labour alternative. The change of brand proved to be spectacularly foolish: their leader, Sir Joseph Ward, lost his seat, and the Liberals were reduced to a rag-tag-and-bobtail collection of North Island backblocks farmers, a handful of mostly South Island rural seats, and an assortment of fanatics opposed to alcohol or keen on sectarian religious warfare. Some of the remaining Liberals wanted to “fuse” with Massey’s Reform Party; others preferred to deal with Labour. In hope in 1925, the Liberals renamed themselves, but lost so much strength that they were not only no longer in contention to govern; they didn’t even have enough strength to remain the official Opposition.
In the world of the 1910s and 1920s there were never fewer than three political parties vying for office, and the Liberals were in the middle. MMP’s plethora of parties has done somewhat the same to modern New Zealand. Labour’s most recent equivalent of Seddon’s 1905 broad church was 1987 when David Lange won 48% of the total vote. Even in 2002 when Helen Clark had her best victory, her 41% was less than Lange had secured in 1984 and 1987. Since then it’s been a downward slope. Today Labour is faced with the same dilemma about how to handle its competition. Andrew Little has decided to adopt Green slogans and go left, like Ward in 1919. Ward belatedly re-emerged in 1928 leading a right-wing force that managed to cobble enough votes together to govern again. But the Liberals’ inner cohesion had gone. So, it seems, has modern Labour’s.
The best that modern Labour has been able to do was under Clark when she maintained the essentials of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s while making rude noises about the government she’d been part of when those changes came into being. She knew that nothing worked better for Labour’s hard-core support than economic growth that underpinned jobs and gave her government the revenue for social spending.
Clark’s four successors as Labour leader have never understood this, nor have they read their history. Destroying the party’s exclusive brand by zig-zagging in a leftward direction, hoping to supplant their competing political entity, is a quick route to the political graveyard. But after so many years of mushiness, does Labour now have any option? Whatever brand it chooses to place on itself probably won’t convince the voters because the certainties surrounding Labour’s reputation have been wasted away. Predictably, the first poll since the agreement between Labour and the Greens showed the Greens doing better out of the deal than Labour. The party has made it to 100, but it could soon find itself in need of life support.
Political historian, Michael Bassett, was a minister in the Fourth Labour Government.