Worth a look: Labour: The New Zealand Labour Party 1916–2016


The least-read part of this book will be its preface. That is a pity.

Labour: The New Zealand Labour Party 1916–2016In 12 pages it summarises much of the history of the world social-democratic movements, the existing scholarship on the New Zealand Labour party, its success and failures, and its influence on New Zealand society.

The authors make a convincing argument that placing emphasis on the moderate/militant and union/parliamentary divides is largely wrong. They present a nuanced narrative, that makes clear the underlying complexities of people and policies. They also stress Labour’s later and continuing experience as a party of influence as political opponents adopt its policies to win voters.

Franks and McAloon develop the history of what J.D. Salmon called ‘Labour’s pioneering days’ from 1840 to the turn of the century – a long evolution stretching through the disastrous maritime strike of 1890 and the waterfront and Waihi disasters of 1912 and 1913, to the Great War, conscription, and imprisonment of Labour leaders. It is an origin myth that continues to inspire. The history behind the myth is told impressively across the first two chapters.

In the traditional Labour myth we leap from the end of the Great War to 1935 and the triumph of Savage’s first Labour government. This book’s coverage of those years reminds us of the three-way fight between Liberal, Reform and Labour and consequent split votes.

The authors place a welcome emphasis on the financial practicalities of ‘building a party’ and the efforts to develop women’s participation and alliances with Māori.

The period from 1935 to the 1950s is well summed up in the intervening chapters, from the welfare state under Michael Joseph Savage to war and recovery led by Labour’s Peter Fraser. The book examines Labour’s long period of opposition during the prime ministership of National’s Keith Holyoake and the changes that happened immediately after in the 1960s, before looking at the hope created (and then dashed) with Norman Kirk in the early 70s.

Changes in the social fabric of society, and Labour’s engagement with these changes, are examined in the chapters looking at the period from 1975-1984, before the book moves on to the era of neoliberalism.

When talking about the 4th Labour Government, the authors attempt balance while making clear the damage done to country and party. This was the period of the greatest conflict between the PSA and Labour but there is no reference to the changes created by the repeal of the State Services Conditions of Employment Act and the subsequent experience of hundreds of thousands of state workers having their terms and conditions taken away.

Lastly, the recent history is finely-crafted and gives a strong argument against any undervaluing of the remarkable achievement of Helen Clark in the restoration of Labour.

This book creates a new standard narrative of the Labour Party. The brave decision of the party to allow the authors, albeit sympathetic, free rein to write it as they saw it is vindicated by a fine and readable account; it is essential reading for anyone who would understand New Zealand.

By Colin Feslier

Labour: The New Zealand Labour Party 1916–2016

Peter Franks & Jim McAloon, Victoria University Press, 2016

$50.00

Available from: http://vup.victoria.ac.nz/labour-the-new-zealand-labour-party-1916-2016/