OBITUARY: New Zealand Labour Party, 1916 - 2016

Alex Eastwood-Williams

The following article is one I wrote last year for another publication, which I have decided to republish in light of Labour's recent polling woes: 


New Zealand Labour Party
1916 - 2016

On behalf of the New Zealand political family, it is my sad duty to announce that the New Zealand Labour Party, the oldest political party in New Zealand, has passed away, aged 100. It died in the arms of its recent spouse the Green Party, and its passing is mourned by hundreds of blue collar workers up and down New Zealand.

Labour was a proud party, which arguably changed New Zealand more than any other political party, notably by creating the welfare state in the 1930s and then destroying it in the 1980s.

Labour was the proud parent of dozens of political parties. Its first born child was the Alliance, who sadly died of severe splintering in 2002 after its vehicle for left-wing extremism crashed at high speed into a wall of pragmatism. Labour was also the proud parent of United Future and the Greens, and is rumoured to have been the other parent of National’s illegitimate child New Zealand First. Labour also had a prodigal right-wing child called the ACT Party, from whom it grew permanently estranged as time went on. In 2005 its youngest child, the Maori Party, was born.

Labour was born on July 7th 1916, the child of the United Labour Party and the Social Democratic Party. In its early life it was devoted to opposing conscription, before entering Parliament for the first time in the 1919 election.

From its birth in 1916 until the 1980s, Labour was the voice of working class New Zealand, fighting tooth and nail for a fair and compassionate society. In the 1980s, the party was diagnosed with a chronic and incurable case of neo-liberalism, the disease slowly robbing Labour of its personality and everything that once made it great. Though it appeared to be healthy during the early 21st century, when it spent nine years in power, the disease had rotted Labour from within and it was in fact dying a slow and painful death.

Labour finally died in 2016, after signing a memorandum of understanding with the Green Party, representing a final admission of defeat, and the end of any chances that it might once again be the voice of working-class New Zealand.

Though there is absolutely no chance that Labour will ever form a government again in its own right, it is fully expected that its ghost will continue to haunt future left-wing coalitions until it is finally replaced for good by something new and relevant.

The Labour Party is dead. The question we must now ask ourselves is, what happened to this old centenarian that caused it to die in such an undignified way?

The simple answer is that the Labour Party has lost touch with working class New Zealand, and has done nothing beyond rhetoric to regain its support and trust.

Labour was last in touch with working class New Zealand during the short-lived Third Labour Government. Though saying this goes against my own Muldoonist proclivities (indeed Muldoon might roll in his grave at me saying this), the fact is that Norman Kirk was a very good Prime Minister.

Kirk was the last true working class Labour Prime Minister (although Muldoon and Bolger were the last working class Prime Ministers in general), whose administration was sadly plagued by a number of extremely unfortunate events, including the OPEC shock, Britain joining the EEC and, perhaps most inconveniently for Mr. Kirk, his untimely death.

In the years that followed, Labour underwent a horrific mutation, from being a party of the working poor - often espousing and reflecting blue-collar conservative values, such as in the “Applied Christianity” preached by Savage and Fraser, the religious temperance of Walter Nash and the pro-life Roman Catholicism of Norman Kirk (leading to the creation of the Domestic Purposes Benefit) - to instead being a party of middle class liberals.

Its members, who were once working class heroes from the factory floors and the trade unions, instead increasingly came from academia, the legal profession, or well-connected political families such as the Andertons, the Douglases and the Tizards. (For example, though David Lange often claimed to be an outsider, the reality is that he and his cousin Michael Bassett had a life long close connection with the Douglas family. Bassett, for his part was a close academic colleague of Helen Clark’s before she entered Parliament.)

This change in demographics led to a change in values and, ultimately, to the implementation of the most reckless and destructive extremism in New Zealand history. And while the Fifth Labour government was not as extremist at the Fourth, its existence was dependent entirely on the good will of urban liberal middle class (soft National) voters than on the working class vote - who by this point had already deserted Labour for good.

By their own admission, Labour’s two biggest challenges - both financially and politically - stem from shrinking trade union membership (in fact it’s mostly public sector workers nowadays who are unionised - and public sector workers are already likely to lean towards Labour) and the fact that all these years later, the public still haven’t forgiven them for Rogernomics.

That said, I have no sympathy for Labour as both of these problems are self-inflicted. They were the party who began the economic liberalisation that ultimately gutted the trade union movement - and they ignored the warnings of the unions at the time. And of course the public won’t forgive them for Rogernomics - all they have to do is look at the Caucus and see Goff, Mallard, Dyson and King sitting there, still riding the gravy train 30 years later. (To his credit, at least Peter Dunne - who was also in this group - has the honestly to no longer pay lip service to the working classes, and openly states that his politics are for middle class liberals.)

And while Labour may have thought it was onto a good thing with Helen Clark and the era of identity politics and ‘National lite’ economics - lo and behold, along came John Key to reinvent National as socially liberal and all of a sudden National was the new Labour.

Would-be Prime Minister David Cunliffe wrote, quite correctly, that “the left should be able to represent the many marginalised by neo-liberal capitalism; but is struggling to connect with them in reality, particularly young people and males.”

Yet a few days earlier, Mr. Cunliffe - who let me remind you is an ultra-wealthy identity politician from the Clark era, famous for being sorry to be a man, implementing a man ban within the Labour Party, and remains the single least honest person I have ever met in politics - accused UKIP of being “far right”, claimed that Nigel Farage was anti-Muslim and anti-Semetic (ironically, considering that the UK Labour Party genuinely do have a problem with anti-Semitism) and called the same working class voters he claims he wants to represent “wreckers but not builders”.

Even when they try their hardest, the gulf between Labour and working class New Zealand is impossible to bridge now. This is a party who genuinely believes that poverty has less to do with economics and more to do with Maori/gay/women/transsexual rights - and this is the only solution they can possibly envision.

In this respect they’re a match made in heaven for the Greens, who are also a party of upper middle class types claiming to represent the poor but completely oblivious to their values and concerns. And by joining forces with the Greens, Labour have signed their own death warrant. Because working class voters detest the Greens as much as the Greens detest working class voters.

The relationship with the Greens effectively disables Labour from ever being able to meaningfully bridge the gap between themselves and the working class. Because even if Labour do decide to adopt the abandoned “Blue Labour” strategy and adopt socially conservative policies to attract the working class vote (which won’t happen anyway due to the current demographics of the Caucus and Party membership), the relationship with the Greens will mean economic policies that are destructive to the poor.

What it comes down to is this: Labour and the Greens seem to believe that the working classes are confined entirely within South Auckland, are there because of cultural discrimination and that the only solution is a big state solution of taxing the rich to pay for more benefits.

This demonstrates not only that they don’t understand the values of the working class, but they don’t even know where the working classes live.

At the moment, most working class voters live in National seats, not Labour seats. And that’s because the working classes are predominantly the people living in those small flyover towns that Labour and the Greens see from the windows of aircraft on the flight between Auckland and Wellington.

The working classes are the people living in places like Huntly, Kawerau, Taranaki, Greymouth, Timaru and Gore. They’re not confined to South and West Auckland.

And what is it that these people want? It’s not more benefits. What they want is more jobs, better infrastructure and - most importantly of all - for the government to leave them the hell alone to live their own lives.

With the Greens holding Labour to permanent ransom this can never happen. The Greens oppose mining - which will cost jobs on the South Island’s west coast. They oppose oil and want to implement carbon taxes- sorry Taranaki and Otago. They want Tiwai Point shut down - sorry Invercargill. They won’t dam rivers but don’t like coal fired power plants - sorry Huntly. And of course they want to add more compliance costs for our already struggling farmers - sorry Waikato, Northland, Bay of Plenty, Manuwatu, Canterbury and Southland.

The Labour/Greens pact represents only the interests of middle class Auckland and Wellington, at the expense of everywhere else. And for as long as Labour are tied to the Greens, they’ll always be out of touch with the working classes. And therefore, a dead political party, with even National more in tune with working class New Zealand than them.

They might one day be part of a governing coalition, maybe even lead it, but Labour will never again be the force it once was, or the voice of the working poor it was founded to be.

But there is one political party that is in touch with the working class voter. The global uprising of the disenchanted working class is nothing but good news for New Zealand First.