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New Zealand Labour Party

New Zealand Labour Party
Current Leader: Helen Clark
Founded: 1916
Political ideology: social democratic

The New Zealand Labour Party is a New Zealand political party. It describes itself as centre-left and socially liberal, and has been one of the two primary parties of New Zealand politics since 1935. It is currently the dominant party in the country's ruling coalition, holding fifty-one of the 120 seats in the New Zealand Parliament.

Its current leader is Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Its deputy leader is Michael Cullen.



The Labour Party was established in 1916, bringing together socialist groups advocating proportional representation and "the Recall" of Members of Parliament, as well as the nationalisation of production and of exchange. Its origins lie in the British working-class movement, heavily influenced by Australian radicalism and events such as the Waihi miners' strike.


The Labour Party was an amalgamation of a number of early groups, the oldest of which was founded in 1901. The process of unifying these diverse groups into a single party was difficult, with tensions between different factions running strong.

At the turn of the century, the radical side of New Zealand working class politics was represented by the Socialist Party, founded in 1901. The more moderate leftists were generally supporters of the Liberal Party. In 1905, a group of working class politicians who were dissatisfied with the Liberal approach established the Independent Political Labour League, which managed to win a seat in Parliament. This established the basic dividing line in New Zealand's left-wing politics — the Socialists tended to be revolutionary and militant, while the moderates focused instead on reform.

In 1910, the Independent Political Labour League was relaunched as an organisation called the Labour Party, distinct from the modern party. Soon, however, the leaders of the new organisation decided additional effort was needed to promote hat left-wing cooperation, and organised a "Unity Conference". The Socialists refused to attend, but several independent labour activists agreed. The United Labour Party was born.

Soon afterwards, the labour movement was hit by the Waihi miners' strike, a major industrial disturbance prompted by radicals in the union movement. The movement was split between supporting and opposing the radicals, and in the end, the conservative government of William Massey suppressed the strike by force. In the strike's aftermath, there was a major drive to end the divisions in the movement and establish a united front — another Unity Conference was called, and this time the Socialists attended. The resulting group was named the Social Democratic Party.

Not all members of the United Labour Party accepted the new organisation, however, and continued on under their own banner. Gradually, however, the differences between the Social Democrats and the ULP Remnant broke down, and in 1916, yet another gathering was held. This time, all major factions of the labour movement agreed to unite, establishing the modern Labour Party.

Early days

Almost immediately, the new Labour Party became involved in the acrimonious debate about conscription, which arose during World War I — the Labour Party strongly opposed conscription, and a number of its leaders were jailed for their stand against it. This loss of leadership threatened to seriously destabilise the party, but in the end, the party survived.

In its first real electoral test as a united party, the 1919 elections , Labour won eight seats. This compared with forty-seven for the governing Reform Party and twenty-one for the Liberal Party.

In the 1922 elections , Labour more than doubled its number of seats, winning seventeen. In the 1925 elections , it declined somewhat, but had the consolation of nevertheless overtaking the Liberals as the second largest party. After the 1928 elections , however, the party was left in an advantageous position — the Reform Party and the new United Party (a revival of the Liberals) were tied on twenty-seven seats each, and neither could govern without Labour support. Labour chose to back United, the party closest to its own views — this put an end to five terms of Reform Party government.

The rigours of the Great Depression brought Labour considerable popularity, but also caused tension between Labour and the United Party. In 1931, United passed a number of economic measures which Labour deemed hostile to workers, and the agreement between the two parties collapsed. United then formed a coalition government with Reform, making Labour the Opposition. The coalition retained power in the 1931 elections, but gradually, the public became highly dissatisfied with its failure to resolve the country's economic problems. In the 1935 elections, the Labour Party won a massive victory, gaining fifty-three seats to the coalition's nineteen.

First Labour Government

Michael Joseph Savage, leader of the Labour Party, became Prime Minister on 6 December 1935, marking the beginning of Labour's first term in office. The new government quickly set about implementing a number of significant reforms, including a reorganisation of the social welfare system and the creation of the state housing scheme. Labour also pursued an alliance with the Maori Ratana movement. Savage himself was highly popular with the working classes, and his portrait could be found on the walls of many houses around the country.

The opposition, meanwhile, attacked the Labour Party's more left-wing policies, and accused it of undermining free enterprise and hard work. The year after Labour's first win, the Reform Party and the United Party took their coalition to the next step, agreeing to merge with each other. The combined organisation was named the National Party, and would be Labour's main rival in future years.

Labour also faced opposition from within its ranks. While the Labour Party had been explicitly socialist at its inception, it had been gradually drifting away from its earlier radicalism. The death of the party's first leader, the "doctrinaire" Harry Holland, had marked a significant turning point in the party's history. Some within the party, however, were displeased about the changing focus of the party, most notably John A. Lee. Lee, whose views were a mixture of socialism and social credit theory, emerged as a vocal critic of the party's leadership, accusing it of behaving autocratically and of betraying the party's rank and file. After a long and bitter dispute, Lee was expelled from the party, establishing the breakaway Democratic Labour Party.

Savage died in 1940, and was replaced by Peter Fraser, who became Labour's longest serving Prime Minister. Fraser is best known as New Zealand's leader for most of World War II. In the post-war period, however, ongoing shortages and industrial problems cost Labour considerable popularity, and the National Party, under Sidney Holland, gained ground. Finally, in the 1949 elections, Labour was defeated.

Fraser died shortly afterwards, and was replaced by Walter Nash, the long-serving Minister of Finance. It was to be some time before Labour would return to power, however — Nash lacked the charisma of his predecessors, and National won considerable support for opposing the "industrial anarchy" of the 1951 waterfront dispute. In the 1957 elections, however, Labour won the narrowest of victories, and returned to office.

Second Labour Government

Nash, Labour's third prime minister, took office in late 1957. Upon coming to power, Labour decided that drastic measures were needed to address balance of payments concerns. This resulted in the (in)famous "Black Budget" of Arnold Nordmeyer, the new Minister of Finance. The budget raised taxes, particularly on alcohol and cigarettes, and was highly unpopular. It is widely thought to have doomed the party to defeat. In the 1960 elections, the National Party was indeed victorious.

The elderly Nash retired in 1963, suffering from ill health. He was replaced by Nordmeyer, but the taint of the "Black Budget" ensured that Nordmeyer did not have any appreciable success in reversing the party's fortunes. In 1965, the leadership was assumed by the younger Norman Kirk, who many believed would revitalise the party. Labour was defeated again in the next two elections, but in the 1972 elections, the party gained a significant victory.

Third Labour Government

Kirk proved to be an energetic prime minister, and introduced a number of new policies. Particularly noteworthy were his foreign policy stances, which included strong criticism of nuclear weapons testing and of South Africa's apartheid system. Kirk's health was poor, however, and was worsened by his refusal to slow the pace of his work. In 1974, Kirk was taken ill and died. He was replaced by Bill Rowling, who did not have the same charismatic appeal — in the 1975 elections, Labour was defeated by National, which was led by Robert Muldoon.

Rowling remained leader of the Labour Party for some time after his defeat. In the 1978 elections and the 1981 elections, Labour won a larger share of the vote than National, but failed to win an equivalent number of seats. Rowling himself was compared unfavourably to Muldoon, and did not cope well with Muldoon's aggressive style. Rowling was eventually replaced by David Lange, who was seen as more able to counter Muldoon's attacks. In the 1984 elections, Labour was victorious.

Fourth Labour Government

The fourth Labour government was tumultuous, with considerable divisions over economic policy arising. The Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, was a supporter of free market theories, and sought to implement sweeping reforms ("Rogernomics") to the economy and tax system. A major program of privatisation was launched, and a subsidies were scrapped. Others within the party, however, saw this as a betrayal of the party's left-wing roots. A popular anti-nuclear-ships policy gave something to the left wing of the party, and perhaps helped the party retain office in the 1987 elections, but the tensions continued.

Opposition to Douglas's reforms remained strong — eventually, a Labour MP, Jim Anderton, left to establish the NewLabour Party, eventually forming the basis of the left-wing Alliance. At the same time, Douglas was pressing onwards, proposing a flat tax rate. Finally, David Lange forced Douglas to resign, and shortly afterwards, resigned himself.

Lange was replaced by Geoffrey Palmer. Palmer, however, was unable to counter widespread discontent among Labour's traditional supporters, and a few months before the 1990 elections, Palmer was replaced by Mike Moore. The Labour Party suffered its worst defeat since it first took office in 1935.

Moore was eventually replaced with Helen Clark, who led the party in opposition to the National Party government of Jim Bolger. During the period in opposition, the party made a measured repudiation of Rogernomics, although has never returned to the strong left-wing stance it originally took (it defines itself today as "centre-left" rather than simply "left"). When the 1996 elections, the first conducted under the MMP electoral system, gave the balance of power to the centrist New Zealand First party, many believed that Labour would return to power, but in the end, New Zealand First allied itself with National. This coalition government was unstable, however, and eventually collapsed. In the 1999 elections, Labour returned to power at the head of a coalition government.

Labour-led coalitions

After the 1999 elections, a coalition government of Labour and the Alliance took power, with Helen Clark as Prime Minister. This government, while undertaking a number of reforms, was not particularly revolutionary when compared to previous Labour governments, and perhaps as a result, comfortably won re-election in the 2002 elections. The Alliance, however, collapsed shortly before the elections — Labour is now in coalition with the Progressive Party, a faction of the old Alliance.

In early 2004, the Labour Party came under attack for its policies on the foreshore and seabed controversy. There were significant internal tensions within the party, eventually culminating in the resignation of a junior minister, Tariana Turia and her establishment of the new Maori Party.

The New Zealand Labour Party of 2005 has less socialist militancy, sparser trade union support and a broad agenda of centre-left co-operation with the Progressives while toying with notions of the Third Way and of social democracy. It remains by far New Zealand's largest electoral bloc, but under MMP electoral law seems less likely to govern alone than in coalition.

List of leaders

The following is a complete list of former Labour Party leaders.

Of these leaders, all but two (Holland and Nordmeyer) served as Prime Minister at some stage.

See also

External links

  • - Official web site
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