The Battle Cry Of Freedom: Three years after its founding conference, in the general election of 1919, voters were invited to join “Labour’s Liberty Campaign”. Guided by the ghost of Richard John Seddon, the sturdy young Labour Party is depicted rolling up its sleeves to do battle with Massey and his cohorts on behalf of the “Democratic Public”. Labour’s first fight was a fight for freedom.
IN EARLY JULY, 1916, leftists and liberals of every stripe gathered in Wellington to form a new political party.
New Zealand was at war. In the 23 months since August 1914, thousands of the Dominion’s young men had been killed, and thousands more wounded and maimed. The government of William (Bill) Massey appealed for more recruits.
The Prime Minister’s appeal was powerfully seconded by the Dominion’s leading newspaper proprietors, who urged the youth that remained to do their duty by King and Country. Many responded, but nowhere near enough to refill the depleted ranks of the NZ Expeditionary Force.
In 1915, legislation requiring all single men to register for possible military service alerted the war’s opponents to the near-certainty that Massey’s coalition government was preparing to introduce conscription.
In January of 1916, socialists and trade unionists met in Wellington to debate the ethics of conscripting men – but not wealth. At the conclusion of their conference a Manifesto Against Conscription was issued. Arguing that true equality of sacrifice was impossible to guarantee, the Manifesto insisted that war service remain voluntary:
“Thousands of our comrades strenuously opposed to compulsion in any form have gone as volunteers, and while their backs are turned we must use every effort to preserve intact the civil rights our people have won. There must be no surrender of principles which have raised British citizenship above serfdom.”
It wasn’t enough. As predicted, Massey opted for conscription. His Military Service Bill would become law on 1 August 1916. Equally predictably, in the first week of July, those responsible for the Manifesto Against Conscription: Peter Fraser, Bob Semple and Harry Holland; along with just about every other left-wing leader in New Zealand; began arriving in Wellington. Words had not been enough: now it was time for deeds.
The creation of the New Zealand Labour Party was largely the work of trade unionists. Yes – but not exclusively so. What’s more, those early labour leaders were a far cry from the dour union bosses remembered by Kiwis who came of age in the 1950s and 60s.
Seventeen months before the New Zealand Left began gathering in Wellington, the American union song-writer, Ralph Chaplin, had penned the words to that greatest of union anthems, Solidarity Forever. Here’s the final verse:
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,
For the union makes us strong.
It was precisely this “new world” of socialism and freedom that Massey and his mounted constabulary (Massey’s Cossacks!) had fought so hard to forestall just two years before Chaplin wrote his song. In the “Great Strike” of 1913, the “Red” Federation of Labour had been crushed. It is easy to imagine Massey’s fury, three years later, as he watched those indomitable “Red Feds”, Fraser, Semple and Holland, abandon the path of industrial militancy for the parliamentary road.
One hundred years on, the reader may wince at a phrase like “socialism and freedom”. It is, however, used advisedly. The men and women who formed the New Zealand Labour Party in July 1916 were driven by the conviction that, without economic justice and social equality, political freedom was forever being stillborn. We would be much mistaken, however, were we to believe that they considered freedom to be, somehow, less important than justice and equality.
Remember the words of the Manifesto Against Conscription: “we must use every effort to preserve intact the civil rights our people have won”. Labour’s founders knew that without political freedom, neither economic justice nor social equality could ever be attained.
Three years after its founding conference, in the general election of 1919, voters were invited to join “Labour’s Liberty Campaign”. Guided by the ghost of Richard John Seddon, the sturdy young Labour Party is depicted rolling up its sleeves to do battle with Massey and his cohorts on behalf of the “Democratic Public”. Labour’s first fight was a fight for freedom. Entirely fitting for a party whose leaders had been jailed for sedition and court-martialled for standing against conscription.
One hundred years later, the attainment of economic justice and social equality still depends on exercising fearlessly “the civil rights our people have won.”
Labour and Freedom must march together.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 July 2016.