On The Right Of The Left: Raised in the public works camps of the Great Depression; organiser for the Workers Union; staunch anti-communist: Ron Bailey held the Heretaunga electorate in the Hutt Valley from 1960 until 1981. Few Labour parliamentarians have exemplified more vividly the ideological elasticity of Labour's "broad church".
THE FIRST LABOUR CANDIDATE I ever voted for was Ron Bailey. He’d inherited the Hutt Valley seat of Heretaunga from Labour’s outstanding Minister of Trade & Industry, Phil Holloway, in 1960. Encompassing a good part of the Hutt Valley’s manufacturing industries, the Heretaunga electorate was about as safe as any aspiring Labour MP could wish. Having won it, Heretaunga should have been Bailey’s for life.
Not that I knew anything about Ron Bailey as I conscientiously drew a line through the names of all the other candidates on my ballot paper. (I must confess, however, to hesitating over that of the Values Party candidate, J.M. Overton.) As a callow 19 year-old, I cared a great deal less about the personal histories of the candidates than I did about the parties they represented.
I cast my first vote for Labour in 1975 to honour Norman Kirk’s legacy. His leadership had impressed me tremendously. From the dispatch of a New Zealand frigate to the French atomic testing site at Mururoa, to the cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour, Kirk laid down a template for moral clarity and political courage by which I, and many thousands of other young New Zealanders, could judge his successors.
I was also voting for the self-evident decency of Kirk’s political heir, Bill Rowling; the progressive education policies of Phil Amos; and the radical social vision of Labour’s Attorney General, Dr Martyn Finlay. Theirs were the democratic socialist stars by which I allowed myself to be guided. Against such a flaring legacy, the star of Ron Bailey, Minister of Railways, shone only dimly.
Had I bothered to investigate the background of the man I was voting for, I would have been, by turns, both impressed and appalled.
Born in 1926, Bailey spent his childhood years in the infamous public works camps of the Great Depression. In his 2015 obituary of Bailey Dominion Post journalist Tom Fitzsimons describes the sort of places that five-year-old Ron would have called home: “His family lived in two conjoined gable-style tents with wooden floorboards, a corrugated-iron fireplace, no sink or bath, and kerosene lamps for light.”
Bailey’s political career didn’t really get started until he was 29, when he became an organiser for the New Zealand Workers Union. That was in 1956, and he must have impressed his fellow unionists as a go-getter because just four years later he was the Labour MP for Heretaunga.
If you’re thinking Bailey was some sort of socialist firebrand, then think again. Like so many of his conservative working-class contemporaries in both the unions and the Labour Party (including Kirk himself) Bailey was a staunch anti-communist. Indeed, in 1975, when I first voted for him, Bailey was, allegedly, an active member of the New Zealand chapter of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) a sinister, far-right outfit with its origins in Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (Taiwan).
Reading between the lines of Bailey’s obituary, it would seem that his far-right views had, by the early 1980s, become so extreme (WACL was exposed as having ties to neo-Nazi death-squads) that even in Rowling’s broad Labour church they could no longer be tolerated. Amid the dramatic upheavals of 1981 – the year of the Springbok Tour – Bailey was somehow prevailed upon to step aside for the affable (and considerably more moderate) lawyer, Bill Jeffries.
The curious career of Ron Bailey illustrates just how widely the net of Labour’s candidate recruitment was flung in the 1950s and 60s. The party was very far from being a monolithic organisation for the very simple reason that its core working-class and professional middle-class constituencies were themselves anything but monolithic. Staunch anti-communist trade unionists like Bailey were joined in Labour’s caucus by radical Christian socialists like Hastings MP, Richard Mayson. The social-conservative Kirk sat at the same Cabinet Table as the social-radical Finlay.
For those politicians who prefer their parties to cleave to just one line, Labour’s “broad church” must sound like hell-on-earth. As a left-wing Labour Party activist – against whom the Rogernomics-supporting “Backbone Club” (of which Ron Bailey was the Auckland convenor) regularly hurled thunderbolts, I can certainly vouch for it being a very hard slog.
What I must also vouch for, however, is that even in a disastrous election year, like 1975, Labour’s “broad church” could still attract 39.6 percent of the popular vote.
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 10 February 2017.