Monday, 13 February 2017

Just How ‘Broad’ Was Labour’s Church?

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.

12 comments:

peter petterson said...

!975 was a time of a Labour ebb tide. Bill Rowling just couldn't compete against Muldoon on the new technology - television. Ron Bailey just had no public impact. We soon found out what Muldoon was like. We had no opposition to him or MMP those days, a bit like the years before Andrew Little today.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The world has changed since nineteen sixty, and even since nineteen seventy-five. What was acceptable behaviour in the nineteen sixties is no longer acceptable now. Particularly with regard to women and young people. And I certainly think there's a difference between social conservatism and political conservatism. Most of the country today is socially liberal. This is reflected in the policies of both parties. Bailey would have blown his top at the thought of gay marriage for instance. And I like to think that we would reject the values of Donald Trump who thinks he can grab women by their pussies, and anyone else who thinks in the same vein. Again – how deep can you delve into sleaze before the party is affected by it. And why doesn't Labour produce policies that will get more of their natural constituency voting? There's no point in being elected if you are going to be much the same as National – no point to the general public anyway, just to those who take power. And I've been a little cynical now about some of the MPs that are coming through – in my day, when I voted for my old history teacher Jonathan Hunt, who actually turned out to be a bit of a disappointment – Labour MPs at least STARTED OFF wanting to help people and change things. Being a politician seems more akin to a profession these days.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Guerilla Surgeon & jh.

I am appealing to both of you to focus your attention on the subject matter of my posts, and not to engage in either monomania - that's you and the immigration issue, jh - or, in your case GS, relentless attacks on a commentator whose opinions you vehemently oppose.

It is as wearisome to moderate these comments as it is to read them.

SharpTack said...

GS re Jonathan Hunt

They didn't call him the 'Minister of Taxi Chits' for nothing...

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Just what about my comment above is off topic? But I would also like to say that if you had kept your promise to keep people on topic, there would be no need to vehemently oppose them. I find it just as tedious as you do, TBH but why should someone with ideas like that get a free ride? Would you prefer that I not comment on JH's posts at all?

AB said...

So Chris - what was it that held the 'broad church' together and stopped it flying apart from it's own internal differences - as it seems to me would happen today?
Was there a core of common values, or just a common loathing of the National Party? Was it simply a lack of alternatives? Or a culture of modestly 'making do' and not expecting to get everything you wanted?
And whatever it was - is it re-discoverable?

And finally - is the National Party a broad church or a narrow one? And how do you think it manages to stay unified?

Interested to get your thoughts on these questions at some point. Thanks

Nick J said...

Part one of the Constitution of the Labour Party spells out the guiding principles of Labour. A broad church is possible so long as all members and elected representatives understand and commit to the guiding principles. There is a bit about working together for the common good.....

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I think the taxi chit thing was a bit unfair. He wasn't allowed to drive due to really poor eyesight. I do however think he could have chosen to live a little closer to the airport.

Nick J said...

Further to my pointing at the Labour Constitution there really is no great need for Labour to reinvent any broad policy platforms, it is all spelled out. The real issue is specific policy directions within the framework on how to deliver the required outcomes. Within a broad church the methodologies might differ (and yes this was the problem with Roger Douglas saying that his method would deliver...) a little judicious selection might have weeded out the Baileys and Douglas types early.

On specific issues such as personality politics I have long since been of the opinion that "progressive" issues such as LGBT"rights" should not fit within the Labour Party core policies. The reason I say this is that whilst Labour should support broad human rights these issues should be pursued by BOTH Left and Right progressives. They should not be tied to a party. Our MPs should be free to follow their conscience and good sense rather than committing to stances that a large part of the electorate might disagree with. Further why must "socially conservative" Labour support be "disenfranchised"? My initial take on the selection of any candidate like Bailey or Williams is how far do they represent the core values of the Labour Party?

There is a tension within the 'progressive" political movement, that of the desire to achieve outcomes that might be at odds with the public opinion. Do you use compulsion or persuasion? I will always prefer the former. Labour has in the past often been perceived as, and portrayed as the party of compulsion. The recent Poto event signaled to me that the desire to "drive" some specific issues remains strong. To me Labour candidates need to have a longer term vision of how to make policy "stick" with the populace in the way that the "welfare state" became ingrained in peoples minds.

Robert M said...

Well I have to say I did meet the apparently extreme, Mr Ron Bailey in his last days as MP for Heretunga, interviewing him for my MA Political Science thesis in I think about Nov/Dec 1980 in Parliament buildings and there seemed nothing unusal about his views or his office, which was dominated by the spoils and trophies from his days as Minister of Railways and overseer of the nations biggest make work project the Railways workship. A huge model of a modernised 'Northerner' carriage one of the Railways major rail projects. Bailey's view on the rail and transport issues of the time were no different to any other former members of the KIrk/ Rowling cabinet- they all thought the development and planned electfification of the Auckland suburban system the most important thing, and passenger services hardly worthwhile. They all shared the same standard kiwi ,view of the Railways as a shabby imprenetrable working class enterprise and except for past extremist, whose name I forget, who had been secretary to Fraser in 38 ( Island Bays- O'Brien) none were much into Railways, although McGuigan was clearly much more middle class in view than Tizard, Bailey or surpisingly Basil Arthur( who to may amazement was competent ( after the relentless comment from my mother and father for years, 'as a local member', not realy Cabinet material, and his family and friendship and his family, and their lack of ability or Martyn Finlay.
Much the same could be said for the colorful and equally changelling, Mr Terrris whove never met, andknow mainly from his autobiography, fallout in Lower Hutt and soemtimes drinking with his daughter and her flatmate at Pomeroys about 2006. The interesting thing about Mr Terris a future vicar and social liberal version of something approaching a rogenrnome, as the possiblity his religious belief was genuine made him unacceptable to hold serious poltical officer, for leader Helen Clark,that really does say something about Helen, ie she really might be hard left deep down. Clearly a delightful gentleman. We learn more about the Labour Party every day.

Nick J said...

I prefer the latter sorry, persuasion rather than compulsion (apologies)....

Andrew R said...

Even in 1975 broad church Labour got 39.6% of the voteo. The implication is Labour now, by being broad church, should get similar.

The difficulty with that theory is that 1975 was FPP voting and 2017 will be MMP voting.

But I suppose you understand the difference -- under MMP people have more choice on who to vote for.