ON 7 JULY 1916 the New Zealand Labour Party came into formal existence. That decision was not made in the mining town of Blackball, on the South Island’s West Coast, but in Wellington. The number of New Zealanders who still believe that the Labour Party was formed by the radical coal-miners of Blackball would easily outnumber those who know the true circumstances of its birth. To be fair, Labour has done very little to dispel this historical myth. Even today you will find Labour MPs posing proudly before the fading slogans of the Blackball miners’ union hall. As if, by some strange historical osmosis, the genuine socialism of the men and women of 1908 could be absorbed into the neoliberal souls of twenty-first century Labour MPs.
Labour’s blatant misrepresentation of its own history continues. In a message to members and supporters, Labour’s deputy-leader, Kelvin Davis, celebrated the party’s 105th anniversary by sending out a self-congratulatory message featuring this extraordinary review of Labour’s past leaders:
I want to acknowledge all our leaders, past and present. From Michael Joseph Savage, who moved furniture into the first state house way back in 1937, to Peter Fraser who was involved in setting up the United Nations. From Norm Kirk who helped Aotearoa recommit to Te Tiriti, to David Lange who said no to nukes and yes to the rainbow community. From Helen Clark who helped us Kiwis save for tomorrow, to Jacinda Ardern who stood up to hate and stood up for our health.
It is difficult to know where to begin with this crude travesty of Labour’s history.
Perhaps the first thing to note is the author’s (who may, or may not, be Davis) utter contempt for historical accuracy. He or she has cynically gathered together a grab-bag of “progressive” causes and assigned them – almost at random – to the heroes of Labour’s past and present. Tragically, this travesty will pass unnoticed by the overwhelming majority of the message’s recipients. For all intents and purposes, their knowledge of Labour, and New Zealand, history is non-existent. As a political and ideological community, the Labour Party no longer possesses the human resources necessary to pass on the stories that shaped the labour movement. Those who might have performed this service are either dead, or they left the party in disgust years ago.
How well I remember the stories told to me by an elderly trade unionist and Labour Party member, the late Fred Rudkin. He would describe making his way to the Tramway Workers union hall on Saturday mornings to be thrilled by the spell-binding “shed oratory” of Bill Richards, Dunedin’s foremost union agitator. And how, during the 1951 Waterfront Dispute, he and his best mate told lies to the Police to keep safe the local leaders of the locked-out Watersiders Union. He recalled this youthful resistance to the quasi-fascist “Emergency Regulations” imposed by the National Prime Minister, Sid Holland, with undisguised pride. Like so many who recalled those years of struggle, Fred departed the Labour Party in 1989 to become a founding member of Jim Anderton’s NewLabour.
Fred Rudkin wouldn’t have known whether to laugh or cry at the words attributed to Kelvin Davis. His Mickey Savage was the Labour leader who (at fatal cost to his health) brought New Zealanders social security “from the cradle to the grave”. Mickey might have been there to help move the furniture into the first state house, but Fred knew that it was Jack Lee who made sure Labour’s state housing programme was a success. In the scandal arising out of Lee’s vicious attack on Savage in 1940, Fred was torn between these two great Labour heroes.
His memories of Peter Fraser, likewise, encompassed more than his contribution to the 1945 United Nations Conference in San Francisco. He could tell you about Fraser’s conduct at another conference. The Labour Conference where Fraser did all he could – up to and including breaching the constitution – to ensure that Lee, his principal rival for the leadership, was expelled from the party for penning the article that “drove Savage to his grave”. If I remember rightly, it was Fred who first quoted to me Lee’s description of Fraser’s smile: “like moonlight flitting across a tombstone”. He knew that Labour’s heroes, like all human-beings, were deeply flawed and far from faultless.
I well recall my first Labour Party conference. It was 1979 and David Lange was the object of considerable resentment for his conservative Methodist lay preacher’s attitude towards abortion. Five years later, that same David Lange – now Prime Minister – did his best to persuade the Labour Party conference to water-down its stance on nuclear disarmament, and was shot down in flames by the party president, Jim Anderton, for his trouble. Lange did support gay rights, but the bill he voted for in 1986 was Fran Wilde’s, not his. What’s more, it was a conscience vote. Most Labour MPs supported it, but it was not Labour’s bill.
The target of the most serious misrepresentation in the letter attributed to Kelvin Davis is Norman Kirk.
Far from helping “Aotearoa recommit to Te Tiriti”, Big Norm promulgated “New Zealand Day” as a replacement for “Waitangi Day”. His purpose was precisely the opposite of today’s Labour Party, whose support for “co-governance” would have left Kirk scratching his head in confusion. His “New Zealand Day” was a statement of national unity, just as his inspired gesture of taking the little Maori boy’s hand and leading him across the Treaty Ground was a statement of racial equality and amity – not tino rangatiratanga. The Waitangi Tribunal, brought into existence in 1975 – months after Kirk’s death – was the work of Matt Rata and Bill Rowling – not “Big Norm”.
If Davis did, indeed, write this grossly distorted version of Labour’s history, then he owes his party an apology. If, however, he signed it in ignorance, then the sin is almost as grievous. If Labour’s deputy-leader knows so little about his party that he cannot spot gross historical revisionism when he sees it, then it is pointless to expect Labour’s rank-and-file members to take the slightest interest in what their party once stood for, and the feats it accomplished, in the course of 105 years.
On the other hand, it’s probably for the best. Today’s Labour Party is very good at talking: yesterday’s Labour Party was honoured and loved for what it did. A hijab isn’t a state house. Covid-19 isn’t Adolf Hitler. And, its name notwithstanding, a soft-centred neoliberal party isn’t a mass movement of the New Zealand working-class.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 8 July 2021.