Sunday 11 July 2021

Birthday Wishes: The NZ Labour Party Is 105 Years Old.

Doers - Not Talkers: 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.

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.


John Hurley said...

I have been saying all that to a diehard Labour supporter from the Westcoast.
I don't think he has a clue about the progressive stuff but he wasn't happy about Winston Churchill's statue being put in a box.

Spoonley gives significance to Norm Kirk's speech as alluding to something

Odysseus said...

Brilliant! I was so proud to give my first ever vote to Big Norm. And devastated when he died nearly two years later. I voted for Lange in 1984, mainly to evict Muldoon, but have never voted Labour again. I utterly despise the "Labour Party" of today. For the reasons which you hint at. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers perhaps?

Jens Meder said...

But Chris -
Was not the Labour Party founded in 1916 so "red" or Socialist that it took Michael Savage to convert it into a more compassionately capitalistic Social Democratic Welfare Party ("Applied Christianity") to win the 1st election for Labour in 1935 ?

And was not his economic policy so successful, that by the end of the war, NZ is reported to have been more wealthy per head of population than Australia, and made a substantial gift to the British government helping to reduce its war debt ?

And would not the rate of welfare expenditure have become unsustainable and stagnate much earlier than by 1984, if John A Lee with his Social ("debt free") Credit mission had become leader instead of the more responsible Frazer, who won the election into Parliament for Labour which John A. Lee most probably would have lost ?

The socio-economically very promising policy of building - investing heavily - in state house construction, was allowed to become a burden instead of a wealth creative profit to the country, because of unprofitable rentals not covering building and maintenance costs, and not much capital recovery (i.e. "gains") seems to have been returned to the govt. for houses that had to be written off for whatever reason, often earlier than at an average life-span of a house.

Richard said...

Congratulations on your commitment to historical accuracy.The public is so bombarded by propaganga via PR spin doctors they don't know up from down,left from right or right from wrong.

Nick J said...

As a historic memorial the Runanga worker hall is being preserved and restored. Its as close as workers history in NZ gets to a holy site. There Semple, Reed, Hickey and Webb and other Red Feds met. Glory be, if only their spirit remained.

DS said...

My immediate thought... he can't say anything about Walter Nash?

Nick J said...

Jan, I appreciate your comments because you understand wealth creation as opposed to expenditure. There are a lot of people who know how to spend, their own and other peoples money.

On the question of Savage he fully understood that Labour had a full quota of people who wanted to nationalise the means of production, the extreme Left. And he knew that he had to buy them off or suffer the counter by force of the empire colonialist power structures. He chose the path of limited redistribution much to the dismay of many Labour people. And he called his way Christian because he was, and enough people were and understood his motivation. It worked electorally, but it was a poison challice.

Capital was tamed for a time, but never trusted Labour to rule. National
since has counterbid the advances, nibbled the edges to reclaim losses. And since 1984 Labour has just given away any controls on capitalism. That is fatal for both parties.

sumsuch said...

Odysseus, Muldoon called an early election in '84 when I was still 17 so I have an unblemished voting record (spoiled my ballot in '87), though voting Green is as weak as water really.

Voting for Labour is putting realpolitik first and the ideals that are the heart of 'Labour' second. Proud to say I've never done it. On to climate change and housing for us old welfare staters. We are the heart of NZ, not Labour, with their tactics ever over strategy -- or their heart, or the reality.

PaulVD said...

My single attendance at a Labour Party conference was in the 1960s, so it predates yours. I was a delegate from the Timberworkers Union. To this day I have only a hazy idea of what timberworkers do, and I am quite certain that any actual timberworkers would have been outraged to be represented by a middle-class high school student. (But perhaps not surprised - it was said to me that the only timber the head of the union had ever lifted was a pencil!)
There are two things that I still remember about that conference. One was the huge photos of Savage, Fraser and Nash above the stage, playing much the same role as the pictures of Jesus and Mary did at the local parish church. The other was that the most important resolution was the one that proclaimed the unmatched and undying wonderfulness of the current party leadership (I paraphrase - memory does not recapture the exact wording of the remit).
The New Zealand Labour Party may have begun life as a socialist party run by and for the workers. But in that form, it was probably as unelectable as Jim Anderton’s Alliance. As a well-oiled personality cult, where the votes of the workers have been co-opted for the benefit of the leadership, it has been a long-running success story. Kelvin Davis’s fake history is directly in that tradition.
As for the blessed John A Lee, he and the Fraser faction always distrusted each other, but apparently more for reasons of ambition rather than policy. When he was kicked out of Labour and formed his own party, he quickly became far more dictatorial than the winners in the Labour Party had ever been. But if Lee spoke as well as he wrote, it must have been an amazing experience to listen to him.

swordfish said...

LOL ... the ideologically-loaded misrepresentation of Kirk certainly had me smiling ... a revisionist Woke Big Norm, a metrosexual PM sporting a man-bun, "doing the work", laying the foundations for He Puapua and tino rangatiratanga, taking a stand against White Heteronormative Epistemic Violence ... Orwell would've recognised the radical rewriting of history to reconcile a wildly different historical reality with the New Orthodoxy ... former PMs recast as useful props in a Bourgeois ID Politics Morality Tale.

Jens Meder said...

Nick J, you still have not understood , that without the basic, universally valid economic functions of saving for security reserves, trading and profitable investment - i.e CAPITALISM (or what would you like to call this basic economic reality) - we would be still just pre Stone Age hunters and gatherers living most of the time hand-to-mouth.

That reality applies also to Communism under its govt. monopoly of economic management of property-less workers (like slaves?).

Actually, even for animals without the thinking ability of humans, nature has provided them with the instinct of accumulating reserves for surviving in lean times, but humans, of course, are more ambitious than that..

So, is it not capitalism, but the EVASION of it, which is the cause of poverty that can be alleviated only through the existing or enforced savings or contributions from those that have ?

Nick J said...

Jan I love your faith in capitalism and Im not proposing we rear it down. It is probably the best expression of the human drive to secure tomorrow by saving todays surplus. The best of all the options tried so far.

Unfortunately Jens, and I can defer to Adam Smith, Marx, Keynes, Galbraith and many others it has internal contradictions that left unchecked drive anti competitive and anti social outcomes.

Thats where democratic socialism provides a fine antidote.

Jens Meder said...

Great, Nick J. -
so we agree that under Social Democracy or democratic social concern - (which does not include totalitarian govt. monopoly capitalism) - there is enough flexibility to deal WITH, AND OVERCOME any shortcomings and unjust or deplorable contradictions in the economy.

So - Social Democracy is not really an antidote to the errors of applied capitalism, but a free, fair and democratic way of government for debating and trying out with the help of logic and trial and error the most effective and fairest way of using capitalism.

What more fair and effective way of applied capitalism than "people's capitalism" with 100% of direct personal participation in it, can you think of Nick J. ?

sumsuch said...

Nick VD, our socialism was modelled on the christian evangelical revival of 19th century England. The christ-like leaders (with often huge egos) understood the dirt from which they came. So what you saw wasn't a warping of the original message. After those egomaniacs came the middle class folk who didn't know their ends from their elbows and re-delivered us to the tender mercies of the rich.