Labour- 100 Wasted Years
This article looks at the centenary of the Labour Party in New Zealand/Aotearoa and the outcome of the party's actions in that time.
We are in the midst of celebrations surrounding the birth of the New Zealand Labour Party, but is there really anything to celebrate for the workers of New Zealand. The fact that the working class of New Zealand face many of the same problems today as they did 100 years ago, in terms of poor housing, low pay, unemployment, and inequality, is perhaps proof enough that the Labour Party has failed as the party of the working class. They never transformed society, and the gap between rich and poor still remains today with the richest 1 per cent of the population owning more than the combined cash and assets of the poorest 50 per cent
Instead of being a party fighting for workers’ rights, the history of the Labour Party in New Zealand, in fact, has been one of a history of compromise with capitalism, and anti-working class action. Anarchist arguments of the conservative and corrupting pressures that are bought upon labour representatives within parliament have largely been observed to be true.
Jim Edwards, the son of the leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement of the 1930s, described the excitement felt that accompanied the election of the first Labour Government in 1935, when he described how he believed that, “The revolution was happening.” The Labour Party immediately set about with plans designed to increase the lot of the working class. The unemployed received a Christmas bonus, wage cuts were restored and state housing and national health schemes were implemented. The excitement felt by Labour’s first electoral victory in 1935 didn’t last though, and the drift away from socialism can be viewed through one of its leading politicians, Peter Fraser.
In 1913, Fraser, New Zealand Federation of Labor leader in 1912-13 and Labour prime minister 1940-49, wrote, “Industrial Unionism plus revolutionary political action, in my opinion, provide the most effective and expeditious means of reaching [socialism].” However by 1918 Fraser had begun to moderate his views. Instead of revolution he called for “the peaceful and legal transformation of society from private to public ownership and the increasing of democratic control over land and industry”. By the early 1930s Fraser had divested himself of any previous revolutionary ideals and saw Labour’s main objective as a simple one – “jobs for the unemployed.”
Even on the night of their victory in 1935, Michael Joseph Savage, the then leader, assured the country that Labour was not going to represent any particular section but would govern in the interests of all the people. One of the co-founders of the New Zealand Communist Party, Alex Galbraith, later expressed his dismay at how the leaders of the Labour Party had become a pillar of the capitalist system and were being used by the ruling class to attack the working class. “From class against class to servile bootlicker of the bourgeoisie,” he wrote.
The Labour Government struggled to control the workers, who, to the new managers of capitalism, seemed to have a never-ending list of demands. In 1945, with the party coming to the end of its first spell in power, a Labour Minister, Bill Parry, was driven to remark that he didn’t understand why people were asking for more when “everything has been done.”
The movement of the Labour Party away from their roots culminated in the Rogernomics of Lange’s 1984 Labour Government. Nowadays, it is exceedingly rare to hear any member of the Labour Party talk of socialism, instead they adhere to the ideals of neo-liberalism, and the height of their political vision seems to be offering themselves up as “nicer” managers of capitalism than National.
In its 100 years, the Labour party has, instead of holding a vision of the world’s wealth for the workers, settled merely for piece-meal reformism. Capitalism has been viewed as something to manage and work with, not overthrow. The result has been the collapse within the party of any sense of the class struggle that challenges the legitimacy and values of capitalism. The one thing we can take away from a waste of 100 years is that the interests of the working class cannot be protected by parliament. If we are to achieve meaningful and long lasting change we need to turn our backs on the ballot boxes and political parties and take action in our places of employment and our communities, with our weapons being strikes, demonstrations, and other forms of direct action, and not a voting paper.