Dean Parker: Labour must recapture the spirit of '38

Opposition should draw inspiration from era when party truly represented the interests of working people.

Labour leader Michael Joseph Savage (centre) - being greeted by crowds in 1938 - was a revolutionary figure in New Zealand politics.
Labour leader Michael Joseph Savage (centre) - being greeted by crowds in 1938 - was a revolutionary figure in New Zealand politics.

This year's Film Festival has a new film by the popular English director and socialist Ken Loach. It's a documentary entitled The Spirit of '45.

It's about the radical legislation passed by the British Labour government in 1945 after the electorate, tired of slump and war, voted Churchill and his Tories out of office.

Loach's purpose is to expose the current British Labour Party by looking back to a time when it saw itself as a party representing the interests of working people rather than being a party of the Blairite centre.

I read about it at the beginning of the year and thought that's a good idea, and I wondered if something similar could be done here. And of course it can; the material is all there.

At the time of New Zealand's last election in 2011 the Wellington artist Bob Kerr exhibited a series of paintings under the collective title The Three Wise Men of Kurow.

These pictures were about the headmaster, the Presbyterian minister and the doctor at Kurow, north Otago, in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

At the time the Waitaki hydro dam was being built nearby with a big hillside works camp for the growing labour force.

The headmaster educated the workers' kids, the minister looked after the workers' spiritual needs and the doctor was employed by a medical association to look after their injuries - constant and serious - and the illnesses suffered by their families in a bitterly cold region.

There was another camp. This was of the unemployed and their families who had trekked up the Waitaki river to the dam site, looking for work and finding none, and having neither the energy nor will to head elsewhere camped down and built shacks from flattened kerosene tins and lived off rabbits in the hills. It was a spectacle of the poor beaten to their knees.

Eventually the headmaster, minister and doctor got together and came up with a plan for a national welfare state, based on the way the medical association operated at the dam. The association was financed through a compulsory monthly contribution paid by the workers, covering them and their families.

The trio at Kurow figured a similar scheme could provide nationally for the poor, unemployed and aged, as well as those facing illness and injury.

In 1935 the doctor and the minister stood as Labour Party candidates in the general election, were elected into Parliament in a Labour landslide and pushed ahead with comprehensive welfare proposals.

The Labour Party at the time was led by a former union organiser, Michael Joseph Savage, who lived in Auckland in rented accommodation.

It was said that during the Great Depression of the early 1930s the unemployed would turn up at his door in O'Neill St in Ponsonby to ask for money, clothing and food. He would open his wallet. He would give away his wardrobe till he had nothing left but one suit and one pair of shoes. He would hand over his Sunday roast. Well - so they said. But he certainly had few material possessions and sought none.

On his return from the coronation of George VI the following year he gave Treasury an account of his expenses and returned half the allotted sum.

When Labour took office he arranged for all parliamentary salaries, from Prime Minister to backbencher, to be pooled and divided up equally. Parliamentary salaries were not big and MPs had to meet expenses themselves. The Kurow doctor got by in Wellington by living in a garage.

This was the Labour Party and this was its leader.

"There is something fundamentally wrong in a land where wealth accumulates and men decay and no one raises a finger," said Labour. "The current situation is a disgrace to a civilisation which regards itself as Christian. Malnutrition in a primary producing country is nothing short of a national scandal. What use is it talking about national wealth unless we can use it for national purposes?

"When will the people's vision be strong enough and developed enough to enable them to declare war on a system that binds them to slavery and want amidst plenty?" In 1938 Labour finally presented the electorate with draft legislation aimed at eliminating poverty from New Zealand.

"Let us cultivate a new spirit of justice and brotherhood in dealings with our fellow men," said Labour.

Labour delayed introduction of its social security scheme and used it as a platform to fight the 1938 general election. Representing working people, the poor and the powerless, Labour was re-elected with what still stands as the biggest mandate in NZ history.

When the new British Labour government of 1945 enacted its radical reforms it acknowledged its welfare measures were based on those passed in New Zealand in 1939 where the most comprehensive and advanced welfare state in the world had just been created by a party founded to do exactly that instead of sharing a SkyCity Casino corporate box with National.

•An exhibition of paintings by Bob Kerr commemorating the Waihi strike of 1912 opened at the Whitespace Gallery in Crummer Rd yesterday.

Dean Parker is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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