Dr Paul Moon: Labour's potency blunted by devotion to past

Michael Joseph Savage became New Zealand's first Labour Prime Minister in 1935, at the age of 63. Photo / Archive
Michael Joseph Savage became New Zealand's first Labour Prime Minister in 1935, at the age of 63. Photo / Archive

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.

It's hard to imagine National Party members prostrating themselves before images of Sid Holland or Rob Muldoon at a party anniversary, longing for a revival of those "good old days". Yet, in Labour's centennial year, pictures of Michael Joseph Savage have again been hauled out as objects of sentimental devotion for the party faithful. The gravitational force Savage exercises on Labour's adherents is still evident eight decades on.

Savage became New Zealand's first Labour Prime Minister in 1935, at the age of 63. His kindly, almost grandfatherly tones in numerous radio broadcasts during that era made him a popular presence throughout the country, and by the end of the decade, his framed picture adorned thousands of New Zealand living-room walls - a degree of homage to a political leader that has never since even been approximated. The famous Spencer Digby photograph of Savage made the Prime Minister seem more like a genial country parson about to offer a consoling word than a principled ideologue confronting the most threatening economic crisis of the century.

Savage's greatest credential for leadership - as he saw it - was his sheer ordinariness. As he put it in a letter to his niece, "The person who has a normal brain, and the courage to do something, will generally get the necessary knowledge. No one has a monopoly of the power to reason."

But when it came to fighting elections, this ordinariness was tempered by certain principles. Savage denounced, for example, personal attacks on opponents. "If we cannot win a battle by fair means," he insisted, "then let us lose it."

It was the antithesis of the dirty politics to which we have now regrettably become acclimatised.

Victory in 1935 was followed three years later by the passage of the Social Security Act - one of the landmark pieces of legislation in New Zealand history. The social welfare edifice that the first Labour Government constructed has been modified many times since, but its basic architecture - including universal superannuation and medical care, and the principle that the state is ultimately responsible for the welfare of its citizens - remains more or less intact.

When an adversary denounced the proposed Act as "applied lunacy", Savage responded that it was more a form of "applied Christianity". This belief in a divine dimension of the welfare state was no throw-away remark, as he revealed when addressing other opponents of the scheme: "I want to know why people should not have decent wages, [or] decent pension in the evening of their days or when they are invalided. What," he asked his detractors, "is there more valuable in our Christianity than to be our brothers' keepers in reality?"

Although the country had already begun to claw its way out of the Depression by the time the Social Security Act took effect, the statute remained of totemic importance in the landscape of the country's 20th-century welfare policy.

Yet, in the 21st century, the Labour Party continues to drive through the political terrain with one eye trained on its rear-vision mirror, looking back at the accomplishments of the Savage Government as though they still hint at the direction the party ought to take.

But milestones can turn into millstones, and for more than a generation, Labour's claims that it still stands for the worker and for welfare has had an increasingly hollow sound. The Lange-Douglas Government from 1984 swung further to the right than the National Government it defeated, while during the 2000s, the Clark Government sought a "third way" that incorporated philosophies from both right and left, although increasingly more out of political pragmatism than ideological commitment.

After the elation of its centennial celebrations has subsided, and with a general election to contest next year, Labour's biggest ideological challenge will be how much longer it continues to be moored to its past. Savage's avuncular ghost might be a comforting spectre for many Labour members who yearn for a reprise of the party's golden era, but will eventually need to be exorcised if Labour is to have a serious prospect of appearing to voters like a government-in-waiting.

The alternative is that our oldest political party will continue to choke in an atmosphere of nostalgic hubris.

- NZ Herald

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