• Peter Davis is a member of the Labour-aligned Fabian Society, a policy forum with sister societies in the United Kingdom and Australia.

How many readers of the Herald knew that Labour, New Zealand's oldest political party, achieved its centenary in 2016? Not many I imagine because almost nothing public was done to mark the occasion.

Even John Roughan, a columnist in the Herald, was moved to write "Zero fanfare for 100th a shame".

But we do have a centennial history written by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon, published this year by Victoria University Press (The New Zealand Labour Party, 1916-2016).


This book is no potboiler spiced with political gossip. It is a serious social, economic and, above all, political history, but one that is an easy read and has the advantage of covering events of the last half-century familiar to many.

For the authors the mission of the Labour Party in New Zealand has been to usher in practically all the major institutional changes the country has experienced over the past century, and, in doing so, it has attempted to balance the requirements of social justice with those of economic development and modernisation.

Much of the material was familiar to me, but it may still be a useful compendium for many others. Did I learn anything new? Here are a few insights I gleaned.

One was the role of Maori in the labour movement. Peter Fraser spoke about Maori land grievances in 1922, recalling "land alienation and the cultural impact it had was something this descendant of Scottish crofters readily understood".

Early Maori leaders recognised the political potential of allying with the emerging white working class, such as it was.

Another point of interest to me was the role of anti-conscription sentiment. The formation of the party during the First World War is significant.

Opposition to conscription was a unifying sentiment among those present at the formation conference.

The number of migrants among the early leadership is interesting too.


The first Cabinet in 1935 had six New Zealand-born ministers, five Australians (including Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour prime minister, a Scot (Fraser) and an Englishman (Walter Nash), future second and third Labour prime ministers.

Norman Kirk in 1972 was the first New Zealand-born Labour prime minister.

The book records early socialist sentiment in New Zealand. Settlers arrived in 1900 from England who were inspired by the Clarion, an early socialist paper. A Socialist Party had been founded in 1901, merging with the Social Democratic Party in 1913, which was then folded into the newly-formed and -named Labour Party in 1916.

Among those Clarion settlers was Thomas Clark, whose great-granddaughter was to become the first female elected prime minister in 1999.

There was also an early Samoan connection. Labour leader Harry Holland and others were almost alone in championing the nationalist aspirations of the Mau movement in Samoa.

A future leader, Peter Fraser, was to usher in UN trusteeship status and a form of guided independence in the late 1940s.

This book is a history and not a social science case study. There is little speculation here about the future of Labour and social democracy in New Zealand.

With National still close to 50 per cent support after eight years in government, the success of the UK Independence Party in previous Labour heartlands of Britain this year, the loss to the Democrats of previously reliable white working class states in the US, and a resurgent right across Europe, one has to wonder about the political future.

So, what of the future of Labour and social democracy in New Zealand? An ancient theme is "the quest for security", highlighted by WB Sutch. Another theme is equality and equality of opportunity, bringing poverty and housing to the fore.

A third theme is pluralism. Early Labour was white, male, and working class. Modern social democracy is accommodating multiple cultural identities and works within a pluralistic landscape.

A fourth theme is a new social contract where, in return for social and economic security, the state requires an added-value and innovative economy, skills upgrading, and an active labour market. A fifth theme is a reinvigorated national independence.

In all these areas New Zealand Labour has form. Let's hope the next milestone anniversary of the party passes with more acclaim than its centenary year.