At times over the past few years I've relished the thought of the Labour Party's centenary. For a political party to survive year by year, let alone 100 years, is harder than we probably imagine, and no party, I thought, could mark its life so far with Labour's panache.

Labour is the party of most of our writers, historians, artists, educators and creatives. It may have spent more of its century out of power than in it, but there is no shame in that if you are the party of courage and change. The towering figures of our 20th century politics are nearly all Labour prime ministers, possibly larger in death than they were in life in some cases, but that's fine. The view we take of leaders once they are no longer vying for our votes is usually more accurate, fair and balanced than the contemporary argument was.

So I was looking forward to a deluge of books, film, ceremonies and seminars this year about Labour's beginnings in the coalmines, ports and railways of early last century, its formation in World War I and its struggle to emerge from the three-sided politics of the 1920s. That would make a keenly interesting study for a generation that has never seen its like though it is ever possible under MMP.

I thought we would be treated to reassessments of the Great Depression and the first Labour Government, the party's golden age. Michael Joseph Savage and the Social Security Act 1938 are still Labour's mythic touchstones and rightly so. They were so popular they kept that Government in power for 14 years, longer than any in New Zealand since.


Labour can even claim to have given birth to the National Party, formed in 1936 when the non-socialist liberal and conservative parties realised they could not match Labour's appeal separately. Labour defined mainstream politics in New Zealand for the next 50 years. National could not win power until it convinced the country in 1949 it would not dismantle social security.

National won most of the elections through the 1950s, '60s and '70s by matching or outbidding Labour on benefits, culminating in Muldoon's 1975 National Superannuation scheme which, as he boasted, paid the universal pension Savage had wanted to deliver. Savage had realised the country could not afford it.

Centennial reflections could have challenged one of the enduring myths of politics in most countries, that the left is more loose with money. It is not true. Labour governments, like most working people, are more cautious with money than people in business, less comfortable with debt, more likely to live within their means, matching spending with taxation. The second Labour Government, led by Walter Nash, was defeated for raising taxes in a "black Budget", as National labelled it. National wrote red budgets through the prosperous '60s.

I was eager to see it all, but unsure of the exact birthday date. Then it came and went on Thursday and, in public anyway, the party barely raised a glass. If the Herald hadn't worked up a series over the past few days examining Labour's present state, nobody would have known. What's going on inside that party?

My first vote was in 1972, for Labour. I was in line for compulsory military training.

I put up my hand at an election meeting in Christchurch and asked Norman Kirk if he really would abolish it as he had promised. He had some fun at my expense, making a gentle crack about an "Irishman" on account of my red hair, I suppose, then said yes, he would. He would do it immediately by setting the next draft at zero, and he did.

How long ago it seems. Politics have changed, party leaders don't dare make personal comments about people at public meetings any more. They don't hold real public meetings any more. I've changed, I wish I'd had that taste of military life now.

Times have changed and Labour has changed. Kirk was its last working class leader, though Mike Moore might challenge that claim. The post-war generation that grew up in Labour's welfare state, the first generation to be given easy access to higher education, came to government as economies were becoming crippled by excessive protection, regulation and taxation.


It fell to Labour, the party of equality, to open the doors. The refreshing winds of competitive markets were as much a shock to farmers and business as to Labour constituencies but they adjusted and, 30 years on, few outside Labour's constituencies look back.

I suppose Labour still finds it too hard to look back but what a pity. Fundamentally, politics is the tension between economic energy and social equality. The right balance is always arguable and Labour argues for equality, as it always did.