In 1898 New Zealand was favoured with a visit from Sydney and Beatrice Webb. This English couple were early members of the Fabian Society, a progressive political movement that was an important driver in the formation of the British Labour Party.

The Webbs were here to study what was then an international model of egalitarianism, the first country in the world to bring in old-age pensions, votes for women and free universal primary education.

Expecting to find some kind of philosopher leading the country, they were taken aback to find Prime Minister "King Dick" Seddon entertaining our Parliament with a comical and probably tipsy oration.

New Zealand is no longer any model of equality. The recent census shows a cavernous and widening income gap between struggling South Auckland and the leafy suburbs to the north and east of Queen St at the same time as sales of luxury vehicles boom and home ownership rates hit a 50-year low.


This expanding gap between the comfortably off and the hard-up ought to be the kind of defining issue in this year's general election that it was in Seddon's time. A good tip for Labour Party campaigners might be to study the language that Seddon's Liberal Party employed to get these policies, then radical, enacted.

Seddon justified his drive for equality by simply defining it as "fairness", an easily grasped and thoroughly positive concept with broad appeal.

Can it be fair, for example, that decile 10 schools serving the wealthiest communities get more than $1000 more a pupil each year than decile 1 schools, a fact revealed by the Council for Educational Research?

Recent international bestsellers on this subject underline the malign results of increasing inequality.

French economist Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, argues compellingly that the widening gap between rich and poor is a basic fact of lightly regulated capitalism and that the answer is a tax on wealth and explicit use of redistribution measures similar to Michael Cullen's Working for Families policy.

American Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, in The Price of Inequality, contends that if we don't address inequality we'll end up paying the costs dearly in health, police, prison and a myriad of other budget lines.

In the final analysis, he argues, the ultimate victim may be democracy itself.

Labour strategists and spin-doctors should dust off Seddon's speeches.

He remains New Zealand's longest-serving prime minister and his sister married a Cunliffe.

• Mike Williams is a former president of the Labour Party.