The seeds of what we today call "the Labour Party", or "that lot", were sown in Blackball, a town on the West Coast of the South Island best known for its mining history, the boxes of fancy dress at the hotel, and for almost being an anagram of "All Blacks".

The mining strike of 1908 happened, there were some long conversations into the night and, as detailed in Eleanor Catton's official history, The Luminaries, some union blokes in Wellington founded the Labour Party in 1916, sealing the deal by spontaneously gobbing into a communal spittoon and necking Chasseur Dry White straight from the cask.

Many early members joined simply because they disapproved of the Australian Labor Party's ridiculous decision to use the American spelling without a U.

Soon after the party's foundation, war deepened out in Europe. Historians remain divided on whether it was a direct consequence.


The fledgling party grabbed its first seats in 1918 byelections, which probably involved lavish promises of congestion easing roundabouts and pastry-based delicacies. Then they chugged along, and at one point probably could have been part of a government had it not been for the veteran member of Parliament Winston Peters, who foiled them with a trick.

In 1935, the first Labour Government was elected, thanks to winning lots of seats. Michael Joseph Savage, with his bespectacled, three-barrelled, vicary ways, forged a welfare state and what have you, while the National Party was founded, in preparation for future leader John Key.

Labour's second victory, in 1938, was regrettably responsible for another war in Europe which soon engulfed the world. They were booted out in 1949, but had another bash in 1957.

That was doomed after the 1958 Budget, which hiked taxes on all the fun things, was irrefutably denounced by Seven Sharp host Mike Hosking.

They won again in 1972, and some say Norman Kirk would still be Prime Minister today had he not made the mistake of not being alive long enough.

In 1964 the then Labour Opposition did nothing to preserve for the nation Peter Snell's Olympic-winning singlet.

It got weird as New Zealand lurched towards the 80s. After four decades of two-party scuffling, National and Labour agreed to play a big game of opposites, with Muldoon's party embracing hardcore protectionism and intervention, while Labour, under Roger Douglas and his manservant David Lange, gorged themselves on deregulatory porridge, leading famously to the term "Douglasnomics".

Lange said something clever about smelling uranium in Oxford.

That lasted two terms and then the party fell apart, then they cobbled together under Helen Clark, who lost then won and then won again two more times before losing and then they all fell apart again.

The Clark years went okay except for when they didn't, such as the foreshore and seabed debacle. There was MMP and the internet and a change in party rules to encourage more Davids to stand for the leadership.

Labour leader Andrew Little faces a tough task to defeat National PM John Key. Photo / Dean Purcell
Labour leader Andrew Little faces a tough task to defeat National PM John Key. Photo / Dean Purcell

Labour is currently struggling to reconcile, as are similar parties around the world, the interests of a traditional working-class base and the interests of urban liberal types.

The best solution is to win an election, according to analysts.

As they mark their 100th, the party will be hoping for a telegram from the Queen, but the best present by far has been from the governing National Party, in the form of a full-blown housing non-crisis.

Now, where did they put the instructions?