Peter Franks and Jim McAloon – Labour: The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016

Labour cover

Labour: The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016
by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon.

Wellington: VUP (2016).
RRP: $50.
Pb, with over 100 illustrations, 320pp.
ISBN: 9781776560745.

Reviewed by Grant Duncan.

You may not have noticed, but, on 7 July 2016, the New Zealand Labour Party marked its centenary and a new history of the party was launched. This is a substantial text, written by two respected historians. They are both long-term members of the Labour Party, but they hope to have written with appropriate scholarly ‘detachment’ (p 25). The book has forewords by the party leader, Andrew Little, and the party president, Nigel Haworth. The latter (an academic himself) asserts that it’s ‘a book written about, not for, the Labour Party’ (p 11). But why did he feel obliged to say that?

This makes it incumbent on the reviewer to assess whether this book does meet scholarly standards of precision and impartiality, and whether teachers of history or politics could recommend it to students as a credible source. The book will no doubt sit – bright red, but largely unread – on many party activists’ shelves. Does it belong, however, in the bibliographies of serious historians? Or is it just party propaganda? A full history of the Labour Party is not only timely, it is long overdue, but the last thing we need is more hagiography of Webb, Savage, Fraser, et al.

A test case is the book’s handling of Labour’s historic victory at the 1935 election in which 46% of electors (‘only a minority’) voted for Labour candidates. Including the two Maori seats held by Ratana followers, that election gave Labour 55 seats in a House of 80 members. Such levels of support Andrew Little would kill for, but the present text says it was ‘hardly a ringing endorsement’, as many of the seats were won due to the right-wing vote being ‘badly divided’ between the United/Reform coalition (soon to be the National Party) and smaller parties or independents (see pp. 94–96). The authors down-play the swing to Labour of over 10 percentage points between 1931 and 1935. The ‘landslide’ metaphor is not deployed at all. If anything, this account errs on the side of modesty. Not only did 1935 propel a social-democratic reformist government into power, it also set in train the National/Labour duopoly that persisted until 1993 and continues in attenuated form under proportional representation. By any measure, Labour’s first national electoral victory was politically and socially transformative. The present text cannot be faulted for bias here; it could even have rated 1935 a little more highly.

Another important test is how this book deals with the notorious fourth Labour government. It’s twenty-six years since the ignominious defeat of that government, and Labour is still living down the radical neo-liberal legacy that it bequeathed. By my reading, the account of this period is factual and balanced; it effectively retells the ideological and political tragedy of the Lange government and acknowledges the long-term damage done to the party. By giving a reasonably well-rounded account of the forces at play, moreover, some commonly held opinions are challenged. For instance, the popular theory that the nuclear-free policy was just a means for keeping traditional supporters on board ‘despite the heresies of Rogernomics’ is rejected as ‘too simple’ (p. 214). Chapter 10, covering the period 1984–1993, accepts that, after Muldoon, changes were needed, but paints a cool yet warts-and-all picture of Labour’s neo-liberal turn: the massive betrayal of its heritage and its supporters, the in-fighting, the sheer incompetence. In contrast, while chapter 11 (1993–2008) comprehensively reminds us of the significant achievements – and the strict prime-ministerial control – of the Clark government, it does not shy away from reminding us of its failures too. I agree with the authors that the handling of the foreshore and seabed issue was that government’s ‘greatest political failure’ (p 244).

So, once you skip the endorsements from party bosses, the substance of this book is balanced and scholarly. That does mean it’s a little dry. Narrative isn’t one of the authors’ strengths. Take the year 1916, for instance, as a key moment. One would think that the unity conference of the labour movement, at which the Labour Party was born, would stand out in this particular text. It is, after all, the centennial account of the party that began in 1916. But no. The narrative begins in 1840 with Samuel Duncan Parnell demanding an eight-hour day. That’s fair enough, as we do need to get the colonial background to the various labour movements that gathered momentum up until 1916. But there is no heading, nor even subheading, that marks out the 1916 establishment of the party. If you read too fast and blink at the wrong moment, you might miss the passage that mentions it in the middle of chapter 2 (1904–1919). It describes the beginning of the Labour Party as ‘low-key’ (p 71), but the retelling could have been a little more upbeat. A muted ‘ta-dah!’ would have seemed appropriate and not necessarily unscholarly.

Beginnings and endings matter. Historians should know that. The text supposes itself to narrate the century from 1916 to 2016, but it fails to reach the end. Given that it was launched in mid-2016 and that there is a considerable time-lapse between completion of a manuscript and delivery of a printed book, the narrative peters out in 2015. It’s like marathon-runner collapsing a few meters short of the finish-line. And then there’s the awkwardness of writing a concluding chapter that is essentially a ‘history of the present’ involving the people who endorse the book. Moreover, the Labour Party, at its centenary, had yet to recover from its most humiliating election defeat ever, in 2014. Labour’s 100th year did not give the party a whole lot to brag about. Hence, the conclusion of the book seems hurried and rather lame. We are assured that ‘Labour’s future looks a bit better’ (p 255). Only a bit?  What is now called for is a second edition, in perhaps ten years’ time, when the authors will have some critical distance from the centennial cut-off date of July 2016. By 2026, maybe Labour’s fortunes really will be ‘a bit better’ than they were in 2015 – maybe not. But, in general, Franks and McAloon’s account of the party and the labour movement is sympathetic, but not unduly biased. They’ve done an excellent scholarly job. I now hope they will finish it.

Grant Duncan (Auckland) teaches political theory and public policy at Massey University Albany. He has a book on social policy in New Zealand and has also published articles on public management and governance and on the political uses of happiness. He occasionally appears in the media as a political commentator.

First published takahe 88
August 2016