New Zealand Labour Party

New Zealand Labour Party
New Zealand Labour Party
Rōpū Reipa o Aotearoa
President Moira Coatsworth
Leader Phil Goff
Deputy Leader Annette King
Founded 7 July 1916 (1916-07-07)
Headquarters Fraser House, Willis Street, Wellington
Youth wing Young Labour
Ideology Social democracy,
Democratic socialism,
Third Way
Political position Centre-left
International affiliation Socialist International (observer)[1]
Official colors Red
MPs in the House of Representatives
42 / 122

The New Zealand Labour Party (Māori: Rōpū Reipa o Aotearoa) is a New Zealand political party. It describes itself as centre-left[2] and socially progressive[3] and has been one of the two primary parties of New Zealand politics since 1935.

After defeat in the 2008 elections, the Labour party forms the second-largest (in terms of parliamentary seats) political party represented in the New Zealand Parliament, and functions as the core of the Official Parliamentary Opposition.

On 8 November 2008, Helen Clark announced she was stepping down as leader, saying a new leader was expected to be named by Christmas.[4] Her Deputy Michael Cullen followed her the next day.[5] On 11 November 2008 the parliamentary party caucus chose Phil Goff and Annette King to replace Clark and Cullen respectively.[6]



The Labour Party was established on 7 July 1916 in Wellington,[7] bringing together socialist groups advocating proportional representation and "the Recall" of Members of Parliament, as well as the nationalisation of production and of exchange. Its origins lie in the British working-class movement, heavily influenced by Australian radicalism and events such as the Waihi miners' strike. It is the oldest political party in New Zealand. Despite its Wellington origins, the West Coast town of Blackball is often regarded as the birthplace of the party, as it was the location of the founding of one of the main political organisations which became part of the nascent Labour Party.



The Labour Party was an amalgamation of a number of early groups, the oldest of which was founded in 1901. The process of unifying these diverse groups into a single party was difficult, with tensions between different factions running strong.

At the turn of the century, the radical side of New Zealand working class politics was represented by the Socialist Party, founded in 1901. The more moderate leftists were generally supporters of the Liberal Party. In 1905, a group of working class politicians who were dissatisfied with the Liberal approach established the Independent Political Labour League, which managed to win a seat in Parliament. This established the basic dividing line in New Zealand's left-wing politics – the Socialists tended to be revolutionary and militant, while the moderates focused instead on progressive reform.

In 1910, the Independent Political Labour League was relaunched as an organisation called the Labour Party, distinct from the modern party. Soon, however, the leaders of the new organisation decided additional effort was needed to promote left-wing cooperation, and organised a "Unity Conference". The Socialists refused to attend, but several independent labour activists agreed. The United Labour Party was born.

Soon afterwards, the labour movement was hit by the Waihi miners' strike, a major industrial disturbance prompted by radicals in the union movement. The movement was split between supporting and opposing the radicals, and in the end, the conservative government of William Massey suppressed the strike by force. In the strike's aftermath, there was a major drive to end the divisions in the movement and establish a united front – another Unity Conference was called, and this time the Socialists attended. The resulting group was named the Social Democratic Party.

Not all members of the United Labour Party accepted the new organisation, however, and some continued on under their own banner. Gradually, however, the differences between the Social Democrats and the ULP Remnant broke down, and in 1916, yet another gathering was held. This time, all major factions of the labour movement agreed to unite, establishing the modern Labour Party.

Early days

Almost immediately, the new Labour Party became involved in the acrimonious debate about conscription, which arose during World War I – the Labour Party strongly opposed conscription, and a number of its leaders were jailed for their stand against it. This loss of leadership threatened to seriously destabilise the party, but in the end, the party survived.

In its first real electoral test as a united party, the 1919 election, Labour won eight seats. This compared with 47 for the governing Reform Party and 21 for the Liberal Party.

Although Labour had split with its more militant faction, (who went on to form various socialist parties) it maintained what were at the time radical socialist policies. Labour's 'Usehold' policy on land was in essence the replacement of freehold tenure by a system of perpetual lease from the State, with all land transfer conducted through the State(the full nationalisation of farmland). This policy was unpopular with voters and was dropped by Labour, along with other more radical policies, throughout the 1920s.[8]

In the 1922 election, Labour more than doubled its number of seats, winning seventeen. In the 1925 election, it declined somewhat, but had the consolation of soon overtaking the Liberals as the second largest party. Harry Holland became the official Leader of the Opposition on 16 June 1926, after the Eden by-election on 15 April elected Rex Mason (Labour) to replace Christopher Parr (Reform) who had resigned. After the 1928 election, however, the party was left in an advantageous position – the Reform Party and the new United Party (a revival of the Liberals) were tied on 27 seats each, and neither could govern without Labour support. Labour chose to back United, the party closest to its own views – this put an end to five terms of Reform Party government.

The rigours of the Great Depression brought Labour considerable popularity, but also caused tension between Labour and the United Party. In 1931, United passed a number of economic measures which Labour deemed hostile to workers, and the agreement between the two parties collapsed. United then formed a coalition government with Reform, making Labour the Opposition. The coalition retained power in the 1931 election, but gradually, the public became highly dissatisfied with its failure to resolve the country's economic problems. In the 1935 election, the Labour Party won a massive victory, gaining 53 seats to the coalition's 19.

Several of the early Labour Party stalwarts were Australian-born: Harry Holland, Michael Joseph Savage, Bob Semple, Paddy Webb, and later Clarence Skinner, Mabel Howard and Hugh Watt.

First Labour Government

Michael Joseph Savage, leader of the Labour Party, became Prime Minister on 6 December 1935, marking the beginning of Labour's first term in office. The new government quickly set about implementing a number of significant reforms, including a reorganisation of the social welfare system and the creation of the state housing scheme. Labour also pursued an alliance with the Māori Ratana movement. Savage himself was highly popular with the working classes, and his portrait could be found on the walls of many houses around the country.

The opposition, meanwhile, attacked the Labour Party's more left-wing policies, and accused it of undermining free enterprise and hard work. The year after Labour's first win, the Reform Party and the United Party took their coalition to the next step, agreeing to merge with each other. The combined organisation was named the National Party, and would be Labour's main rival in future years.

Labour also faced opposition from within its ranks. While the Labour Party had been explicitly socialist at its inception, it had been gradually drifting away from its earlier radicalism. The death of the party's first leader, the "doctrinaire" Harry Holland, had marked a significant turning point in the party's history. Some within the party, however, were displeased about the changing focus of the party, most notably John A. Lee. Lee, whose views were a mixture of socialism and social credit theory, emerged as a vocal critic of the party's leadership, accusing it of behaving autocratically and of betraying the party's rank and file. After a long and bitter dispute, Lee was expelled from the party, establishing the breakaway Democratic Labour Party.

Savage died in 1940, and was replaced by Peter Fraser, who became Labour's longest-serving Prime Minister. Fraser is best-known as New Zealand's leader for most of World War II. In the post-war period, however, ongoing shortages and industrial problems cost Labour considerable popularity, and the National Party, under Sidney Holland, gained ground. Finally, in the 1949 elections, Labour was defeated.

Fraser died shortly afterwards, and was replaced by Walter Nash, the long-serving Minister of Finance. It was to be some time before Labour would return to power, however – Nash lacked the charisma of his predecessors, and National won considerable support for opposing the "industrial anarchy" of the 1951 waterfront dispute. In the 1957 election, however, Labour won the narrowest of victories, and returned to office.

Second Labour Government

Nash, Labour's third prime minister, took office in late 1957. Upon coming to power, Labour decided that drastic measures were needed to address balance of payments concerns. This resulted in the (in)famous "Black Budget" of Arnold Nordmeyer, the new Minister of Finance. The budget raised taxes, particularly on alcohol and cigarettes, and was highly unpopular. It is widely thought to have doomed the party to defeat. In the 1960 election, the National Party was indeed victorious.

The elderly Nash retired in 1963, suffering from ill health. He was replaced by Nordmeyer, but the taint of the "Black Budget" ensured that Nordmeyer did not have any appreciable success in reversing the party's fortunes. In 1965, the leadership was assumed by the younger Norman Kirk, who many believed would revitalise the party. Labour was defeated again in the next two elections, but in the 1972 election, the party gained a significant victory.

Third Labour Government

New Zealand Labour 1970s – 1980s "L" logo.

Kirk proved to be an energetic Prime Minister, and introduced a number of new policies. Particularly noteworthy were his foreign policy stances, which included strong criticism of nuclear weapons testing and of South Africa's apartheid system. Kirk's health was poor, however, and was worsened by his refusal to slow the pace of his work. In 1974, Kirk was taken ill and died. He was replaced by Bill Rowling, who did not have the same charismatic appeal – in the 1975 election, Labour was defeated by National, which was led by Robert Muldoon.

Rowling remained leader of the Labour Party for some time after his defeat. In the 1978 election and the 1981 election, Labour won a larger share of the vote than National, but failed to win an equivalent number of seats. Rowling himself was compared unfavourably to Muldoon, and did not cope well with Muldoon's aggressive style. Rowling was eventually replaced by David Lange, who was seen as more able to counter Muldoon's attacks. In the 1984 election, Labour was victorious.

Fourth Labour Government

When the fourth Labour government came into power led by David Lange they uncovered a fiscal crisis that had been largely hidden by the outgoing National government. Government debt was skyrocketing, due largely to the costs of borrowing to maintain a fixed exchange rate. When the result of the election became clear Lange asked Muldoon to devalue the dollar, which he refused to do, resulting in a constitutional crisis and precipitating some of the changes in the Constitution Act 1986.

Throughout the first term of the fourth Labour government, the cabinet remained largely unified and a number of radical financial reforms were embarked upon to improve the ailing economic and fiscal situation. In 1987 Labour won a first-past-the-post election for the last time (the mixed member proportional system was introduced in 1996). It wasn't until this second term, which increased Labour's majority and was won mostly on the back of its anti-nuclear stance, that considerable divisions over economic policy began to arise within the cabinet. The Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, was a supporter of free market theories, and sought to implement sweeping reforms ("Rogernomics") to the economy and tax system. Others within the party, however, saw this as a betrayal of the party's left-wing roots. The party was also criticised by the Council of Trade Unions.

Opposition to Douglas's reforms remained strong – eventually, a Labour MP, Jim Anderton, left to establish the NewLabour Party, eventually forming the basis of the left-wing Alliance. At the same time, Douglas was pressing onwards, proposing a flat tax rate. Finally, David Lange forced Douglas to resign, and shortly afterwards resigned himself.

Lange was replaced by Geoffrey Palmer. Palmer, however, was unable to counter widespread discontent among Labour's traditional supporters, and a few months before the 1990 election, Palmer was replaced by Mike Moore. The Labour Party suffered its worst defeat since it first took office in 1935.

Moore was eventually replaced by Helen Clark, who led the party in opposition to the National Party government of Jim Bolger. During the period in opposition, the party made a measured repudiation of Rogernomics, although has never returned to the strong left-wing stance it originally took (it defines itself today as "centre-left" rather than simply "left"). When the 1996 election, the first conducted under the MMP electoral system, gave the balance of power to the centrist New Zealand First party, many believed that Labour would return to power, but in the end New Zealand First allied itself with National. This coalition was unstable, however, and eventually collapsed, leaving National to govern as a minority government. In the 1999 election, Labour returned to power at the head of a coalition government.

Major pieces of legislation:

  • Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act 1985 – extended the scope of the Waitangi Tribunal to retrospective claims dating back to the Treaty
  • Constitution Act 1986 – codified important constitutional conventions
  • Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 – legalised homosexual relations
  • Immigration Act 1986 – liberalised immigration, particularly skilled migration, into NZ.
  • Māori Language Act 1987 – made Te Reo Māori an official language.
  • State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986 – established the first SOEs
  • State Sector Act 1988 – made the civil service more business-like with Chief Executives instead of Permanent Secretaries
  • Public Finance Act 1989 – changed the reporting and accountability for government expenditure
  • Reserve Bank Act 1989 – enabled the Reserve Bank to autonomously pursue an inflation target
  • New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 – enumerated civil, political and criminal procedure rights

Other initiatives:

Fifth Labour Government

Recent Labour party Logo

After the 1999 election, a coalition government of Labour and the Alliance took power, with Helen Clark as Prime Minister. This government, while undertaking a number of reforms, was not particularly revolutionary when compared to previous Labour governments, and maintained a high level of popularity. The Alliance, however, fell in popularity and split internally, the latter factor being one of the reasons cited by Helen Clark for her calling the 2002 election several months early, which Labour comfortably won.

In early 2004, the Labour Party came under attack for its policies on the foreshore and seabed controversy. There were significant internal tensions within the party, eventually culminating in the resignation of junior minister Tariana Turia and her establishment of the new Māori Party.

Following the 2005 general election, Labour formed a coalition with the Progressive party (a faction of the old Alliance), and entered into complex confidence and supply agreements with the centrist United Future party and New Zealand First parties, which gave both parties' leaders a Ministerial portfolio, while remaining outside of Cabinet. A limited support agreement was also made with the Green party, whereby certain policy concessions were to be made to the Greens in return for abstention on confidence and supply votes. Labour lost power when it was defeated by National in the 2008 general election.


Helen Clark is the longest serving leader of the Labour Party, and while some dispute exists as to when Harry Holland officially became leader, by 26 October 2008 she had passed his longest possible leadership term.[9] Following the loss to the National Party in the November 8, 2008 elections, Helen Clark stood down as leader of the Labour Party.[10] Phil Goff is the current leader.

List of leaders

The following is a complete list of Labour Party leaders:

Order Leader Term Leader of the Opposition Prime Minister
1 Harry Holland 1919–1933 16 June 1926 – 18 October 1928
8 October 1933–1933
Did not serve as PM
2 Michael Joseph Savage 1933–1940 1933–1935 1935–1940
3 Peter Fraser 1940–1950 1949–1950 1940–1949
4 Walter Nash 1950–1963 1950–1957
5 Arnold Nordmeyer 1963–1965 1963–1965 Did not serve as PM
6 Norman Kirk 1965–1974 1965–1972 1972–1974
7 Bill Rowling 1974–1983 1975–1983 1974–1975
8 David Lange 1983–1989 1983–1984 1984–1989
9 Geoffrey Palmer 1989–1990 Did not serve as Opposition Leader 1989–1990
10 Mike Moore 1990–1993 1990–1993 1990
11 Helen Clark 1993–2008 1993–1999 1999–2008
12 Phil Goff 2008–present Current Has not served as PM

List of presidents

The following is a list of Labour Party presidents:

President Term
Rex Mason 1931
Frank Langstone 1933–1934
Martyn Finlay 1958–1964
Norman Kirk 1964–1969
Bill Rowling 1969–1972
Arthur Faulkner 1976–1978
Jim Anderton 1979–1984
Margaret Wilson 1984–1987
Ruth Dyson 1988–1993
Maryan Street 1993–1995
Michael Hirschfeld 1995–1999
Bob Harvey 1999–2000
Mike Williams 2000–2009
Andrew Little 2009–2011
Moira Coatsworth 2011–current

See also


External links

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