The United Party, the successor to the Liberal Party, was formed in 1927 and, after a surprising success in the general election in the following year, it formed a Government under the veteran Sir Joseph Ward. The party later joined the Reform Party in the Coalition which governed New Zealand from 1931 to 1935.
The Liberal Party of the 1920s was demoralised and disunited following a split after 1925 between the Nationalists, under G. W. Forbes, and a small group of Liberals, under W. A. Veitch. After the 1925 election the two groups held only 11 seats. Efforts to revive the moribund party were abortive until in November 1927 the Nationalists joined the United New Zealand Political Organisation which had been set up a few months earlier by A. E. Davy, the brilliant organiser who had worked for the Reform Party in 1925. All Liberal forces joined at a unity conference at Auckland in September 1928 to form the United Party. Sir Joseph Ward, the former Liberal Prime Minister who had stood aloof from the party throughout the twenties, became the leader of the new party.
The United Party was created at a time when there was considerable dissatisfaction with the Reform Government of Gordon Coates and its election campaign was skilfully managed by A. E. Davy to capitalise on this feeling to the best advantage. The United Party attacked the Government's interference with “free enterprise”, reflecting the dislike felt by urban business for the Government's interventions in the economy on behalf of farming interests. The party also caught the public imagination with its proposal to borrow £70 million within a year for use in national development, although Ward later appeared to have made this promise rather rashly. Ward himself was an asset to the party, being a revered political veteran and still an effective campaigner. The election results, which were a severe setback for Reform, were: Reform, 27 seats; United, 25 seats; Labour, 19 seats; and Independent, five seats.
United, which was supported by Labour and the Independents, formed a government with Ward as Prime Minister on 10 December 1928. In spite of its high promises, the party was almost completely inactive in office. The lavish borrowing proposals were quickly shelved, and they could not possibly have been carried out in the deteriorating economic situation. Public works were curtailed during 1929 and unemployment increased. The situation was aggravated by the ineffectiveness of the Cabinet, five members of which had not even sat in Parliament before. Ward himself was failing and retired in May 1930, dying two months later. The leadership passed to G. W. Forbes and the Government drifted on for a year, finally joining in a Coalition with Reform in September 1931 in the face of the grave economic situation and after a series of by-elections which had disastrous results for United. The party finally lost its identity in a complete merger with Reform in May 1935.
The success of the United Party in 1928 was due primarily to the dissatisfaction felt by the urban business community at the increasing intervention in the economy by the Reform Government in the interests of its farming supporters. A particularly powerful business group in Auckland, known as the “Kelly gang”, shifted its support from Reform to United in 1928. This contributed substantially to United's gain of five Auckland seats in 1928, where National had won none in 1925. For such groups the United Party provided a safe alternative to Reform without encouraging the still suspect Labour Party. The result was that the United Party was able briefly to recast the old urban-rural alliance which had kept the Liberals in power from 1890 to 1911, and which had been split during the twenties by the Reform Government's economic policies. The economic conditions necessary for the success of Liberal economic policies were, however, no longer in existence, and the United Party had only a brief hour of success before it vanished into political oblivion.
by John Richard Sinclair Daniels, M.A., Local Government Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.