Story: Labour Party

Page 5. Ideology and the role of unions

All images & media in this story

Early socialism

In the first decades of the 20th century, industries grew strongly in New Zealand’s main cities and union membership also increased. The Labour Party was formed in this period as the political wing of the union movement, and was set up and financed by trade unions. Many union leaders adopted the ideas of Marxists and syndicalists, which had the revolutionary aim of overthrowing capitalism and abolishing the wage-earning system. Their aims were expressed in Labour’s 1916 policy objective, which called for ‘the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange’.1 This meant state ownership and control of all major parts of the economy.

Party of the unions

Labour therefore began as a narrowly based sectional party. Its founding focus was on the needs of wage workers, who soon guaranteed the party a secure base in the poorer urban, milling and mining electorates. The party’s members were mostly the members of unions affiliated to the party (known as affiliate members). Individual members belonging to local party branches (general members) were at first a minority.

Widening appeal

To become a governing party, Labour had to widen its appeal to include other sections of the population. It began to do this in the 1920s and 1930s by shaping its policies to the specific problems of those times. The poverty and insecurity that spread through the community during the depression years made this transition easier.

Aid not war

In 1966 the Labour opposition, under its new leader, Norman Kirk, faced pressure from the union movement to oppose sending troops to the Vietnam War. A public confrontation between unions and the party at the Federation of Labour conference seemed likely. To avoid this, Kirk agreed to a joint statement by the unions and Labour, favouring aid for Vietnam rather than military intervention. One unionist later commented, ‘We twisted his arm a little bit’. The National prime minister asked rhetorically, ‘Do we want our country run from Parliament Buildings or from the Trades Hall?’2

‘Reform within capitalism’

During its first long term in government (1935–49), Labour’s policies were often radical and innovative, but they did not threaten to overthrow capitalism. While the socialist objective provided a rallying cry for the party’s more radical members, it also became a target for political opponents who wanted to paint Labour as a party of ideological extremists. After the Second World War the party played down divisions in society and stressed national unity. Following Labour’s defeat in 1949, many in the party saw the socialist objective as out of date and a hindrance to winning elections, and this goal was abandoned in 1951. Labour had become a social democratic party, practising reform within capitalism.

Social democracy and the mixed economy

Up to the 1980s Labour remained a party that believed in a strong role for governments in economic and social matters. However, it had been transformed from a union-dominated, socialist-orientated movement to one dominated by urban professionals and with a general middle-class appeal and social-democratic orientation. By the late 1980s Labour had moved so far away from its original socialist vision that its policies were often directly opposed to those of the union movement. Since that period, Labour has again aimed to use the power of the state to try to achieve a fairer and more equal society, based on a mixed economy in which both the state and private enterprise play a part.

From sectional party to 'catch-all' party

Since the 1930s, Labour has maintained itself as a broad-based party by responding and adapting to different social and economic problems, a changing workforce and the growth of a more socially diverse population. Although the party’s working-class origins and political focus are seen in the social make-up of ‘safe’ Labour seats (mainly in working-class urban areas) and its links to the unions, by the early 21st century its electoral roots extended across all occupational, age, gender, ethnic and educational groups.

‘Third way’ politics

In the early 21st centruy, Labour’s position draws from both humanitarian Labour traditions and neo-liberal sources, and has sometimes been called ‘third way’ politics. Labour remains a social democratic party with a strong strand of pragmatism.

  1. Quoted in Bruce Brown, The rise of New Zealand Labour: a history of the New Zealand Labour Party from 1916 to 1940. Wellington: Price Milburn, 1962, p. 25. Back
  2. Quoted in Austin Mitchell, Politics and people in New Zealand: studies. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1969, p. 147, 161. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Aimer, 'Labour Party - Ideology and the role of unions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Peter Aimer, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Jan 2023