Story: Labour Party

Page 6. Māori and women in the Labour Party

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Labour and Māori

Māori voters were part of Labour’s electoral backbone for more than 60 years. In Labour's breakthrough 1935 election, two of the four Māori seats were won by Rātana candidates who then voted with Labour in Parliament. Rātana, a religious movement based around the teachings of T. W. Rātana, had entered politics in 1928. By 1943 Rātana–Labour MPs had taken all four Māori seats. The strength of the Rātana–Labour alliance ensured that these seats remained among Labour’s safest until the 1990s.

Racial rugby

The second Labour government (1957–60) was split over a scheduled South African tour by a whites-only All Black team. Some saw this as giving in to South Africa’s policy of apartheid (racial separation). However, Prime Minister Walter Nash supported the tour, saying, ‘it would be an act of the greatest folly and cruelty to the Maori race to allow their representatives to visit a country where colour is considered to be a mark of inferiority … I am satisfied that the Rugby Union has acted from the highest motives, and as true friends of the Maori people.’1 At the 1960 election, Labour’s support among Māori dropped by 10%.

Shifting Māori support

An early sign that the Rātana–Labour alliance was weakening came in 1980 with the resignation from Labour of Matiu Rata, a former minister of Māori affairs and lands. Rata formed a new party, Mana Motuhake, and although he failed to win back his Northern Māori seat, he undermined Labour’s hold on it. In 1993 Labour lost the seat to the New Zealand First party, which went on to capture all five Māori electorates in the 1996 election. Labour regained them in 1999 and retained them in 2002, but the recovery was temporary. Political relations between Labour and Māori were thrown into crisis by the Labour-led government’s Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, which placed the seabed and foreshore in Crown ownership. Tariana Turia, a Labour minister and MP for Te Tai Hauāuru, resigned from Labour, successfully recontested her seat in a by-election and launched the Māori Party, of which she became co-leader. The Māori Party again broke Labour’s hold on the Māori seats and further damaged Labour electorally by reducing its party vote, which determines the number of seats a party holds in Parliament under the MMP system. However, by 2017 Labour had won back all seven Māori seats. Te Pāti Māori, as it was now known, regained Waiariki in 2020.

Labour and women

A small number of women played an active part in the formation of the Labour Party. They usually came from backgrounds in the suffragist and temperance movements, trade unions such as the Tailoresses Union and Wellington Housewives Union, and Labour’s political antecedents on the left. Two women, Elizabeth McCombs and Sarah Snow, were elected to Labour’s first national executive in 1916. Women’s role in national politics was still restricted as they were not eligible to stand for Parliament until 1919. Many people also still felt that politics was not a feminine activity. Consequently, for many years few women attempted to stand for Parliament and fewer still were selected in winnable seats. Among those who defied this daunting environment, Labour women candidates predominated, accounting for 28 of the 44 women elected to Parliament before 1996.

First Labour women MPs

The first Labour woman candidate for Parliament was Elizabeth McCombs, in 1928. Although she was unsuccessful in that attempt, in 1933 she became the first woman elected to Parliament when she won a by-election in Lyttelton – a seat that had been left vacant by her husband’s death. Two more Labour women had brief parliamentary careers before Mabel Howard followed her late father into the Labour caucus in 1943. Howard then became New Zealand’s first woman cabinet minister in 1947, with further appointments in the 1957–60 Labour government. In 1949 Iriaka Rātana entered Parliament as the first Māori woman MP.

Labour women leaders

From the 1960s the Women’s Division, and later the Labour Women’s Council – which was more feminist in outlook – developed into an influential section within Labour’s organisation. Through it, Labour women contributed to social policy development and supported women into organisational office and parliamentary candidacy. Between 1984 and 1995 three women in succession – Margaret Wilson, Ruth Dyson and Maryan Street – were elected president of the party. All went on to become MPs, ministers and, in Wilson’s case, the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Helen Clark, elected in the safe Labour seat of Mt Albert in 1981, rose through ministerial portfolios to become deputy leader in 1989, leader in 1993 and prime minister from 1999 to 2008. In 2017 Jacinda Ardern became the second woman elected by caucus as leader. Following that year's election she became Labour's second woman prime minister.

Lingering prejudice

Labour has refrained from any formal quota system for women ministers, relying instead on acknowledging the need for more women in Parliament. In the early 2020s a majority of Labour MPs were women. The party’s constitution guarantees women places on all key decision-making forums, including the selection and ranking of candidates. Nevertheless, the aim of selecting more women candidates was still hampered by lingering prejudice in favour of men, and the disproportionate number of men seeking candidacy.

  1. Quoted in R. M. Chapman, W. K. Jackson, and A. V. Mitchell, New Zealand politics in action: the 1960 general election. London: Oxford University Press 1962, p. 72. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Aimer, 'Labour Party - Māori and women in the Labour Party', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

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