John Payne was born in Manchester, England, on 23 November 1871, the son of William Payne, a solicitor's clerk, and his wife, Sarah Ann Pell. After working in an office, Payne migrated to New Zealand about 1892, finding employment first on a farm and then as a goldminer. He was subsequently head accountant and auditor for the Auckland butchery firm of R. & W. Hellaby, before becoming a teacher of commercial subjects at Auckland Technical School (later Auckland Technical College) from 1903 to 1911. Payne also owned a firm designing office systems. One of the pioneers of motion pictures in New Zealand, he was a director of the Thompson–Payne Picture Company. On 26 May 1902, at Auckland, he married Minnie Sarah Gray.
By 1911 John Payne's interests had turned to politics. That year he contested Grey Lynn, advertising himself as the 'People's Popular Labour candidate' and winning on the second ballot. He put forward his Scheme 45, so named because it contained 45 proposals. These included the abolition of the Legislative Council; a state bank; state credit; free textbooks in schools; free tertiary education for workers' children; a right-to-work and a right-to-strike bill; pensions for widows, orphans and those over 55 years of age; pensions against sickness or other misfortune; state houses and cheap rents. Election meetings were crammed with people wanting to know about Scheme 45. His principal opponent, sitting MP George Fowlds, protested that the proposals would cost millions of pounds which no government could find; this fell on deaf ears.
Payne was elected in 1911 with the support of the Reform Party. Despite this, and the fact that he had declared that he would vote for the Reform Party on a no-confidence motion, he reversed his stand and supported the Liberal government. Reform MPs accused Payne of having been bribed by an offer of £1,000. Some days later their leader, William Massey, unreservedly withdrew the allegation and apologised for making it. The incident made Payne understandably antagonistic to the conservatives.
In March 1912 Payne attended the Liberal caucus at which a new leader, Thomas Mackenzie, was chosen as successor to Sir Joseph Ward; nevertheless, he sat as an independent Labour MP. He allied himself unofficially with the Social Democratic Party following its creation in 1913, and also supported the New Zealand Federation of Labour during the 1913 waterfront and general strikes. He formed a close friendship with the SDP's first MP, Paddy Webb, with whom he roomed when in Wellington.
During the election campaign, Fowlds had suggested that Payne was mentally ill. Insane he was not, but idiosyncratic and theatrical he certainly was. Payne was flamboyant, mercurial, voluble and controversial and was remembered as the most fastidiously dressed man in Parliament. An eloquent, witty and fiery speaker, Payne often took unexpected and dogmatic positions on issues and was independent in expressing his views to an extent that was regarded by admirers as courageous, and by detractors as reckless. He was a loud, frequent and effective interjector during parliamentary debates.
At the 1914 election, Payne, who was twice that year suspended from Parliament because of his vituperative attacks on the government, received SDP support in Grey Lynn, which he won in a close three-way contest. He became estranged from the five other Labour MPs because of his pro-war and pro-conscription stances and his increasingly violent anti-German utterances. He refused to join in a united opposition caucus and did not become a member of the New Zealand Labour Party when it was formed in 1916.
In 1919, partly for health reasons (he was a chronic asthmatic), Payne decided not to seek re-election and instead migrated to Australia, where he became private secretary to the Labor premier of New South Wales. He returned to New Zealand in 1935 and lived at Napier. The Labour government appointed him as electoral boundaries commissioner for the North Island in 1937. Following John A. Lee's expulsion from the Labour Party in 1940, Payne wrote articles for John A. Lee's Weekly on his lifetime crusade for the complete socialisation of banking. He died at Napier on 27 January 1942 from heart failure, survived by his wife, three daughters and a son. During his short political career, he had been the most colourful man in Parliament. Stubbornly refusing to become involved in party politics, 'he was true to his own ideals and owed allegiance to nobody else.'