Formation of the party
The Labour Party is New Zealand’s oldest political party still in existence in the 21st century. In Wellington, in July 1916, representatives of left-wing political organisations and trade unions, including several members of Parliament, resolved that ‘the time has arrived for the formation of a New Zealand Labour Party for the purpose of consolidating the political forces of Labour’.1
Those present at this founding meeting were mostly union leaders such as Bill Parry, Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser and Harry Holland. They were looking ahead to the next general election and also looking back at a decade of disappointing election results for candidates representing the labour movement, and earlier failed attempts to form a single nationwide workers’ party.
Moderates and militants
During the 1890s and the first years of the 20th century, the working class was the largest section of New Zealand’s population, but was barely represented in Parliament. Workers’ interests had been mainly channelled through the politically dominant Liberal Party, but by 1905 there was growing disillusion on the left with ‘Lib–Lab’ (Liberal–labour) politics. Attempts to create an independent labour alternative to the Liberal Party were hindered by political divisions among workers’ advocates. The common labels for these divisions – ‘moderate’ and ‘militant’ – summarised deep and often bitter ideological differences. Some in the labour movement were revolutionary socialists, looking to a future without capitalism. Others wanted more immediate political solutions to the worst injustices and inequalities. Some were encouraged by the ‘syndicalist’ view that lasting change would come by means of a general strike. Others again preferred the legal processes of conciliation and arbitration (where third parties were involved in resolving industrial disputes).
Three founders of the Labour Party – Harry Holland, Peter Fraser and Bob Semple – first entered Parliament by winning by-elections in 1918. All three had served prison sentences for opposing conscription during the First World War. Holland postponed returning to his homeland, Australia, to contest the West Coast seat of Grey, and won by a small margin. Fraser, a crusty Scottish-born watersider, then became MP for Wellington Central. The seat of Wellington South became vacant after its MP died in the worldwide influenza epidemic. That by-election was won by miners’ leader Bob Semple, who has been described as ‘the Labour Party’s verbally most violent and controversial personality’.2
Success in 1916
Labour leaders were finally successful in forming a nationwide party in 1916 because the gap between militants and moderates had lessened as new issues arose and leaders changed. Strike action by miners in Waihī in 1912, and by watersiders and their supporters in 1913, had failed disastrously, prompting advocates of industrial militancy to reluctantly accept the need for more effective political action. The labour movement’s existing political groups – the United Federation of Labour and the Social Democratic Party – were organisationally and financially weak. This added a sense of urgency, as the leaders expected an election in 1917 (although in fact it was to be postponed until after the First World War). However, this delay gave the new party more time to establish itself before fighting an election. The war also raised new issues of profiteering, fairness of sacrifice and conscription on which most labour leaders could agree.
1919 general election
The newly formed Labour Party’s journey to political power began with promising results in the 1919 general election, when its share of the vote reached almost 24%. However, for the next decade Labour’s share of the vote never climbed higher than 27%, and its caucus fluctuated between eight and 19 MPs out of a total of 80.
Yet in a Parliament split between three parties, Labour’s small caucus was an immediate concern to the more conservative Liberal and Reform parties. After the 1922 election, if Labour had been able to form an alliance with Liberal MPs, the Reform government would have been threatened. Labour’s strategic position was even stronger after the 1928 election when its 19 MPs held the balance of power.