Book Review: Labour – The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016, by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_NZ_Labour_partyIf you asked someone on the street what the oldest political party in New Zealand was, I suspect most wouldn’t say it was the Labour Party. Most would have assumed that National had been around longer, having dominated post-war politics, if not the history books.

This book serves a specific purpose for the Labour Party centenary, and contributes to the historiography on the labour movement and its political wing. It will certainly appeal to those in the party who are interested in their history, and add to the knowledge of some forgotten characters and good Labour people who served the party as lesser lights in the Caucas and Cabinet rooms. I think the most successful part of the book is in the choice of the photographic plates and cartoons, and their reproduction with extensive captions where needed. Here we can view a story that begins with rather formally dressed men posing for group photos at conferences, being mostly European immigrants who were autodidacts, and then see, as colour photos reflect, a party with significant gender balance and multicultural contribution.

If we are to assess the merits of the text I have to be critical of the core part, with regard to political philosophy, and the academic assumptions about policy-making. The Labour Party was an anti-imperial, anti-war movement that took the idea of socialism seriously, and explicitly battled against what was called the ‘Money Power’. Despite their sympathies to the philosophy, both of the authors have focussed on the academic writing on the Labour Party and political history, with a very selective use of the extensive thesis writing of history students, mostly from Canterbury University. It was, however, Auckland University alumni that came to dominate Labour Party politics, especially in the period when Professor Keith Sinclair had control of the Walter Nash papers, which produced his biography, dissertations, as well as activists.

But the authors of this book don’t even mention the Walter Nash collection despite, or perhaps because of, its sprawling nature and the inadequate description of its contents. This means there is no update on the views expressed by Sinclair – the failed Labour candidate for Eden in 1969 – and his polemic against what he called the Lee-Sutch syndrome. This seems to come down to Lee and his followers being naïve about the possible financial policy in the 1930s, based on Reserve Bank credit; and Nash having an economist’s understanding of sound finance, based on a reading of Keynes. This is rather unconvincing in terms of economic theory influencing policy, and the fact that Nash accepted that Reserve Bank credit would be permanently financing State House construction. When the Reserve Bank Governor objected to this financial policy in 1939, he raised the interest rate for the Housing Account finance, and timed it to occur when Nash had to go to London for a loan conversion. This was the actual policy situation, in contrast to Sinclair’s view on the anti-Labour role of the Bank of England in those loan negotiations, and the mythology which still surrounds it.

Of course, by the 1980s the Labour Party had decided to leave financial policy to Treasury, and monetary policy to the Reserve Bank, and opened the floodgates for international finance. This effectively undid everything the First Labour Government had achieved with its policy of ‘insulation’, in a rapidly changing global system. But it also reflected a completely different party, which did not appreciate its history. As the party policy returns to urban house construction, maybe things have changed back.

Reviewed by S.A. Boyce

Labour – The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016
by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN  9781776560745