Story: Labour Party

The Labour Party is New Zealand’s oldest political party still in existence. Born out of the trade union movement, it first came to power towards the end of the economic depression of the 1930s, when it built New Zealand’s welfare state.

Full story by Peter Aimer
Main image: Helen Clark and her mobile electorate headquarters.

The Short Story

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Early years of the party

The Labour Party was founded as a workers’ party in 1916 by left-wing organisations and trade unions. From early on there was tension between members who were more moderate and those who were militantly against capitalism. In the 1919 election the new party did very well, gaining 24% of the vote.

First Labour government

In the 1935 election the Labour Party gained 53 of the 80 seats, and became the government. In response to the economic depression of the time, the Labour government introduced wide-reaching programmes, including:

  • building state houses
  • introducing free health services for everyone
  • bringing banks and broadcasting under government control.

The government and its policies were popular enough to stay in power until 1949. The ideas of reforming society within capitalism and the importance of the welfare state remained core Labour party policies for most of the 20th century.

Second and third Labour governments

The second (1957–60) and third (1972–75) Labour governments only stayed in for one term each. In 1974 the popular Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk died suddenly, and that, combined with an economic downturn, led to a loss of support for the government.

Fourth Labour government

The Labour government elected in 1984 was very different from previous ones. Most of its members of Parliament were lawyers or academics, rather than workers or trade unionists. It also had very different economic policies, privatised state assets, and reduced the role of the government in the economy. It was often at odds with traditional Labour-Party beliefs. It was voted out in 1990.

Fifth Labour government

The 1999–2008 Labour government returned to more traditional Labour policies. It was led by Helen Clark, New Zealand’s first elected woman prime minister. It was the first Labour government under the mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system and, because it didn’t have a clear majority, it needed support from other parties to govern.

Māori and the Labour Party

From the 1930s there was a strong tie between Labour and Māori, and for most of the 20th century Labour won all the Māori seats. The party began to lose support from Māori in the 1980s and other parties, including the Māori Party, began to win the Māori seats.

Women and the Labour Party

Women were involved with the party from the beginning. The first woman MP was Labour MP Elizabeth McCombs, and Mabel Howard was the first woman government minister. The party has a women’s section, and women are guaranteed places on decision-making groups.

Organisation of the party

Members of the Labour Party can either belong to a local branch or to a union that is affiliated to the Labour Party. Each electorate has a committee, and there is a national council.

 

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How to cite this page:

Peter Aimer. 'Labour Party', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 14-Dec-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/labour-party