Michael Bassett gives Labour a history lesson

Michael Bassett was one of the brains inside the Lange government, he was and still is one of the smartest political brains in New Zealand.

In NBR he gives Labour a little history lesson, it’s one they should heed, but Bassett is now classed as the devils right hand after his foray with Act.

Reading Matthew Hooton on the damage Labour has done to itself by entering its agreement with the Greens brought to mind the problems faced in earlier times by the NZ Liberal Party and how little our modern Labour Party knows about its history and its own climb to power. In this centennial year of Labour’s birth, that really is unforgivable.

After a couple of centuries of Whig politics in Britain and more than two decades with John Ballance, Dick Seddon and Joseph Ward leading successful Liberal governments in New Zealand 1891-1912, the Liberals here, as elsewhere (except Canada) found their votes being preyed upon by a new political force, the trade unions and their political entities. In 1916 they christened themselves the NZ Labour Party.

Earlier, the Liberals had been a wide church with North and South Island backblocks farmers and a rapidly increasing number of urban workers. As late as 1905 King Dick Seddon’s Liberals won 54% of the overall vote. But it was all downhill from there. Bill Massey’s Reform Party gradually stripped away the Liberals’ rural support, first in the North Island, while union-backed groups chomped away at the Liberals’ city votes so that by 1919 there were few urban seats left.

Faced with this challenge, the Liberals moved leftward, running on a very left-wing platform in 1919 in the hope that urban workers would choose them rather than the mushrooming Labour alternative. The change of brand proved to be spectacularly foolish: their leader, Sir Joseph Ward, lost his seat, and the Liberals were reduced to a rag-tag-and-bobtail collection of North Island backblocks farmers, a handful of mostly South Island rural seats, and an assortment of fanatics opposed to alcohol or keen on sectarian religious warfare.

And that is where Andrew little is leading Labour. Captured by loons, and various sectarian groupings fostered by Clark Labour no longer represent the working Kiwi.

In the world of the 1910s and 1920s, there were never fewer than three political parties vying for office, and the Liberals were in the middle. MMP’s plethora of parties has done somewhat the same to modern New Zealand. Labour’s most recent equivalent of Seddon’s 1905 broad church was 1987 when David Lange won 48% of the total vote. Even in 2002 when Helen Clark had her best victory, her 41% was less than Lange had secured in 1984 and 1987. And it has been downhill ever since.

Today, Labour is faced with the same dilemma about how to handle its competition. Andrew Little has decided to adopt Green slogans and go left, like Sir Joseph Ward in 1919. Sir Joseph belatedly re-emerged in 1928 leading a right-wing force that managed to cobble enough votes together to govern again. But the Liberals’ inner cohesion had gone. So, it seems, has modern Labour’s.

The best that modern Labour has been able to do was under Ms Clark when she maintained the essentials of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s while making rude noises about the government she’d been part of when those changes came into being. She knew that nothing worked better for Labour’s basic vote than the economic growth that underpinned jobs and gave her government the revenue for social spending.

Clark was a professional and she knew how to win and she won by winning the centre, another history lesson that Labour fails to grasp.

Clark’s four successors as Labour leader have never understood this, neither have they read their history. Destroying the party’s exclusive brand by zig-zagging in a leftward direction, hoping to supplant a competing political entity, is a quick route to the political graveyard. But after so many years of mushiness, does Labour now have any option?

Whatever brand it chooses to place on itself probably won’t convince the voters because the certainties surrounding Labour’s brand have been wasted away. Predictably, the first poll since the agreement showed the Greens doing better out of the deal than Labour. The party made it to 100 but it looks to be on life support.

And its teeth have fallen out, the hips have been replaced and 14 different types of heart amd stroke medication, time to put the old dear out of her misery.



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