Workers, unions and Labour: unravelling the myths

by Philip Ferguson

Since the collapse of the Alliance as a substantial political force, there has been an increase in attempts to paint the Labour Party as some sort of ‘left’ party and ‘worker-friendly’. Right-wing and left-wing commentators alike have been involved in air-brushing Labour’s actual record and in presenting Labour policies as tilting clearly leftward. It seems taken for granted within the new Mana Party, too, that the logical course is a coalition with Labour. Even much of the ostensibly Marxist left in New Zealand regards Labour as a workers’ party of one kind or another.

The usual argument used by the ostensible Marxists is that Labour is “the mass party of the trade unions”. Sometimes the argument is used that Labour is based on workers’ votes and is mainly made up of working class people. The “workers’ party” analysis of Labour also rests upon the supposed authority of the Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin who, in the early 1920s, described the British Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party”. He argued that there was a contradiction between the bourgeois programme of the British Labour Party and working class aspects of the party. Lenin’s description of the British LP is presumed by the pro-Labour left to apply to all social-democratic parties in all countries at all times.

This kind of argument, however, is mistaken on a number of accounts.

Not the political party of unions

Firstly, this argument distorts what Lenin actually said about the British Labour Party. Lenin specifically rejected the idea that the British Labour Party was the political organisation of the unions. Drawing attention to the inaccuracy of this statement, he said it “cannot be agreed to” and continued: “It is erroneous. . . the concepts ‘political department of the trade unions’ or ‘political expression’ of the trade union movement are erroneous.” For Lenin, the more important questions were the nature of the leadership, actions and political tactics of such parties. Only these “determine whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat.” This standpoint was, in his opinion, “the only correct point of view” and from it he argued Labour “is a thoroughly bourgeois party. . . an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers. . .”[i]

Secondly, Lenin pointed to a number of specific factors in Britain at the time that made it useful for revolutionaries to support Labour in a very specific way: “like a rope supports a hanged man”[ii] and not, as has been the case with the pro-Labour left, as a prop to help Labour. These specific factors revolved around the conditions existing in British working class politics at the time and the fact that Labour had yet to form a government.

Specific historical factors

Lenin argued that there was an advanced layer of militant workers in Britain who looked to the Labour Party to bring about socialism. By affiliating to the Labour Party, while maintaining a sharp political critique of the party’s politics, and by helping put Labour in power, revolutionaries could intersect with this layer of radical workers and expose the real nature of the Labour Party.

In fact, a couple of years later, in 1924, Labour was in government in Britain, led by Ramsay McDonald. Labour lost a new general election later that year, but managed to help stymie the radical Councils of Action that emerged in 1926 at the time of the general strike. The Labour Party helped save British capitalism from the spectre of revolution. Labour came back into power in 1929 and in 1931 McDonald followed “strictly orthodox economic measures”, even attempting to cut unemployment benefits.[iii] While the latter was too much for many of his colleagues and there was a split in the cabinet, it was clear that Labour was committed to managing capitalism rather than leading the workers to socialism.

This raises the issue of the contradictory nature of Labour parties as “bourgeois workers’ parties”, parties which have a capitalist programme and orientation and a working class base of support. In particular, it raises the issue that these kinds of dialectical contradictions cannot be sustained indefinitely. We know from dialectics that specific sets of contradictions cannot be permanently sustained. Quantitative change eventually produces a rupture amounting to a qualitative change.


It could be argued, in particular, that once Labour-type parties get into government the contradiction between their capitalist programmes and working class social base is resolved through the triumph of the pro-capitalist aspects of these parties over the working class aspects. The internal contradiction, summed up in the “bourgeois workers’ party” formulation, is resolved, giving rise to a new, external contradiction – between Labour as a capitalist party and the working class. Once they begin administering the capitalist system, they became purely bourgeois parties, no matter what links they maintain to trade unions or what votes they may still be able to get sections of workers to give them. Over time, this tends to lead to changes in the membership and political identity of these parties, too. For instance, workers drop out, middle class people join and unions increasingly fall away.

Let’s look at the evolution of the NZ Labour Party in this light.

When the NZ Labour Party was established in 1916 it was basically a party based on a section of unions, generally left unions. Its first constitution made no provision for individual membership. You had to be in one of the unions that made up the party to be a party member. Of course, since the unions were defensive organisations of the working class, and not revolutionary movements, the LP immediately reflected a trade union level of consciousness – and, as Lenin noted, this is still a form of bourgeois consciousness rather than a socialist consciousness.

NZ Labour and unions

By 1918 there were 72 affiliated unions and just 11 party branches. In the 1919 general election, 9 Labour candidates won seats, eight of them being active unionists. By 1972 only 27 percent of Labour MPs had active union backgrounds. By 1975, 49 percent of Labour MPs were businessmen, farmers and professionals and another 12.5 percent were public servants – in 1919, not one single Labour MP had belonged to any of these categories). By the 2002 general election, of the top ten Labour list candidates, only one was an active unionist. The total number of Labour MPs today with union backgrounds could virtually be counted on the fingers of one hand – and these are far from radical union activists. By and large, like the Labour bosses, these “unionists” see the trade unions as businesses as career pathways rather than as fighting organisations of the working class and schools for socialism.

Even formal connections with the unions withered. For instance, after the 1951 waterfront lockout, in which the militant unions led by the wharfies were smashed, a Joint Council of Labour was set up involving the party and the right wing-dominated Federation of Labour (FOL). It met five times in the second half of 1952, after it was set up, but in the years 1967-75 met only four times. The fields it discussed became increasingly narrow. Basically, the parliamentary Labour Party was primarily interested in using the FOL to ensure the dampening down of any worker militancy, while maintaining the regular flow of cash from the unions into the party coffers and election workers every three years.

Changes in social composition of NZ Labour Party

The changes in the NZ Labour Party’s social composition and union involvement began, albeit slowly, from an early stage. In 1926, 60.5 percent of LP conference delegates were from affiliated unions. By 1945, after a decade of experience of the first Labour government, this had fallen to 47.2 percent. By 1955 it was only 33.8 percent. In the 1960s and 1970s, it continued to decline dramatically. In 1965 30.2 percent of LP conference delegates were still from unions but by 1975 only 17.7 were. The experience of the third Labour government – that of Kirk and Rowling – certainly speeded up the decline in unionists attending LP conferences.

Moreover, while the number of unionised workers had expanded rapidly between 1940 and 1975, the number of union members affiliated to Labour through their unions actually fell slightly, from 185,500 to 184,700. Whereas in 1940 nearly 75 percent of the unionised workforce were affiliated to Labour through their unions, by 1975 only a little over 42 percent were. In 1950, just over 57 percent of all unions were still affiliated to Labour; by 1975 it had fallen to under 27 percent.

During the 1950s and 1960s there was a small increase in affiliation by the reorganised waterside unions and some labourers’ unions, however there was a much more noticeable decline in affiliation by biscuit, confectionary, clothing, iron and brass and shop workers, painters and decorators, carpenters, freezing workers, boilermakers, drivers, store workers and packers, and fire fighters. Today, thirty years further on, only about half a dozen unions remain affiliated and they organise only about 15 percent of the unionised workers and a tiny percentage of the overall workforce. If you took away the engineers’ union, there’d be little left of union affiliation at all.

The decline of union involvement in the 1950s, 60s and 70s also gives the lie to the attempts of National in the 1960s and 1970s to portray Labour as dominated by unions. While much was made by National, the media and the pro-Labour left groups of union “block voting” at LP conferences, the reality was that between 1963-1975 only 6.3 percent of all remits at LP conferences came from unions. (Moreover, this did not reflect a mushrooming of local party branches – in fact by the 1960s, the LP had become a shell in terms of branch life and individual membership, as the figures below indicate.)

Not fighting for workers anyway

The role of unions and unionists at Labour conferences, in any case, was not to fight for working class interests but, as long-time leading Labourite of the 1970s and 1980s Richard Northey put it, to assimilate the views of LP conferences (ie the party leadership cabal) and transmit them back to the union members. John Wybrow, who was party secretary for part of the 1970s was even more blunt: the role of conference was “to discuss policy, not to formulate it.”

What this meant was that the real policy was set by the top leadership – essentially the MPs and a couple of top party apparatchiks, sometimes with a few top union bureaucrats along as well – and then handed down to conference delegates for transmission back into the affiliated unions and local party branches.

This realpolitik of the Labour Party was the opposite of the naïve, fantasy view of pro-Labour ‘revolutionary’ groups like the Socialist Action League (the remnant of which is today’s tiny, cult-like Communist League) that LP conferences could or would reflect any radicalisation in the working class and force a shift left by the organisation, creating a “class struggle left wing” and split which would lead to a mass revolutionary workers party!

Because the real motion was in the other direction – the pro-capitalist leadership transmitting its ideas and instructions down to the ranks through vehicles such as party conferences – no “class-struggle left wing”, as dreamed of by the pro-Labour left groups, was ever on the cards.

Dominated by professional classes

In fact what actually happened was that LP conferences became increasingly dominated not by radical rank-and-file workers but by the professional classes. Basically, workers began dropping out of the Labour Party in significant numbers as early as the 1930s, especially after 1938 by which time they’d had three years experience of the first (supposedly ‘socialist’) Labour government. They never returned. As workers have dropped out of the Labour Party over the past seven decades, the middle class has increasingly joined, albeit providing much smaller numbers. Thus the fall in individual membership has been especially dramatic. There were 51,000 members of local LP branches in 1940, still mainly working class, but only 14,250 individual members by 1975. Today, while the population has doubled since 1940, there are now under 10,000 individual members of the Labour Party, drawn predominantly from the middle class!

NZ Trotskyist groups, like many of those abroad, argue that the founding of the Labour Party was an important step in terms of independent working class political action.

There is some truth in this. Before the formation of Labour parties in countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Britain, workers tended to support liberal capitalist parties, such as the Liberal Party in Britain and NZ; Labour parties represented an organisational break with these mainstream capitalist parties. However, it is important to understand the specific context in which the Labour Party in New Zealand was founded.

NZ Labour founded out of defeat

It did not arise out a radicalisation of workers and mass struggle, and therefore represent a political path forwards. In fact, it was founded after a massive defeat had been inflicted on the working class and its most militant, advanced sections. During the great class battles of 1913, militant NZ workers were led by the syndicalists and organised in the ‘Red Feds’. The syndicalists were great fighters, but their politics were not a great match for the employers. The syndicalists eschewed building a revolutionary political party in favour of ‘One Big Union’. Militant unionism was counterposed to political work, including presenting revolutionary ideas in election campaigns which was seen as necessarily always reformist. This meant that when the syndicalists were crushingly defeated they had nowhere to go. They were a one-trick pony.

The defeat of their radical unionism meant that a section of them simply collapsed into parliamentarism and reformism, since they thought this was the only kind of electoral politics there was. They joined with the parliamentary-inclined Social Democratic Party and established the Labour Party. The fact that the LP arose out of defeat and a shift rightwards by a section of previously militant syndicalists had significant repercussions for the new party. While the formal programme of the LP included taking over the means of production, distribution and exchange and a section of leaders publicly identified with the Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia, the reality was that much of this was rhetoric. While waxing lyrical about the Bolshevik leaders in their paper, the Maoriland Worker, the most significant early campaign of the party was not against the exploiting class but against super-exploited Chinese workers and for an intensification of the White New Zealand policy.

Labour advocated White New Zealand

They not only campaigned for more stringent laws to restrict the entry of Chinese workers and for a firmer White New Zealand policy, the Labour leaders were prepared to make common cause with far-right white nationalists. For instance, Major-General Sir Andrew Russell, the founding leader of the NZ National Defence League and the man who had led ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ against the workers in 1913, was, a mere seven years later, a special guest and speaker at the LP’s national conference. In his speech, the general declared he was “strongly opposed to the invasion of German territory by uncivilised Black troops and thought such action was a grievous mistake.”

In regards to the Massey government, he felt that if they “did not believe in a White New Zealand he would favour turning it out.” He also felt that “(t)he danger to New Zealand unquestionably comes from the East.”[iv] Russell’s speech to the conference is interesting not only for the racism it shows at the top of New Zealand society, but also because it shows that the NDL attempted to appeal to the Labour Party on a racist basis and that Labour was fully up for such an appeal.

Militant unionists not attracted

While attracting the more moderate sections of workers and trade unionists, and appealing to racists from the upper end of society, Labour failed, in its first half dozen years, to draw in most of the militant unionists. A majority did not join the party.

The years immediately following WW1 saw a substantial growth of unemployment and a number of militant class battles. It was only after the defeats of 1922-24 that Labour finally managed to corral the majority of militant unionists.  And in the 1930s, it was the defeats of the working class in the Depression which led to a majority of workers turning for the first time to Labour.

During WW2, the experience of militant workers with Labour’s jingoism, imperialism and anti-union measures, led many to leave the party. Working class membership in the LP began falling especially noticeably after 1940. Following WW2, there was a renewal of combativity on the part of workers. A new generation of workers, which hadn’t yet suffered defeat, plus many workers who had been to the war and now wanted some return for their sacrifices, wanted better wages and conditions. Even as the postwar boom began to take off, however, the NZ capitalist class and the Labour government were not in a mood to grant concessions. Workers were confronted by both their employers and the government. In 1949, Labour deregistered the militant Carpenters Union, and threatened more of the same against other unions.

There can be little doubt that, if Labour had managed to hang on to office after 1949, unions like the wharfies would have been in their gun-sights.

Labour hold over unions depends on defeats

However, after 14 years in power, Labour was defeated at the polls in 1949 and the first National Party government came into office. In 1951 came the great ‘151 Days’ showdown between the employers, government and right-wing leadership of the FOL on one hand and the wharfies and their allies, grouped together in the new Trade Union Congress, on the other. The militant workers were batoned on the streets, their public meetings were declared illegal and banned, as were their publications. It became illegal to publicly support the wharfies and their allies and even to help feed and clothe their kids. Walter Nash, the leader of the LP and the next Labour prime minister, declared himself to be “neither for nor against” the wharfies.

During the period of postwar union upsurge, that lasted until the defeat of the wharfies and TUC in July 1951, radical unionists had been openly breaking with Labour or, in some cases, just drifting away. After the 1951 defeat and the collapse of the TUC, some sections of defeated unionists went back to Labour and the Labour hold over a large chunk of unions was somewhat strengthened. Thus, whereas during the postwar radical upsurge there was a marked decrease in the percentage of LP conference delegates who came from unions, from 1955 to 1965 only a very small decrease took place (see figures above).

The activities of Joint Council of Labour (see above) provide further evidence of how heightened union involvement more typically followed a period of defeat while lesser union involvement generally reflected periods of worker upsurge. During the class conflict that accompanied the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s and early 1990s, sections of the working class again moved away from Labour. Most of the attached unions disaffiliated and, in 1990, only a minority of workers voted Labour. In fact, the decline of the working class vote for Labour was so sharp that a depressed working class and largely Pacific Island electorate, Otara, elected a National Party candidate who had spoken out against neo-liberalism. It has only been after a further decade of defeats that several small unions have reaffiliated to Labour.

Long before the fourth Labour government and Rogernomics, the LP was already a parasite, feeding off the working class in general, and often working class defeat, in order to advance an ‘alternative’ plan for maintaining capitalism – and thus the exploitation of the working class – in NZ. The pro-Labour sections of the NZ far left have had an interpretation of the relationship between the unions, workers and the Labour Party which is, to put it bluntly, arse about face.

Importance of not being affiliated to Labour

The fight by unions and wider layers of workers today for even relatively small pay rises, like the EPMU’s five percent campaign back in 2005, face the task of taking on the government, whether Labour or National. In the case of the EPMU campaign it was also hamstrung by the EPMU leadership’s affiliation of the union to the Labour Party and their handing over of tens of thousands of dollars to Labour, donations which merely top up the millions Labour receives these days in corporate donations, especially when it is about to come into government and in its early stages in government.

An important part of the work of militants in the unions, workplaces and workers’ struggles is therefore to propagandise against affiliation to Labour and for disaffiliation by those few unions that remain hitched to this party of the class enemy.

The experience of the past ninety years shows that a future radicalisation of the working class is highly unlikely to see masses of militants flocking into the Labour Party and trying to turn it into a radical workers’ party. What is more likely to happen is that those sections of the labour movement who remained tied to the Labour Party will lower their horizons and attempt to transmit acceptance of the status quo into the wider working class, Radicalising workers, on the other hand, will look for alternatives outside of the yuppie fiefdom that is today’s Labour Party. Total opposition to, and exposure of, Labour as part of the class enemy is essential for radicalising workers and the struggle for a world of material abundance and human freedom for all.

[i] See Lenin’s “Speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party” at the Second Congress of the Third International, 1920.

[ii] V.I. Lenin, British Labour and British Imperialism, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1969, pp. 90-1.


[iv] Maoriland Worker, August 11, 1920.

Futher reading: The Truth About Labour: a bosses party