Labour: always in the rearguard, never the vanguard (unless it’s about attacking workers’ rights of course)

This piece first appeared on Redline in March 2012, but we’re giving it another airing as a lot of people don’t know about this history.  Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of NZ Capitalism Ltd’s ‘B’ – but sometimes ‘A’ – management team, we’ll be making sure that Labour’s history is very well highlighted on the blog. 

by Philip Ferguson

For Labourite mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, screwing over wharfies is the name of the game

The Ports of Auckland dispute has shown yet again – as if any more proof should really be necessary – that it is absolutely futile for workers to support Labour, give the Labour Party money or have their unions affiliated to the outfit.  While the left and union movement rally around the wharfies, Labour mainly sits on the fence.  One of their politicians, Len Brown, whose mayoral election campaign MUNZ in Auckland rather foolishly gave several thousand dollars to, is actually part of the assault on wharfies’ conditions.

There are so many examples of how, when it’s not directly attacking workers, Labour is always in the rearguard and never the vanguard of struggles for people’s rights.

For instance, these days Labour likes to parade its ‘anti-racist’ credentials.  However take something that was only 50-odd years ago – the way in which the NZ Rugby Football Union excluded Maori players from All Black teams touring South Africa.  Labour actually supported that piece of racism.  As the official New Zealand History On-line site records:

“In May 1960 the All Blacks were due to leave for a tour of South Africa. They had finally won a series for the first time in 1956 and this was a much anticipated rematch between the two powerhouses of world rugby. However the 1960 tour is best remembered for the fact that no players of Māori descent were selected. The decision to comply with South Africa’s strict segregationist apartheid policies by not selecting Māori players caused outrage. Some of the biggest public protests in New Zealand’s history failed to convince the Labour government to intervene. Prime Minister Walter Nash supported the rugby union, arguing that to include Māori ‘would be an act of the greatest folly and cruelty to the Maori race’.”

Labour prime minister Walter Nash supported excluding Maori players from the All Black team to South Africa in 1960

It was only the emergence of a large anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand at the end of the 1960s and start of the 1970s that forced Labour to do a u-turn and oppose sporting contact with apartheid South Africa.

The same thing happened on gay rights.  The first MP to try to introduce a reform measure was not a Labourite, but National MP Venn Young.  It was only after there had been a substantial shift in public opinion and the anti-gay laws were falling into disrepute that Labour did a u-turn on gay rights.  Even then, in 1986, it was a private member’s bill, not party legislation that liberalised the law and Labour allowed a ‘conscience’ vote of its MPs on the issue as if people’s rights were some kind of moral issue rather than a political question.

Labour, like National, has continued to allow ‘conscience’ votes in relation to gay rights (the civil union and gay marriage legislation).

Labour leader Norman Kirk was a fierce opponent of women’s right to abortion and the two Labour governments since Kirk-Rowling  failed to repeal Robert Muldoon’s 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act.

It was also only the emergence of a mass movement for Maori rights that forced Labour to deal with issues around land and language.  Before then, they’d been just as happy as National and its predecessor parties to confiscate land through legislation like the Public Works Act.  It was the mass Maori Land March of 1975 which finally forced Labour to shift ground a bit politically.

However, when Labour did move it was to create a series of state institutions and programmes that would get Maori off the streets and into the state apparatus, ensuring there would be no rebellions such as those in ghettoes which rocked the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Harry Holland, Labour's first (and longest) leader thought British citizenship too valuable to be extended to Chinese in NZ
Harry Holland, Labour’s first (and longest) leader thought British citizenship too valuable to be extended to Chinese in NZ

In its early years, Labour was also a champion of the White New Zealand immigration policies, priding itself on being every bit as anti-Chinese as the Tories and Liberals.  The first Labour government waged war on progressive trade unions for years, even deregistering the Auckland Carpenters Union in 1949.  The third Labour government, led by Norman Kirk, gave employers the ‘right’ to take out injunctions against union officials, making them liable for imprisonment when strikes occurred.  A union leader, Bill Andersen of the Northern Drivers Union, was jailed under that Labour government.

And, of course, it was the last Labour government that made political and solidarity strikes illegal.

Labour originally criticised privilege in New Zealand and talked a lot about democracy.  So, for instance, you might have expected the first Labour government to have abolished the Upper House in the New Zealand parliament.  But, no, that was left to the first National government, who abolished it within a few years of coming to power.

So, while it’s always in the rearguard in terms of progressive social policy, it certainly has a history of being in the vanguard when it comes to attacking workers’ rights.

It’s long since time that the few remaining union affiliates broke with Labour and put the time, money and energy they have wasted there to much better use.

Further reading:
Labour’s legal leg-irons – thanks to the fourth Labour government
Anti-working class to its core: the third Labour government, 1972-75
The truth about Labour: a bosses party


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