The General Election is now set for Saturday 19 September 2020. The Labour Party was elected in 2017 using the slogan “Let’s do this” but they won’t be able to use “We’ve done that” this time. This is an issue that must be addressed. The Labour-led coalition government which took office after nine years of National austerity, was met with optimism and enthusiasm. The trade unions took action hoping for better pay and conditions. They were backed by many young workers hoping for a better deal. Even the Prime Minister and the Education Minister addressed picket lines, mainly to plead patience, as they could not do everything at once, they said. However, patience has not been rewarded as far as workers are concerned.
We will analyse the campaign and the achievements of the current government in future issues. For now we wish to consider the lessons that can be learnt from past campaigns, starting with the very first.
On the map
A hundred years ago, the New Zealand Labour Party fought its first general election on 17 December 1919. There were already 5 MPs supporting the Labour cause in one way or another. The Party had been campaigning all year as they were expecting an early election. They fought on a programme that included demands for:
- Proportional Representation and other constitutional reforms.
- For a state-owned bank.
- State control of insurance companies, shipping, coal mines.
- Free medical care and pensions for all.
- Free Education including free schoolbooks.
- Trade unions to get full legal protection and compulsory union membership.
- Equal pay for women doing similar work to men.
These radical demands came under heavy criticism from the two major establishment parties, the Reform Party along with the Liberals, who had traditionally represented labour up to then. They tried to discredit the new party as extremist and cranks. For example, The Colonist newspaper of 17 October 1919 carried a speech by a Reform MP Tom Field, with the headline “Bolshevism in New Zealand” (Bolshevism refers to the major party responsible for the November 1917 Russian Revolution).
In a hysterical and antisemitic rant he stated: “These honourable members because they won the toss call themselves ...“We of the Labour Party”. Who do these extremists really represent? They represent, first of all, the alien element in New Zealand; ... is very largely Bolshevist and revolutionary ... some of them are masquerading under British names."
He goes on that it was reported to him that there was “ ... a foreigner, apparently a foreign Jew, busy selling Bolshevist literature ...”
Tom Field was defeated at the 1919 election, ironically by a candidate who, it is reported, was an admirer of Mussolini, the Italian Fascist! This was also the first election where women could stand as candidates even though there had been universal suffrage since 1893. None of the 3 women were elected and none stood for Labour.
Despite being a new party with a lack of funds and facing a hostile press, the party gained 24.2% of the vote and 8 MPs. There had been a debate in the party whether to stand in all electorates; in the end there were 54 Labour candi- dates out of 80 possible. The share of the vote could therefore have been even higher had Labour stood everywhere. However, a bold programme had caught the ear of NZ workers and put Labour firmly on the map.
There is a belief that to win elections you must win people in the so-called centre ground. This means shifting to the right, watering down your programme and promising as little as possible. This is how to win they say. Yet this has been shown to be untrue when you look at what is happening during the selection of a presidential candidate for the Democrats in America, where self proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is winning the youth and minority ethnic vote, or in Ireland where Sinn Fein gained votes on a left platform, or in Scotland where the SNP won by having a programme to the left of Labour.
The centre ground is becoming more of a fantasy as people move sharply one way or another, seeking an escape from the never-ending misery caused by a system in crisis. The centre-ground arguement is used today to keep the left from being bold, whilst at the same time the right present themselves as anti-establishment. The New Zealand Labour Party today should take note of the programme of the 1919 election, one that is still relevant today. They still face the same opposition, and the issues of housing, education, finance and transport still need to be solved. This is why we need a bold socialist programme that will break with this rotten system.