Right-wing Left-wingers: Labour’s Oxymoronic Tragedy 1946-2013


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HOW IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE to have a “Labour Right”? Why would right-wingers join a Labour Party – or, indeed, any party of the Left? Surely the term is oxymoronic?

Daily Blog readers might be surprised to discover how many New Zealanders respond to the notion of a Labour Right with disbelief. Very nearly every person who places themselves on the right of politics (and if the latest polls are accurate that’s roughly 50 percent of the electorate!) tends to dismiss the whole concept of right-wing left-wingers as nonsensical.

If pushed, some might concede that Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble were converted to right-wing beliefs while they were still members of the Labour Party. But, they would argue, the very fact that both of these “Rogernomes” eventually abandoned Labour for ACT merely proves their original point that “right-wing left-wingers” are a contradiction in terms.

On the other hand, for those nurtured in the many and varied parties of the tiny New Zealand communist movement, it is a matter of ideological fact that the Labour Party – like all social-democratic parties – cannot contain anything but right-wingers. This is because, historically-speaking, such parties have served as both the apologists for and rescuers of capitalism. By their very nature, therefore, they are right-wing parties.

Between World War I and the consolidation of Nazi power in Germany, it was the position of the Communist International (Comintern) that social-democracy was actually among the most devastating of capitalism’s political weapons. Renaming it “social-fascism”, the Comintern instructed its member parties to direct the major part of their campaigning effort against these social-democratic competitors for the working-class vote. Even in the case of Germany, where the virulently anti-communist Nazis were making steady gains, the Comintern was unrelenting: the “true enemy” and the “real danger” lay in social-fascism – not national socialism.

It was only in 1936, after the Nazis had effectively destroyed the second-largest communist party west of the Urals – and the German Social Democrats – that the Comintern finally relented and issued instructions to its followers around the world that they should now join forces with social-democratic and labour parties in so-called “Popular Fronts” against the fascist/Nazi menace.

It was this alliance of communism, social-democracy and liberal-democratic capitalism (preceded, it should not be forgotten by Soviet Russia’s two-year “non-aggression pact” with Hitler’s Reich) that won the Second World War. Even in the United States, citizens were encouraged to stand in solidarity with their “heroic Soviet allies”. Hollywood even made movies in which communists were cast as the good guys.

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Here in New Zealand, the Communist Party’s (CPNZ’s) numerical strength had, by the end of the war, grown to more than 2,000 card-carrying members. Most of these were concentrated in the trade unions, but there were many others scattered through the public service, the universities and the professions. Throughout the war the Labour Government led by the austere and ruthless Peter Fraser had no more staunch body of supporters (and enforcers) than the CPNZ.

But, with the coming of peace, the great wartime alliance began to fall apart – and with it the cooperative politics of the Popular Front. By the end of the 40s, the world had entered a “Cold War” of bitter rivalry between the capitalist, US/UK-led “Free World”, and the totalitarian socialist states of the “Communist Bloc”. Throughout its final three-year term, between 1946 and 1949, Labour found its easy dominance of the New Zealand working class challenged by a highly motivated and extremely well-organised political movement to its left.

Labour responded by mounting a vituperative red-baiting offensive against the CPNZ and its allies. Encouraged by the right-wing press, Fraser and his henchmen went after the communist-controlled unions – most infamously, the Auckland Carpenters. The legal strategies of de- and re-registration of dissident unions, which the First National Government would later use against the Watersiders in 1951, were pioneered by Fraser’s Labour Government during the Carpenters’ lockout of 1949.

Fraser was not merely determined that Labour should have “no enemies to its left”, he was equally concerned to present as small a target as possible to his enemies on the right. In the English-speaking countries particularly the parties of the centre-left went to extraordinary lengths to distance themselves from the new communist enemy.

This overwhelming desire NOT to be seen as representatives of the far-left was undoubtedly what led, Fraser, who had been jailed for speaking against conscription in World War I, to cause consternation and division within Labour ranks by initiating (and then energetically backing) a 1949 referendum on the question of compulsory military training in peacetime. Fraser got his way (the “Yes” vote was 78 percent) but only at the cost of driving many of Labour’s most principled and conscientious members out of the party.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, in the light of its new right-wing trajectory, the First Labour Government was voted out of office in the 1949 General Election.

National was quick to capitalise on the political possibilities of the rapidly intensifying Cold War. By picking a fight with the militant unions, National cleverly forced Labour into adopting a humiliating position of neutrality. Asked where he stood on the deepening dispute, Labour’s new leader, the timid Walter Nash, infamously declared that Labour was “neither for, nor against” the locked out Watersiders. It was a statement which the militant core of the New Zealand working class would never forget – or forgive.

Nineteen Fifty-one was also the year in which the Labour Party felt obliged to remove from its aims and objectives its longstanding commitment to: “the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

THE “LABOUR RIGHT” was, therefore, not merely a product of the electorally-driven need of social-democratic and labour parties to differentiate themselves from the more radical (and now politically unacceptable) communists to their left. It was also (and for that very reason) synonymous with the dominant, parliamentary wing of the Labour Party. The push to the right in Labour has always come from the top.

The one exception to this rule was Norman Kirk’s Third Labour Government (1972-74). Though deeply conservative on social issues, Kirk was a radical when it came to economic policy and foreign affairs. Such radicalism from the top of the New Zealand Labour Party was unprecedented in the post-war era and Kirk’s prime-ministership was very quickly deemed unacceptable – not only by the New Zealand establishment, but by its much more powerful Anglo-Saxon mentors. Kirk’s government came under enormous behind-the-scenes pressure almost from Day One, and its ultimate fate, like that of its sister governments in Chile and Australia, served as a grim reminder of what happens to those labour and social-democratic parties that fail to keep their socialist impulses and traditions under strict control.

The imposition of “Rogernomics” in the mid-1980s demonstrated how well Kirk’s successors had absorbed the lessons of 1972-74.

It’s easy to forget that in 1984 Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were barely halfway through their reigns, and that the Cold War was threatening to explode in a planet-wasting nuclear Armageddon. There were Cruise missiles in Germany and Russians in Afghanistan. Just a year earlier, in 1983, the British Labour Party had gone to the electorate with a manifesto promising to nationalise the “commanding heights” of the British economy. In the New Zealand Labour Party there were many who regarded that as a very fine idea.

Unfortunately, there were many in the National Party who were worried that their leader, Rob Muldoon, might also be thinking that full-on socialism was the answer to New Zealand’s problems! Lest a maverick leader of the populist right open the door to another Kirk, it was vital that Labour’s leadership be persuaded to follow Fraser’s example and drive the party sharply to the right.

Labour’s leadership clique needed little prompting. There were those in the Labour caucus who favoured taking New Zealand in the direction of Scandinavian social democracy and thanks to the charismatic leadership of its young president, Jim Anderton, the Labour Party rank-and-file was primed and ready to support them. The party’s leader, David Lange, and his coterie: Roger Douglas, Mike Moore, Richard Prebble and Michael Bassett; were acutely aware that one false move could see their faction unseated and their careers ended.

This was the context in which Treasury began whispering its neoliberal promises into the ears of Labour’s dominant faction. With the state apparatus guaranteed to weigh-in behind them, Lange and his allies had only to hold the left of the Labour Party at bay until after Muldoon’s snap election. Once the voters had placed the full powers of executive government in their grasp, the party’s left-wingers would be powerless to stop them.

THIRTY YEARS LATER, and the same patterns are repeating themselves in the Labour Party. The Cold War may be over, but the global financial crisis and rapidly rising levels of poverty and inequality are creating a clear opening well to the left of the failing – but still dominant – neoliberal regime. Parties to the left of Labour are threatening to lead New Zealand through that opening, and in order to avoid neoliberalism’s powerful policing mechanisms being deployed against them (as they were against Helen Clark’s government between 2005 and 2008) Labour’s parliamentary leadership are, once again, preparing to drag their reluctant and rapidly dwindling party, kicking and screaming, or, maybe, not making any protest at all … to the right.


  1. …Labour’s parliamentary leadership are, once again, preparing to drag their reluctant and rapidly dwindling party, kicking and screaming, or, maybe, not making any protest at all … to the right.

    When did Labour leave “the right”? I haven’t seen any evidence that they have done so since 1984.

  2. I would say that there would be very few left wingers in the Labour Party. A few maybe that wear the trappings of real socialism but absolutely none that would drop the neo-liberal agenda. Which makes John Key’s comments about Labour’s policies being derived for the “far left” all the more comical.

    Which makes me wonder why the union movement ties itself so closely to Labour and not move to the Greens or Mana for allegiance purposes

    • Which makes me wonder why the union movement ties itself so closely to Labour and not move to the Greens or Mana for allegiance purposes

      Probably because the Greens are worker-hostile hippies and Mana will never see more than a few percent in the polls while it’s the vehicle of an obnoxious racist loudmouth.

      • …and Mana will never see more than a few percent in the polls while it’s the vehicle of an obnoxious racist loudmouth

        No, that would be John Key, Simon Bridges, and Jami-Lree Ross.


        Probably because the Greens are worker-hostile hippies…


        Eh? How do you come to that conclusion??

        • Most workers are in some form of industry, whether of the agriculture, food, manufacturing, energy or transport varieties. The Greens have never met an industry they didn’t hate, except organic farming, renewable energy and quack medicines.

          • The Greens have never met an industry they didn’t hate, except organic farming, renewable energy

            Yeah, actual sustainable industries which will keep our society going unlike the ones that National support which will destroy our society.

            As for the comment about “quack medicines” – well, that’s just your imagination running away with you.

        • The green’s may not be as industry hostile as you think but my experience of many activists is that they generally don’t like “working class” people. They basically look down on them as much as those on the right do.

          But look where working class people often vote in the US now – for the right wing, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before that happens here.

      • The greens, well, their probably still more pro worker than labour. At least they want to intervene in the economy to create jobs in so called ‘green’ industries. But as a worker I don’t like them, personal taste, they seem to have gone all corporate.

        Mana, I like this party a lot they have some very progressive policy, and you can turn up to meetings and even suggest policy you want! And even Action! Hone is a brash, loudmouth, GOOD! Parliament is a pack of B*ds anyway so send one to deal with one. At least I know he understands workers. Plus the media constantly plays on the general dislike of him. When he says something silly he’s all over the news, when he says a hundred intelligent things In between they don’t care. If you go to a meeting your more likely to hear from John Minto, Sue Bradford or Anette Sykes.
        None of which I think will sell out.

        Plus what you say is a contradiction in itself, thhe best way to stop a party being a platform for an individual is for others to get involved. The unions would be a excellent addition to hone’s advocacy. Imagine if the unions had political leadership that is prepared to get arrested for working class people as happened in Glen Inness? They’d be unstoppable.

    • Brent as a member of thel argest transport union in the country I have often expressed the same view myself. Why any union would want to be aligned with the current Labour Party is beyond me.
      I believe years ago the movemnet as a whole should have got in behind the Alliance when ti was strong & taken that over as our party of choice instead of hanging onto Labour in the forlorn hope that they will actually look after the working people! They did, after all have 9 years to get rid of cabotage, get foreign crewed trawlers of the coast & repeal the employment contracts act remanants,. They didn’t do any of it. Why would we back them now?

    • It’s so long since Labour has done anything for the working class in general that cutting ties and going with Greens or Mana, or both, would be a great move. I think many people stay with Labour out of loyalty and tradition, which Labour governments seldom reward. They don’t care how low wages have to fall to show the bosses how reasonable and understanding they are. After all, they still get paid well.

  3. Good summary of major issues Chris. Labour remains as the comintern described Euro social democracy, but in NZ rarely the main enemy, but a spoiler party, a dampener of class struggle.

    Our ‘main enemy’ is threefold.
    • global capital and finance capital incl. still strong US imperialism
    • local capital and supporters
    • the post colonial, small business, rural, tory individualist culture that pervades NZ. Including the social breakdown since the the 80s.

    Beggars are appearing more often on the streets and with the WINZ punishment machine winding up there will be lots of “jobseekers” (parents, carers, sick people) with their backs against the wall. Will we see people turn on each other more or get organised? That is the major challenge for Mana, Greens, and small left parties, Labour are clearly not up to it.

  4. The second time in “THIRTY YEARS”! Once a tragedy twice a farce, aye Chris? Labours antics are actively preventing a decisive move away from neo-liberalism. I prefer Lenin’s description of the reformist tendencies as social-chauvanists, socialist in word, chauvanist in deed. And indeed one must wonder, if the Labour Party refuses to confront the “policing” mechanisms of parliament or rather the organs of the state on behalf of the working class, how can it in any way be the representative of the working class? And if not the representative of the working class, but a cookoo in the political nest of the working class, throwing the other chicks to their death before they are big enough to challenge it, greedily protecting its privilege. If this is true, the Labour Party does indeed represent the gravest threat to working class organisation, resistance and victory in recent history.

  5. David Cunliffe put up with me calling him Labour scum tonight to his face at the GCSB town hall meeting in Mount Albert. I told him that after the betrayal by Clark and Labour over G.E. in New Zealand I vowed to never vote Labour again and I never have or ever will. (He took it on the chin quite well, and I did apologise for berating him)

    Now, I vote Green, and I am the proud Director of a startup tech company which was officially incorporated today. My goal for this business is to make money, and as much as I can using my skills and gifts so I can support a family. I can promise any and all of you that my hardest and longest day of work was just as hard and long as anybody’s here. I’ve never met anyone who has worked harder than me except for my Father.

    I also have a personal disdain for people with dreadlocks and those who refuse to use proper deodorant, but that doesn’t mean that underneath that nonsense I don’t share their politics and sense of empathy and that is the important thing… for those who hate hippies and use that as a reason to not vote Green, I think you need to re-examine your priorities. Conservation and Environmentalism should be a centrist issue in this country, not a fringe one.

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