8 Jul 2016

Labour Party celebrates 100 years

7:12 am on 8 July 2016

The Labour Party is celebrates its centenary this week and its record as New Zealand's oldest surviving political party.

Its members cite the creation of the welfare state, the building of the first state homes and the country's nuclear free legislation as among Labour's finest achievements.

05072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Caucus run. Labour Party Leader Andrew Little

Labour leader Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

It was just over 80 years ago that the first Labour Government took power.

In his election address to New Zealand in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, Michael Joseph Savage spelled out the Labour government's top priority.

"And I want to assure you ladies and gentlemen as I have done from the public platform, that you have nothing to fear as a result of a Labour government.

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage Photo: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ Archives New Zealand

"Our object in life is to co-operate with you in the work of building in New Zealand," Mr Savage said.

A book has been launched marking the anniversary, and one of its authors, Jim McAloon, said the performance of that first Labour government was something quite special.

"The sheer hard work that the men and women who were involved in the first Labour government put into developing new economic policies, none of them had a university education, they were self-taught," Mr McAloon said.

"The share tenacity of their efforts was quite awesome."

Labour's deputy leader during Helen Clark's era, Sir Michael Cullen, paid tribute to that first Labour government too.

"Clearly the election of the first Labour government is crucial, because that really changed the scene within New Zealand.

"So much was done within those first few years, and then managing New Zealand through the Second World War and into peace time," Sir Michael said.

Labour's current leader Andrew Little said the big issue facing New Zealand at the moment was the same as when the first Labour government took power.

"It's amazing, when you think 80 years ago, so many people homeless or in overcrowded housing, the big project was to get people in a house of their own.

"Eighty years on the same is now true. It may not be of the same scale necessarily, but with 42,000 people and a huge shortage of housing - it ought to be the big priority for New Zealand," Mr Little said.

Labour has struggled in elections and had a series of leaders since the National Party under John Key took power in 2008.

But Sir Michael said that was to be expected.

"When parties have had a very strong leader for quite a long time, they often go through that - it happened to the National Party - one shouldn't get too bound up in those short-term events.

"The reality is there is always a need for a party like Labour within the New Zealand political spectrum, and that any alternative to a National-led government is going to be a Labour-led one."

Sir Michael John Cullen KNZM is a former New Zealand politician. He served as Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, also Minister of Finance, Minister of Tertiary Education, and Attorney-General.

Sir Michael John Cullen Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

While the centenary offers plenty of chances for reflection, Labour's president Nigel Haworth is focused on the future.

He believed the party had turned the corner.

"I think it would be wrong to pretend that we didn't have some years of interesting internal debate, that's now changed.

"We have a unified caucus around a leader who has the absolute confidence of caucus - we have a party that's growing both in terms of numbers and resources, that is much more organised around winning and victory."

And party member Eileen Brown likes what she sees.

"Now we're talking about health, housing, education, jobs - we're really going back to the roots of the Labour Party."

Mr Little will make housing policy announcements at Labour's centenary conference at the weekend.

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