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Labour will look to its past and future as it marks 100 years

Opinion Piece

As it reaches a milestone never before achieved in New Zealand’s political history, the Labour Party, which is 100 years old tomorrow, could be excused for focusing more on the future than the past.

Labour’s past glories such as the 1935 election win with Michael Joseph Savage, probably New Zealand’s most-loved prime minister, and the leadership from people like Peter Fraser, Norm Kirk and Helen Clark generally lie behind it.

Older people can remember being in homes with the iconic photo of the kindly Savage on a wall. No succeeding prime minister has ever reached that level of popularity, even adulation.

The problem for the present Labour Party and its leader Andrew Little is how to make it relevant again to middle New Zealand, which is where elections are won and lost in this country.

Labour has had four leaders since its crushing defeat in 2008 and hovers around the 30 percent mark in polls — a humiliation for one of the country’s two main parties (similarly suffered by National in the early 2000s).

But cynics saying that the party is moribund and that democratic socialism is a thing of the past may be speaking too soon — as the Australian election showed at the weekend.

Labour is taking its big step towards trying to gather some of that momentum for the centre left with its housing policy announcements to be made in the next few days. These are expected to include a possible extension of its promise to build 100,000 affordable houses and some form of urban development authority.

While the celebrations will extend over three days and include the release of a new history of the party, Michael Joseph and Peter Fraser — who were famously ascetic men — would approve of policy overshadowing self-congratulations, and of a focus on improving the lives of ordinary New Zealanders.

That is what they and the people who gathered in Wellington 100 years ago formed the Labour Party for, and it should never be forgotten by those who carry the banner today.