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New Left Review I/192, March-April 1992


Bruce Jesson

The Disintegration of a Labour Tradition: New Zealand Politics in the 1980s

On 27 October 1990, New Zealand’s Labour government suffered one of the heaviest defeats in the country’s electoral history. [1] The core of this article is developed from three books: B. Jesson, Behind the Mirror Glass, Auckland 1987; B. Jesson, Fragments of Labour, Auckland 1989; B. Jesson, A. Ryan and P. Spoonley, Revival of the Right: New Zealand Politics in the Eighties, Auckland 1988. Labour lost twenty-seven of its fifty-six seats, and its share of the vote was the lowest since 1931. It was a humiliating but not inappropriate end for a government that once commanded international respect—on the Left for its anti-nuclear stand, and on the Right for its uncompromising laissez faire policies. What we have experienced in New Zealand is not just the defeat of a party, however, but the disintegration of a tradition. Historically, Labour was the party of the welfare state and the regulated economy. On becoming the government in 1984, it discarded this tradition without warning and became a party of the New Right. In the next six years, Labour almost entirely deregulated the economy. It privatized most of the state’s commercial activities. It reorganized both central and local government along commercial lines. The government ceased to play any role in economic management, with the exception of eliminating inflation, which became its sole economic goal. To this end it operated a high-interest-rate monetary policy.

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