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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Student's Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 1. March 3 1968

Books — A look at Labour


A look at Labour

The Thirty-Year Wonders, By Leslie Hobbs. Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch. 1967. $3.00. Reviewed by Owen Gager.

Mr Hobb's qualifications for writing this book seem to be that he was at one time a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. To say then, that he brings to his present book (whose subject is the first Labour Government) the same critical acumen displayed in his The Wild West Coast is to suggest that this book marks the end, not of an epoch in New Zealand politics, but in New Zealand journalism.

Political journalism in New Zealand over the last five years, perhaps mainly as a result of the influence of people like Gordon Bick and Austin Mitchell on T.V., has been on the upgrade, having developed to a point where in the Sunday Times or the Auckland Star the best political commentary will reach the level of an exceptionally poor review in the London Observer, the New York Times or the Sydney Bulletin. For New Zealand, this is progress.

The book under review, however, is a throwback to a dying but still, alas, kicking school of political journalism whose idea of a peep behind the scenes at Molesworth Street is to tell them that John A. Lee was a rebel and that Bob Semple told salty stories. This, at least is what Mr Hobbs serves up as inside stories about the thirties.

We still know almost nothing about the alternatives that were open to the 1935-49 Government, John A. Lee's rhodomontade and his spectacular explusion in 1940 having blinded us to the fact that other alternatives were open to Labour than greater radicalism in monetary reform. While we cannot expect any party in power in the thirties to have forseen all the stresses their political creations we now have to bear, we have a right to ask just how much they could have seen if they had looked.

Our historians still have not come to terms with the undeniable fact that Labour pulled off the biggest electoral confidence trick New Zealand has witnessed this century, winning the 1935 election by a rural landslide when in reality it was such an urban orientated party that it feared any measure which could give farming any advantage over secondary industry. By 1936 Labour had lost the bulk of its farming support; in 1938 Labour gained its greatest popular mandate ever on the urban vote; by 1944 its rural support had so eroded that it had no choice but to abolish the "country quota", which kept in being a fixed ratio of rural to urban constituencies.

The real conflicts in the first Labour Government were rural-urban conflicts, but Mr Hobbs knows nothing of these, and only one Labour farmer M.P. is listed in his index. Why did farmers vote Labour? How did Labour persuade them? We don't yet really know.

This is only to mention the principal conditioning factors in Labour's political orientation. We still know next to nothing about the determinants of Labour's economic policy, or its labour policy, or its Maori policy. They have been taken for granted, true beyond any need for casual explanation, by a whole generation of Labourorientated historians. Mr. Hobbs does not relieve our ignorance. The interpretation of 1935-49 offered by lames K. Baxter, borrowing the poetic persona of Yevtushenko, that 1935 was the year when socialism could have happened but didn't still awaits discussion. Was 1935 a "great betrayal" — which means, ultimately, was there anything to betray? Alternatively would the depression have silently slipped away by 1941 no matter what Government had been in power?

No historian seems to have wished to penetrate the lese-majesté of even posing such hypotheses. Let us hope that Mr. Hobb's book does not end an epoch of neo-Victorian journalism to foreshadow an epoch of historical hagiography.