With dozens of former Labour MPs descending on Parliament last month to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the first Labour Government, the media was gleefully anticipating some potential fireworks.
“We certainly identified the possibility of some robust debate as a risk factor,” says Napier MP Stuart Nash, who came up with the idea for the celebration and hosted it with Andrew Little.
“But in the event there wasn’t anything like that, although there were many great conversations. The atmosphere was of conviviality and celebration.”
Stuart, great grandson of former Prime Minister Sir Walter Nash, who was a Minister in the first Labour government, is passionate about Labour Party history – and collects books on politics.
“I was thinking about it being 80 years and that the actual anniversary must be coming up soon and I looked it up and it was, conveniently, on a Friday so we could hold the dinner on the actual anniversary,” he said.
“The Parliamentary Library provided us with a list of all living former Labour MPs and the team at Fraser House did some amazing detective work to track them down.”
The 100 guests included about 80 current and former MPs and their partners – flying in from all over the country on a wild and windy Wellington day.
The oldest was Bob Tizard, at 91, who shared a very special link to the past. “Bob gave a speech and recalled how he heard the announcement of the election of the Savage Government as an 11 year-old schoolboy at intermediate standard,” said Stuart. “It was incredible to hear him share that memory.
“Holding the dinner at Parliament was very relevant because it’s where they had plied their trade.
“The hardest part was who to have as speakers in a room of many orators – then it struck us the only people who know politics as well as politicians are the Parliamentary Press Gallery, so we asked Linda Clark, Colin James, Barry Soper and Tom Scott to make up a panel.
“We had great feedback on how much people enjoyed the dinner and a recurring theme was how good it was to meet up with people again. For many of the guests, when, for whatever reason, they ceased to be MPs, they went back to their homes in different places all over the county.
“In the days before email and when phone calls were more expensive, many simply lost touch with people they had worked alongside, often for many years – so they were really delighted to come back and reconnect.”
Stuart has copies of every one of the speeches from the first Labour Government and says the themes in them are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago.
“Work, employment, a decent salary for families to be able to live with dignity and growing the economy – all the things Andrew Little has been pressing for since he became leader. They are the themes of these speeches and the great themes of the 21st century.
“When the Savage government was elected it was the end of the depression and the country had huge problems. We solved those problems – but now New Zealand is facing them again.
“At one point in the 1950s there was a joke that the Prime Minister knew the name of every unemployed person in New Zealand. Now we have mass unemployment. We will find a 21st century solution that seeks to provide solutions to those problems.
“We should embrace our past. Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen. I always recommend people who are interested in the Party to read Barry Gustafson’s biography of Michael Joseph Savage, Keith Sinclair’s of Walter Nash and Michael King’s on Peter Fraser.
“By reading those you understand where the Party has come from and the work the founders of our party put into changing the country and creating the guiding philosophy of our party, which has not changed in 100 years and is as relevant today as in 1935. If someone wants to be part of that, then we welcome them with open arms.
“This was not just about Labour MPs and those who ended their careers as Labour MPs. Everyone at the dinner was an important part of our history. We are a broad church and it was a celebration of our history and our diversity.”