Liberal Party, New Zealand

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Neville Chamberlain (1869—1940) prime minister

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The Liberal Party emerged from 1890, representing those candidates who advocated a progressive (graduated) land and income tax instead of the current flat tax rate on property, and who opposed the unrestricted sale (rather than lease) of Crown (state) lands to settlers. The National Liberal Association was founded in 1890, and the party received support from many pre-existing interest groups, such as the trades and labour councils. Candidates who supported its two key demands achieved a majority in the 1890 elections, helped by a redistribution of seats and the introduction of universal malehood suffrage.

 The party was initially led by Ballance, but it was under Sedden's leadership from 1893 that it became a recognizable political party, dominating New Zealand politics until 1912. To strengthen the authority of the leadership against the grass roots, Sedden transformed the party organization and renamed it the Liberal and Labour Federation in 1899. Modelling his party organization on Joseph Chamberlain's Birmingham party machinery set up in 1880, it was the first party to channel popular ‘mass’ politics. By removing authority from the rank and file to the leadership, however, the leaders soon lost touch with supporters on the ground.

 Despite Seddon's best intentions to represent the growing labour movement, his party organization, which was in the hands of members from farming and the middle classes, was increasingly seen as unresponsive to the interests of labour. This encouraged the desertion of many labour leaders, who eventually formed the Labour Party in 1916. The Labour Party posed an existential threat to the Liberals (led by Ward from 1906), who had put so much emphasis on courting the working and labouring classes through social reform. Increasingly sandwiched between Labour and the conservative Reform Party, they were unable to govern without the support of Labour from 1919. In 1925 it campaigned as the ‘National Party’, and in 1927, the ailing party reformed itself as the United Party, which was led by Ward and then by Forbes. It won the 1928 election through exploiting current dissatisfaction with the Reform Party government under Coates, but formed an ineffective government in coalition with Labour. In response to the Great Depression, it formed a coalition with the Reform Party, with which it contested the 1935 general election as the ‘National Political Federation’. In 1936, the two parties formally merged as the National Party.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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