Labour History Review

Classic Third Way or Before its Time? The New Zealand Labour Party in Local and Transnational Context

Labour History Review (2010), 75, (1), 98–113.


The exceptionalist debate in labour history has concentrated upon the distinctiveness of a country's labour movement and historical contingency. Some historians are concerned that the current popularity of transnationalism in comparative history achieves exactly the opposite because it tends to flatten and schematize the richness, messiness, complexity, and the individuality of the case study. What would transnational sceptics make then of politicians', political scientists', and sociologists' enthusiasm for the Third Way model, which seems to concentrate upon commonalities and convergence in the political economies of the western world from the 1930s and 1940s? New Zealand appears to be a classic example of First Way under its earliest Labour governments (1939–1949), Second Way under its Fourth Labour governments (1984–1990) and Third Way under its Fifth Labour governments (1999–2008). On closer examination, this view only holds if we adopt a distorted view of 'Old Labour' and, although not considered here, the 'New Right', too. A model like the Third Way can be just as useful to labour historians of later twentieth-century social democracy as the exceptionalist debate has been to labour historians of class and consciousness at the turn of the twentieth century. Rather than flattening experience, a fine-grained historical consideration of the Third Way model is useful for it indicates the extent to which New Zealand labour was early to modernize its social democracy. New Zealand's social democratic party was first in the western world to abandon the socialization objective without splitting and it should come as no surprise to see early intimations of the Third Way in the antipodes either.

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Author details

Nolan, Melanie