First Labour government wins power

27 November 1935

The first Labour Cabinet, 1935 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/1-018443-F)

The 1935 general election has long been seen a defining moment in New Zealand’s history. Undermined by its failure to cope with the distress of the Depression, the Coalition (or ‘National’) government was routed by the Labour Party led by Michael Joseph Savage.

As night fell, huge crowds congregated outside newspaper offices to follow the results as they were posted on large boards. In Auckland, Labour supporters roared ‘off with his head’ as each government defeat was confirmed. Overall Labour won 46 per cent of the vote to the Coalition’s 33 per cent. Thanks to the first-past-the-post system and a strong showing by minor parties and independents, it secured 53 of the 76 European seats.

Savage would die in office in 1940 (see 30 March) but under Peter Fraser’s leadership Labour held power for a further nine years, implementing far-reaching economic and social reforms that set the political agenda for the next half century. Labour’s victory also signalled the emergence, especially from 1938, of a remarkably stable era of two-party politics.

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