John A. Lee expelled from Labour Party

25 March 1940

John A. Lee lost his left forearm in the First World War (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-043306-F)

A charismatic ex-soldier, orator and writer, John A. Lee had been active in the New Zealand Labour Party since shortly after the First World War.

Following Labour’s landslide victory in 1935, Lee expected to be appointed to Cabinet, but Prime Minister Michael Joseph. Savage thought him too wild and unconventional. Instead, Lee was made a parliamentary under-secretary with responsibility for Labour’s state housing scheme. The success of this landmark programme owed much to his enthusiasm and organisational ability.

Overlooked for Cabinet again after the 1938 election, Lee intensified his attacks on Labour’s leadership. The prime minister was dying of cancer and the party quickly turned this into an issue of loyalty. Preparations were begun to have Lee expelled at the 1940 conference.

Before the conference in March, Savage penned an addition to his annual report. He accused Lee of having made his life ‘a living hell’ for the past two years. Although his supporters maintained that the real issue was party democracy, Lee was expelled by 546 votes to 344. Savage died two days later (see 30 March).