John A. Lee

John Alfred Alexander Lee DCM (31 October 1891 - 13 June 1982) was a New Zealand politician and writer. He is one of the more prominent avowed socialists in New Zealand's political history.

Early life

Lee was born in Dunedin in 1891, the son of Alfred Lee and Mary Isabella Taylor. His parents were not married, and at the time of his birth, they had already separated due to his father's gambling and alcoholism. Lee's mother had little income, and the family experienced considerable financial hardship. Lee did not do well at school, and he was often truant.

In 1905, he left school to work, and became involved in petty crime. In 1908, he was convicted of theft, and served time at a boarding school for juvenile delinquents. He attempted to escape several times, and was eventually successful. After wandering the country for a time, he found work in Raetihi, but was then jailed for liquor smuggling and breaking and entering.

Three years after being released, Lee enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and served in World War I. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for action at Messines in June 1917, but was repatriated after being wounded in March 1918 and losing his left arm. He arrived back in New Zealand in July 1919, and established a small business.

Early political career

Not long after returning home, Lee became active in the Labour Party. Lee had been a committed socialist for some time, having read a large amount of Marxist literature over the years. He is said to have heard the speeches of Bob Semple and Harry Scott Bennett through the bars of his jail cell, and in the army, he had been known as "Bolshie Lee" for his views. Lee's status as a veteran was considered valuable by the Labour Party, as the party's anti-conscription stance had caused many to brand it unpatriotic — Lee, a decorated and wounded soldier, was able to counter this perception quite effectively. By 1920, Lee was on the Labour Party's national executive.

In 1921, Lee contested a by-election in the Auckland East seat, but was defeated by Clutha Mackenzie. In the 1922 general elections, however, he stood again and was elected. He soon became one of the better known members of Parliament, noted for his powerful oratory and strong views. He also played a considerable role in the Labour Party's internal policy formulation, where he had a strong interest in foreign affairs, defence and economics.

Although Lee was re-elected in the 1925 elections, he was narrowly defeated in the 1928 elections. Lee then took a job managing a bar in Rotorua.

In the 1931 elections, Lee won the seat of Grey Lynn, having controversially defeated another former MP, Fred Bartram, for the Labour nomination. The major political issue of the day was the Great Depression, and Lee played a significant role in the formulation of Labour's economic policies. Lee also wrote his first novel, "Children of the Poor" — the book was largely autobiographical, and was a considerable success. The book argued that poverty generated crime and vice, and that only a socialist program could solve society's problems.


When Labour won the 1935 elections with a large majority, and formed its first government, many expected Lee to enter New Zealand Cabinet. However, Lee did not have the support of Michael Joseph Savage, the new Prime Minister. Savage appears to have considered Lee too radical and uncontrolled, while Lee considered Savage too cautious. The two had clashed on a number of policy issues, and in the end, Lee was not awarded ministerial rank — instead, he became an under-secretary. This position did not, however, have any legal authority until the following year, when Lee threatened to resign. Given responsibility for housing, Lee quickly moved to implement a "socialist" plan for state housing, with the construction of many new dwellings for the poor.

While Lee was highly enthusiastic about his housing program, he became increasingly unhappy with the new government's economic policies, which he saw as overly cautious. Lee gradually emerged as the leader of Labour's left-wing faction, opposed primarily by the more orthodox Minister of Finance, Walter Nash. Lee and his allies, as well as being strongly socialist, were influenced by social credit theory, and believed that the government should take immediate control of the country's financial system. Nash opposed this, and was able to block proposals put forward by Lee to nationalise the Bank of New Zealand. Gradually, Lee's criticism of the Labour Party's leadership became increasingly public.

As well as arguing for a more socialist policy platform, Lee also criticised the Labour Party's internal structure. In particular, he sought to abolish the tradition of having the Prime Minister appoint Cabinet — instead, he wished Cabinet to be elected by caucus. This was rejected by Savage, and Lee began to portray himself not merely as a campaigner for socialism but as a campaigner for internal party democracy. This stance won Lee considerable support from those who otherwise disliked his views. Lee's attacks came at a time of considerable difficulty for the Labour Party — Michael Joseph Savage was now seriously ill, and World War II was breaking out.

Departure from the Labour Party

Lee was censured by the Labour Party conference of 1939, but continued to attack Labour's leaders. Later that year, Lee published an article entitled "Psycho-pathology in politics", which attacked the mental capability of the seriously-ill Savage. This was seen as excessive even by many of Lee's allies — Savage was on the verge of death, and was seldom even conscious, let alone able to respond to the condemnation. Savage, in one of his more lucid states, described Lee as having made his life "a living hell", and much sympathy was generated.

On 25 March 1940, Lee was finally expelled from the Labour Party. Savage died two days later, and was succeeded as Prime Minister by Peter Fraser, a member of the faction opposed to Lee's left-wingers. Lee quickly announced the establishment of the new Democratic Labour Party, with himself as leader. He was joined by Bill Barnard, the Speaker and former Mid-Canterbury Labour MP Horace Edgar Herring . Others, eg John Payne, Labour MP Rex Mason and Independent MP Harry Atmore were sympathetic.

However, Lee soon alienated many of his supporters (including Barnard) with what was seen as an "autocratic" leadership style, ironic considering his complaints against Savage. In the 1943 elections, the Democratic Labour Party put forward 52 candidates, including Keith Hay, Alfred E. Allen and Colin Scrimgeour (who stood against Peter Fraser in Wellington Central. The DLP won only 4.3% of the vote, Lee lost his seat to Labour candidate Frederick Hackett, and none were elected. Barnard stood as an Independent and also lost.

Later life

Although his parliamentary career was over, Lee continued to write. He remained strongly hostile to the Labour Party, and denounced its leaders as traitors to the working class. In 1963, he published his political memoirs, entitled "Simple on a Soap-box". He continued to comment on political matters for some time, although he surprised many with his defence of the United States in the Vietnam War. He was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Otago in 1969.

Lee died in Auckland in 1982. His wife, Marie (Mollie) Lee, had died in 1976. They had no children, although they raised Lee's three nephews after his sister's death.

Literary works

Books (first publication)
* "Children of the Poor," 1934.
* "The Hunted," 1936.
* "Civilian into Soldier," 1937.
* "The Yanks are Coming," 1943.
* "Shining with the Shiner," 1944.
* "Socialism in New Zealand," 1938.
* "Simple on a Soapbox," 1963.
* "Rhetoric at the Red Dawn," 1965.
* "Delinquent Days," 1967.
* "Mussolini’s Millions," 1970
* "Political Notebooks," 1973.
* "For Mine is the Kingdom," 1975
* "Soldier," 1976
* "The John A. Lee Diaries 1936–1940," 1981


[ 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand]

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