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Nick Kelly And The Labour Party

Nick Kelly burst into the news last year when he was sacked as Paul Swain's electorate chair for protesting against the Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement. His experiences in the Labour Party have since become the stuff of urban legend. Here are the selected highlights, as told by Nick himself.

PART 1: the Labour Party

Everybody should join a political party, just to see how undemocratic our political system really is.

I joined Labour when I was 14 years old, naively believing it to be a left-wing Party. It was founded by unions in 1916, and to this day the membership card says it stands for "Democratic Socialism". From early 1997 until late 1999, I was a fiercely supportive Labour member. I saw Labour as the alternative to the National Party, who had inflicted great suffering upon the people of Aotearoa with student fees, benefit cuts, job losses, asset sales and the general running down of our health and education system. I spent many hours fundraising, postering, door-knocking, letter writing and campaigning for the Labour Party and my local Labour MP, Paul Swain.

Swain was once a student radical, and now describes himself as a "former left-winger". He represents the Rimutaka electorate, which covers the upper Hutt Valley. It is probably one of the safest Labour seats in New Zealand, yet in 1990 he nearly lost the seat for supporting the sale of Telecom and trying to justify Rogernomics.

After the "left-wing" victory in the 1999 election, I became even more involved with the party. Labour meetings were usually small: by 2000 only three people would attend LEC (Labour Electorate Committee) meetings. Being the only person under 60 in the committee I was made its chair (aged 17) on Swain's suggestion. I managed to re-build it, within a year increasing meeting numbers to around 10-15 members. We were $8,000 in debt when I took over; by the time of my illegal sacking as chair we had paid that off and had money in the bank.

One of my main achievements was to start policy debates. These were successful, and demonstrated that party members' opinions were miles away from that of Paul Swain and the party hierarchy. For example, party members were almost unanimously in favour of the bank; Paul couldn't see why the government should be involved in the private sector.

Another divisive issue was the Singapore Free Trade deal. Someone who used to work at the GM car assembly plant in Upper Hutt - before it was closed down due to tariff cuts in the 1980s and 1990s - raised the issue of the deal two days before it was signed. His concern was that this Singapore deal (and others like it) would continue the trend of closures and decrease New Zealanders' control of their own economy.

Paul's line on the Trade deal was: "Free trade is government policy. This Singapore deal is going to be really great for our economy. Obviously, I can't actually tell you what is going to be in the deal. But trust me, it's going to be really good for this country!"

At this point, I became opposed to Free Trade. Once you have to take an MP's word that a secret trade deal is OK, it's gotta be dodgy!

However, I really lost confidence in the Labour Party at their 2001 regional conference in Upper Hutt. Generally, these meeting are excruciatingly boring, full of dry speeches on the importance of fundraising.

I enlivened this firstly by getting a remit through Labour's youth branch on free education. (This was much to Paul's annoyance, and he told us to vote against it. "I got a virtually free education in the 1970s and I wasted it and never worked. I don't see why this younger generation should be able to do the same". He has a point: Paul Swain's free education has been of absolutely no benefit to our society.)

However, over 90% of Labour delegates supported my remit for free education, universal allowances and restoration of the EUB (Emergency Unemployment Benefit), most believing it to be the only way to stop student poverty and to get working class kids into tertiary education.

Unfortunately, this remit was to have no effect whatsoever on Labour policy. All remits are sent to the Labour policy council, where they get buried if the hierarchy doesn't like them. Changing Labour Party policy as a party member isn't even a remote possibility - political graffiti on a brick wall would have more effect than a Labour Party policy remit.

At the conference, a remit was put recommending more discussion of free trade agreements and globalisation. Swain's reply was: "I agree we should discuss globalisation more. However, we must support it as it's good. It's the anarchists who are the enemies and are opposing what we are trying to achieve." I was incensed. I stood up and yelled, "How dare you? Anti-globalisation protesters aren't just anarchists, and they certainly aren't the enemy. They are workers trying to protect their jobs, and if you were a half-decent MP you'd be trying to protect workers' jobs as well. The Government should completely reverse its position on Globalisation."

This didn't go down well.

PART 2: the Party fires Nick

I officially fell out with the Party hierarchy in early September 2001 at a Labour party forum on globalisation. I hoped a decent debate would occur and that party members would become aware of how outrageous it is for a party that claims to stand for "Democratic Socialism" to support globalisation. However, my 15-minute speech was the only real opposition to globalisation presented. I told them about how free trade deals put jobs in Aotearoa at risk and cause labour exploitation in the 'Third World'. Having education in the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) meant the government was required to fund private education providers, regardless of quality. Globalisation was a threat to the Treaty of Waitangi as it allowed foreign corporates to take control of Aotearoa. Sadly, nobody was prepared to listen. I decided something had to be done - so I released my speech to the press.

Knowing the media would love this story, Paul Swain rang me up to beg me not to speak to them. "Nick, if you shit-bag Labour and me you'll just help National," he said. When I pointed out that there were more than two political parties in parliament, he angrily replied, "Globalisation is government policy, and there is nothing you can do to stop it". After pointing out that the Hong Kong Free Trade deal was National Party policy that Labour hadn't changed, I got a 2-hour lecture. Eventually, Swain gave up.

Next day, most newspapers in the country covered the story - "Chair of Rimutaka Labour opposes Globalisation" was one headline. It led to questions in parliament, talkback debates and an interview with Kim Hill. Within minutes, the party hierarchy had started planning how to have me sacked from my position and drive me out of the party.

A week or so later, I was summoned to the Labour Party General Secretary's office. On arrival, I was greeted by a man called Mike, who sat me down and started talking to me in a very fatherly sort of way. "Nick, I've read some of your press releases, including the speech you gave. Um, the problem is you hold office.." I told him the Labour Party as a collective does not support the free trade and globalisation policies that are being forced upon the people of New Zealand.

We then talked about my position as Chair of the Rimutaka LEC. "Nick, we can't stop you expressing these opinions within the Party. But you can't do it as the Chair of the Rimutaka LEC. Once you resign from this position, you are free to express your views as much as you like." (In other words, if you don't hold office in the party we can ignore your criticisms. However, while you're Chair of the LEC we actually have to listen to you, and we don't want to do that.) I then asked, "Well what happens if I don't resign?" The look of terror on that man's face! "There is no way you can't resign, there are rules in the constitution about what you have done," he said. I left that meeting determined not to resign: I wasn't going to let 20,000 people, 170 of them in my electorate, be put out of work by neo-liberals.

A couple of weeks later, I attended the Rimutaka LEC meeting, where I was to be sacked as Chair. The meeting was of course stacked; my supporters felt too intimidated to turn up. I walked in to be greeted by a chorus of "Hi Nick" accompanied by fake smiles. Then Paul Swain looked up at me and said, "Oh gidday, Nick mate, how's it going?" (This was a shameless attempt by Paul to be a human being). "Hi, not so bad," I said.

I began by stating that I wasn't going to resign as chair of the electorate committee, as I felt it my duty to stay and represent the 20,000 clothing and textile workers who were about to be shafted by the government. The meeting started and a written motion of "no confidence in Nick as the chair due to his public comments" was moved. This was when I began to piss them off with procedure. "Um, excuse me, but in the party constitution it states that no motion can be put without prior notice, and none has been given. Also under the rules of natural justice you should have sent this motion out to all members before the meeting," I said. To which the LEC secretary replied, "Oh well, we never bother with the constitution in meetings". Paul then piped up and asked, "Nick are you taping this meeting?" I said I wasn't.

People then said what they thought of me. Comments included: "You can't slag off Labour, if you do you'll end up with National and they'll start introducing right wing policies." (Free trade being such a left wing ideology.) "You've put the government at risk, and in particular Paul Swain's job and reputation." "Nick, you've betrayed our trust, the people here trusted you, you've betrayed them." "Hell, we lived through that whole Rogernomics era, but we never once spoke out against Labour." The motion of course carried, though totally unconstitutional. (All complaints then and since have been laughed at.)

I decided after this to leave. I gave a fairly emotive speech about Labour's selling out the workers before storming out. (Interestingly for a Labour Party meeting, I was the only person who actually mentioned the workers..)

Meanwhile, Young Labour were showing their true blue colours as well. I had been made the Wellington Rep for Young Labour. I found they had a couple of e-mail groups, one of them for policy debate. Naively, I thought this might be a place to express my concerns regarding globalisation. What I quickly learnt was that Young Labour wasn't a place in which to debate policy, and certainly not to be critical of government policy. Responses to my postings included "You're just chanting slogans of 'Globalisation Boo' and you should shut up."

When my opposition to the government on globalisation became a news story, my opponents in Young Labour took the opportunity to have me thrown off all the e-mail lists, and they asked me not to attend any phone conferences or anything (for fear I might go to the press with them). As one person put it, "If Young Labour supports the death penalty, we can't trust you not to publicly criticise us for it."

Two days after my sacking as Paul Swain's electorate Chair, Young Labour had a phone conference. They decided that they'd put a no-confidence motion in me at their November conference in Auckland. Things were about to get interesting.

PART 3: Dragged Kicking and Screaming

The conference was held in Takapuna on the North Shore of Auckland, one of the wealthiest areas in New Zealand, with some of the country's lowest statistics for unemployment, crime and youth suicide. It is one of the safest National Party seats in the country, full of wealthy capitalists who'd like a nice big tax cut so they could buy yet another BMW. Once again, Labour were trying to appease the wealthy elite while ignoring the workers in South Auckland who'd actually voted Labour.

After an interesting breakfast of people politely saying hello then desperately trying not to talk either to me or about me, we started the Labour sector meeting, which had only 15-25 people. (Labour is a low membership Party: it only has about 10,000 members, of which less than a thousand are active, compared with the Alliance, which has a membership of 12,000 and an active membership of about 2 thousand). Items 4 & 5 on the agenda were motions of confidence and no confidence in Nick Kelly - it was going to be a long day.

The morning was spent in policy discussion, the interesting bit of which took place when Trevor Mallard came in and started debating with me.

Nick: "Do you support the Hong Kong Free Trade deal, and if so how many people in your electorate of Hutt South will lose their jobs?"

Trevor: "Yes, and not that many."

Nick: "Rubbish."

Trevor: "There would be very few, as most of the textile industry has already closed. The main one in my electorate would be Rembrant's, but they mainly do finishing." He looked down into his pants. "I think these come from there, but I won't take them off to see the label." (A sigh of relief goes through the room.)

Nick: "What about the use of child labour and poor work conditions of clothing made in China sold to us through Hong Kong?"

Trevor: "We have rules of origin and government can intervene"

(This is true; the trouble is that rules of origin cannot and will not be policed.)

When my item finally came up, the first 20 or so minutes of debate weren't about me - they were about which motion to put up to then debate about me, confidence or no confidence. After the entire party constitution had been read to us a dozen or so times, and various civilisations had risen and fallen, it was decided that it would be a no-confidence vote.

People were unhappy about what I'd done as Paul Swain's electorate chair (put morality before Party loyalty), and they were unhappy that I actually posted left-wing opinions on their e-mail list. The motion carried 16 to 14. Some of my supporters were unhappy about it, but I wasn't - I saw it as an honour that these people had no confidence in me. I must be doing something right!

After this we were graced with the presence of Phil Goff, who came to justify the government's war-mongering. Apparently, the lives of Americans in New York are more important than those of peasants in Afghanistan. And a free trade deal with USA will be much better for business confidence than anything the Afghan economy has to offer. I asked him, "What is the difference between innocent civilians being killed in American by terrorists and innocent civilians in Afghanistan being killed by the US airforce?" He gave the standard response that war was the only way to counter terrorism (conceding, however, that the CIA had caused the problems in Afghanistan in the 1980s). He even tried to justify it by saying that once they'd finished bombing Afghanistan, they would try to do some aid work there as well.

The next day started off with a picket outside the Labour conference over the Afghanistan bombing. I was there - you'd have needed an army of Sumo wrestlers to stop me. I picketed for over an hour, if for no other reason than to regain my sanity. When I tried to enter the conference, the police tried to stop me. "How did you get that delegate card, you can't come in here?" they said. Finally, someone from Labour head office informed them that I was a "well known" member of Labour.

I spent the morning being avoided by Labour members. Every now and then when nobody was around, someone would come up to me and congratulate me. The most eventful bit came when I made a speech to the conference in reply to Michael Cullen, who had told us that Globalisation "wasn't a policy, it was an inevitable fact." I told everyone I was opposed to the "New Right Globalisation Policy". I then quoted that great speech Helen Clark made in 1983 opposing the CER (see: http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/97/5.htm it's wonderfully ironic).

I ended my speech with "You shouldn't be supporting murder in Afghanistan to get free trade with America." This resulted in a third of the conference bursting into thunderous applause (the other two thirds shook their heads in disbelief).

Helen's keynote speech was scheduled for 2pm that day. This speech is the height of the conference and one of the most important speeches the Labour leader makes all year. It's a real performance: thousands of dollars are given to PR firms to make this event absolutely perfect. Every word of the speech is cleverly crafted, well rehearsed and has to be said with exactly the right emotion. The audience is part of the show, too: they're told when to clap, to stand, to sit, to laugh, to cry, to nod and to cheer.

I sat down the front of the mezzanine floor, towards the centre. Within minutes, the Labour Party President, Tolich, and other senior party hacks were sitting around me. My heart was pounding; sweat was pouring down my back like a waterfall. Then finally the lights dim. The music starts building up, the lights get dimmer and dimmer, and then..

In walks the one and only Prime Minister Helen Clark! The music booms, and, as per the script, everyone in the room stands up and gives a thunderous round of applause like robotic puppets that someone just turned on. Helen's speech started the same as it did last year . it was in fact the same speech she gave to last year's conference. I began to get nervous. She had to mention Afghanistan or September 11, she just had to. The party officials were still keeping an eye on me. My heart was beating faster. I waited, I waited - and en it finally happened. "September 11", "World Trade Centre" and "Afghanistan," she said. It was my cue..

"What about the bloody war? Stop the war! In 1999 you opposed the bombing of Kosovo. Why aren't you doing the same now? It is unacceptable to support murder in Afghanistan to get a free trade deal with America," I shouted. The media cameras and reporters fixed on Helen suddenly swung around and started running towards me - as did numerous security guards. I continued to shout anti-war slogans at Helen. The party hacks next to me were grabbing my arms and telling me to sit down. Finally, Tolich handed me over to a security guard, who nearly pulled my right arm out of its socket and managed to drag me out of the hall.

Outside in the foyer, a dozen police grabbed me by both arms and dragged me outside. "That was a bloody stupid thing to have done," yelled officer @#$%. "Why did you do it?" I began to explain that I belong to the Labour Party and think their support of the bombing was totally wrong, but officer @#$% just interrupted with a very nasty attack on my political beliefs and tactics. Officer @#$% was accusing me of not actually being in Labour when a party official came out, Admitted I was a member of Labour, removed my delegate card, said what I did was regrettable, and walked off. Officer @#$% then told me to join the Greens and stop annoying Labour. After yet another appalling attack on my political beliefs I was issued with a trespass notice.

Some of the protesters looked after me - one even shouted me a drink. Various Labour members congratulated me on my stand. Others gave me dirty looks or abused me - one even pulled the fingers.

I was all over the news again. When my boss at work saw it, he was really excited. "For $6 a year you can join Labour, go to their meetings and shout at the Prime Minister, that's a good deal!" he said.

So that, briefly, is my story. Labour has sold out to the people who supported it, and seems to be moving further to the right by the hour. I haven,t left Labour as I intend to keep fighting them. If they don,t like it, they can throw me out!

Ends


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