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Huw Jarvis: Déjà Vu for the Left

Is the Deputy Prime Minister the same “socialist” who used to argue in the 1980s for the necessity of party activists and MPs to stand up and be counted if their party was selling its soul? Huw Jarvis examines whether Jim Anderton still stands for the democratic principles he once fought for.

Jim and Matt In Happier Days

Déjà Vu for the Left

Over the last two decades Jim Anderton has been part of two different political parties that have shifted to the right and drifted away from their founding principles. In both situations the parliamentary wing in government has been behind the rightward trajectory while the party organisation has attempted to fight this transformation. However there is a crucial difference between the two parallel situations. In the 1980s Anderton argued in favour of the supremacy of the party organisation, and to that end he led a bitter fight against his parliamentary colleagues in the Labour Party, but in 2002 Anderton now leads the parliamentary wing of the Alliance in their battle to suppress the power and influence of the party.

At the centre of the conflict between, in the first instance Jim Anderton and the 1980s Labour parliamentary leadership, and in the second instance between Matt McCarten and the current Alliance parliamentary leadership, is a dispute over the roles of the extra-parliamentary party and the MPs. There are two main schools of thought on the role and relationship of the party organisation outside of Parliament: (1) The extra-parliamentary organisation should be a pliable and compliant party that knows its place as the raffle-ticket sellers and who can be relied upon to be there when needed and who keep their members of parliament informed. (2) The party organisation must be a mass-based democratic movement involving the membership and ensuring that their will is followed by the parliamentary leadership. It is the conflict between these two models that explains much about the split in both the Labour Party in the 1980s and in the Alliance at the moment.

Anderton as President

Jim Anderton was the epitome of a strong, assertive party president when he held that position in the Labour Party from 1979 to 1984. Seeing his job as representing the party organization and membership, he was an outspoken and unabashed “socialist” leader.

Anderton viewed the parliamentary and party wings of the Labour Party as distinctly separate parts of the Labour Party, with separate roles. In winning the presidency in 1979, he essentially declared the party organisation’s independence from and its supremacy over the parliamentary wing. According to political scientist Barry Gustafson, it was only during Anderton's presidency that the party organisation took a "stance independent of the parliamentary leadership". Until the election of Anderton, the dominance of MPs on the executive of the party had long been resented and Anderton’s election was part of a campaign by activists to make the party organisation represent rank-and-file members. Previously the president was typically an MP, and the parliamentary wing of Labour had become prone to ignoring the wishes of the conference when it seemed politically expedient. One of the motivating forces of the Labour Left was therefore to empower the membership and party organization. As a result, from 1979 the parliamentary party lost control over the organisational wing.

Anderton arguably became the most successful Labour Party president ever. Under his presidency Labour achieved one of the highest per capita memberships of any Labour Party in the western world. His presidency made him a national figure and a force to be reckoned with within the party. He also strengthened and modernised the extra-parliamentary wing of the party, and he was tipped as a future prime minister.

Significantly, Anderton was no “party hack”. On countless occasions, Anderton played a key role in drawing a distinction between the views of the parliamentary and the extra-parliamentary wings of the party. When a coup was attempted on the leadership of Bill Rowling by David Lange and the future Rogernomes, Anderton acted decisively and publicly in rallying the party to Rowling’s support. Likewise, as president Anderton repeatedly clashed with Lange as the new Labour leader – most famously on the issue of nuclear ships, on which Lange had a more moderate position than the party. Anderton asserted the right of the party organisation to assert its strength to push the MPs to keep to principles: “When I was president, admittedly when we were in Opposition, we had considerable clout…. Look at the anti-nuclear policy. Lange was opposed to that. We made him accept it. The government didn’t want the South African consulate to go. I went on TV the day after the election and stated party policy. The caucus berated me but the consulate packed up and went because they thought what the president said carried weight.”

According to Anderton, "The party viewpoint has to be expressed, sometimes very forcefully." This led to considerable tension between himself and parliamentary leadership of David Lange and Roger Douglas. Of course within all political parties there is a natural tension over who should have the final authority over things like party policy. But the Labour Party was specifically formed with the intention to give greater weight to the extra-parliamentary party in policy-making, with the MPs being seen as the agents of the wider labour movement. When he was president, Anderton was merely re-establishing and protecting this tradition.

Jim And Matt Together At A New Labour Party Conference

Entering Parliament

When the Fourth Labour Government began to implement the free market policies that Anderton regarded as being contrary to the Labour tradition and detrimental to the party’s constituency, he spoke out. By this stage he was no longer party president, but now a new entrant backbench MP. Anderton attempted to organise a loose faction of about fourteen left-wing MPs formed inside the Government caucus, but ultimately it proved too difficult for them to work with him. However Anderton said that being a minority in the caucus would not stop him arguing for what was right.

Moderation was something that Anderton professed to have no time for, and in fact his public profile was boosted when he criticised Lange's call for moderation and "winning the middle ground". Anderton claimed that workers were sick of a "moderation" which cost them their livelihood. The stability of the Labour Government was never of chief concern to Anderton, who upheld the need to speak against the New Right economic framework as being the most important role he could play as a Labour representative. His public criticism became so embarrassing that in March 1988 Prime Minister Lange stripped Anderton of his chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Parliament.

Aligning with the Party Organisation

Anderton found greater opposition to Rogernomics within the wider Labour Party organisation. However, many of these potential allies disliked Anderton’s very public and confrontational strategy, preferring to use “constructive engagement” behind the scenes. According to Margaret Wilson, then president of the Labour Party, she tried to work with Anderton but found him too intransigent, and she was frustrated by his strategy of constantly using the media to communicate his point of view. She reluctantly came to the conclusion that her working relationship with Anderton had to end. Despite this, Anderton retained a substantial following amongst the leftwing of the party.

During Labour’s second term in the 1980s, the Labour Left and Anderton attempted to make constitutional changes which could stymie the MPs moving the party further to the right. The strategy was to utilise the party constitution and mechanisms of party process to bind the parliamentary wing of the party to the more leftwing party organisation and membership.

Anderton and the Leftwing also found common ground with the centrists in the party who were seriously concerned with the parliamentary wing’s disregard for Labour’s election manifesto and the political process expected of New Zealand governments. As a result of the conflict over broken election promises and the general schism in the relationship between party and MPs “Policy Committees” were created in 1988 to deal with situations where the government wished to reconcile differences between party policy and new government policies.

The conflict between the Left and the Rightwing of the party further manifested itself during the candidate selection process for Auckland Central, when the party tried to deselect Richard Prebble as the candidate. Prebble subsequently sued the Labour Party and several of his opponents in Auckland Central. Prebble’s fight against the Labour dissidents was supported by the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues who endorsed Prebble’s legal action against their own party. Crucially, while Jim Anderton was not directly involved in the fight against Prebble, a key protagonist was an energetic young unionist named Matt McCarten.

1988 Presidential Bid

At the 1988 Labour Party Annual Conference Anderton sought to use his support amongst the Left in a bid to get re-elected to the party presidency, a position that he had given up when he entered parliament in 1984. David Lange, Roger Douglas, and Richard Prebble all took the unusual step, before the conference, of issuing statements making it clear that the Government would not find Anderton acceptable as party president. Although Anderton managed to win most of the union vote, he narrowly lost the vote to Ruth Dyson. This was a turning point in the Leftwing’s fight against Rogernomics.

It was at this stage that Anderton started to work with Matt McCarten. Along with a disdain for the Richard Prebble and Rogernomics, Anderton shared a number of political characteristics with McCarten – such as a seriousness about organising, speaking out about leftwing principles, and the importance of having a party that truly represented working people. McCarten learnt much from the former Labour president, and they formed a close working relationship that would eventually establish one of the more important parties in New Zealand political history. As an organisational leader of this new party McCarten essentially operated as Anderton had done within the Labour Party.

Caucus Suspension

Anderton’s next move within Labour was to request the permission of his Labour caucus to abstain from voting on the sale of the Bank of New Zealand in December 1988. Although the government had specifically promised it would not sell the asset, Anderton was denied such permission. When the sale went ahead, Anderton broke caucus discipline and abstained anyway. He was consequently suspended from the caucus and faced the threat of a permanent expulsion.

A row then erupted over whether the Labour caucus had the power to suspend MPs. The party's New Zealand Council investigated the situation and ruled that caucus did not have powers to suspend members and that Anderton would have to be readmitted. The parliamentary leadership rejected these findings, with David Lange incredibly stating his refusal to have caucus dictated to by outside bodies. Some of the Labour MPs had become very hostile to the idea of politicians being accountable to the political parties that had had them elected. Roger Douglas, in particular, treated the Labour Party as but one more vested sectional interest which the government should not allow itself to be captured by. Prebble, during his period in government, said that the view of the party was “totally irrelevant to the election undertakings we gave to the New Zealand public”. Trevor De Cleene agreed, stating that “political parties do not and should not have a role in Government”.

Establishment of a New Party

On April 18 the following year, Anderton called a press conference to announce his resignation from the Labour Party. Immediately, large numbers of members around the country took his cue and resigned. This event was to mark the end of a long drought for leftwing politics and set the scene for the possible re-emergence of a substantial left-wing vehicle in New Zealand.

The party that eventually emerged – the Alliance – ended up with the same basic organisation structure as the Labour Party. It gave official supremacy to the extra-parliamentary organisation and its annual conference, but in effect was run by the parliamentary leadership. So while Jim Anderton had previously fought for a more democratic Labour Party where the parliamentary leader would not rule by decree, the hierarchical structure of the new party never evolved far beyond the top-down omnipresence of Jim Anderton – in fact, the Alliance became an even more centralised party than Labour. The conflict within the Alliance has therefore followed a similar pattern to that set down within the Labour Party in the 1980s; the Alliance grassroots membership have demanded more direct input into the policy making process while parliamentary hierarchy has asserted its right to a degree of independence in furthering the Alliance’s appeal to a wider electorate.

Inevitably the same struggle between caucus and the party started to emerge – particularly after the election of 13 MPs in the first MMP election in 1996. At this stage the locus of power shifted firmly to Jim Anderton’s control within caucus, who took command of the multi-million dollar parliamentary resources allocated to the party. Naturally from this point onwards an organisational tension – rather than a personal one – continued between McCarten and Anderton about control of, and influence over party affairs. The two continued to operate amicably, but the logic of this tension inevitably led to greater conflict as both wings continued to assert their right to control the direction of the Alliance. In this sense McCarten was taking on the same fight that Anderton had fought a decade earlier, while Anderton was adopting the very same organisational anti-party position that he had previously challenged.

The parallels have continued in many other ways, such as Anderton’s approach to dissent. In the late 1980s Anderton criticised his Labour Party colleagues for not having “the political maturity or sophistication to handle dissent”, which he claimed meant that his own “views had no chance in the Labour Party. Dissent was treason”. Anderton also asserted his belief that political dissent is a freedom that must be allowed to be exercised. He argued that when the need arises a politician must be able to say “I cannot sign this because it is not in accord with the traditions and policies of the party”. Yet after he became leader of a party – and especially after he became Deputy Prime Minister – Anderton acted blatantly to crush dissent in his own Alliance party. According to various Alliance activists and even MPs, Anderton has totally dominated the party by his constant threats, firings of staff, bullying behaviour and unwillingness to entertain any opinions but his own. It seems that in the late 1980s, Anderton was practicing the “politics of dissent”, yet since the 1990s he has been involved in the “politics of suppression”.

One of the weapons used by the Alliance-Right against the party organisation has been to re-direct their tithes away from the party to a special caucus account controlled by Jim Anderton and Grant Gillon. A very similar attempt to control financial resources was also used earlier by Anderton’s enemies within the Labour Party. At the 1987 general election, Lange, Douglas and co decided that the millions of corporate dollars donated to the Fourth Labour Government should be retained in a private fund hidden even from the party executive.

Over its ten years of existence, and under Jim Anderton’s leadership, the Alliance has steadily dropped in popularity, reaching its nadir in February this year, when a TV1 poll showed that only 1% supported the party. Anderton claimed this was due to the disunity and infighting produced by the actions of the Alliance-Left. Secondly he argued that the unpopularity was due to a failure of the party to communicate with the electorate. On both these counts, Anderton’s explanations have sounded uncannily similar to those of Roger Douglas when he attempted to explain the decline and eventual defeat of the Fourth Labour Government as being due to the Labour Left. Douglas argued that the slide in the polls after 1987 and the eventual electoral defeat in 1990 were brought about largely by disunity in the party, a failure to communicate the success of the reforms, and David Lange’s undoing of the economic programme.

Anderton to Depart Again?

The Rightwing faction of the Alliance now talks openly about the possibility of departing the Alliance and establishing a new party. Such musings or plans are also akin to those of Roger Douglas in 1987 when he proposed splitting from the Labour Party to start a new party if the party organisation continued to work against those in the parliamentary wing. At this time Douglas proposed to his fellow rightwing MPs that if the party executive continued to select "left" candidates for Parliament, they should tell the executive that “45-50 members of the Labour Government were moving to form another party and leave Labour with Anderton and four or five others, selecting our remaining candidates from a wide cross-section of New Zealanders”. Douglas argued that to have done that would have won the new party 80 seats. And like Anderton in 2002, in the late 1980s Douglas stopped attending party events and meetings, and distanced himself from the party he had been a member of for decades. Suddenly Douglas was in effect, campaigning as the leader of a separate party. Anderton is now in effect doing the same.

Anderton used to justifiably claim that “I didn’t leave the Labour Party – the Labour Party left me”. Anderton correctly argued that he and thousands of others left the Labour Party because its MPs had given up on their principles and policies. He will not be able to credibly say the same about leaving the Alliance – because it is clearly Anderton and his six MPs that have given up on Alliance principles and policies. This is most recently apparent in his support for the war against Afghanistan – a decision that went against everything the party once stood for.

When Anderton eventually walks away from the Alliance, the number of members he recruits to his new party will be telling. Whereas his NLP and Alliance parties recruited thousands, Anderton is likely to be left with a bunch of Social Creditors and assorted individuals – a far cry from anything like a movement. This will indicate that unlike his departure from Labour, Anderton’s latest party split has little to do with principles and everything to do with personal ambitions and the trappings of power. It seems that the Deputy Prime Minister is not the same person that inspired a loyal following of social activists and voters over a decade ago.

Jim Anderton risks becoming a politician without integrity. This is evidenced by his justification of his current stance – which is one not made on political principle, but justified by the popularity and “success” of the coalition government. But Anderton fails to remember that he started criticising the Fourth Labour Government when it was actually the most popular administration in decades. In an inglorious conclusion to his career and party, Anderton has forgotten that popularity does not equal integrity or righteousness.

The McCarten-Anderton dispute is no ordinary conflict between ambitious politicians. It is a much more fundamental battle between competing ideologies for control of the political machine. This is history repeating itself, only where once Jim Anderton was once on the side of party democracy and radicalism today he is firmly on the side of the caucus autocracy and opportunism. In his place, Matt McCarten now takes up Anderton’s struggle for radical change, for a party in which its MPs are accountable to their membership, and for the retention of important political principles.

- Send any feedback on this article to:

PS: In his reply to my article last week, Alliance MP John Wright alleged that I am a member of the Alliance. This is not true.

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