Tuesday 9 January 2018

Jim Anderton: An Unlikely Left-Wing Hero.

1984 And All That: Jim Anderton chairs Labour's Victory Conference in August 1984. His reforms had made the Labour win possible, but the so-called "Free Market" policies of Roger Douglas and his Cabinet colleagues would set Anderton and hundreds of his fellow party members on a collision course with their own government.

MY FIRST, and most vivid, memory of Jim Anderton is of him striding towards me carrying a crate of beer. It was 1982, and he’d been sent south by the Labour Leader, Bill Rowling, to quieten down a bunch of rambunctious Labour dissidents.

There’s an irony there, somewhere, because Jim Anderton stands second only to John A. Lee among Labour dissidents. Even so, he had made the trip south to Dunedin to ensure that there was no more public criticism of Bill Rowling for backing Rob Muldoon’s emergency legislation overturning the Privy Council’s decision conferring New Zealand citizenship on Western Samoans born after 1924.

The way he did this always struck me as impressive. Instead of browbeating the young idealists gathered around his rapidly emptying beer crate, he told them, instead, the story of his own doomed attempt to correct what he saw as a great wrong in the Labour Party.

Anderton had joined the Labour Party in 1963 and was immediately struck by how completely it was dominated by the affiliated trade unions. These grim, trench-coated men held the party in an iron grip, ruthlessly wielding their infamous “card vote” to crush any policy remits considered, by themselves, to be excessively radical. Against this frank tyranny of the affiliated union majority, the progressive branch membership of the Labour Party stood little chance.

With all the impetuosity of youth, Jim told us, he’d determined to open-up and democratise the Labour Party. Authoring a comprehensive reform programme (immediately dubbed “Anderton’s Little Red Book”) he attempted to place it on the floor of the 1967 Labour Party Conference for debate.

Unfortunately, Jim had failed to secure anything like the support necessary to realise his plans. Having delivered an impassioned speech in favour of democratic change, he was astounded to discover that the “top table” had made certain his would be a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Outmanoeuvred and humiliated, Jim undertook the long, slow walk to the exit.

“If you’re determined to go over the top,” he told us, “just make sure that you don’t turn around in the middle of No Man’s Land to discover that there’s no one following you. Because, if you’re out there on your own, the enemy’s going to shoot you to pieces.”

It was a lesson in the importance of political organisation that Anderton never forgot. It would take him more than a decade to build the support necessary to take over the party organisation. But when, in 1979, he finally won the Labour Presidency, his long-prepared modernisation programme transformed the party. Under his leadership, Labour’s branch membership rose spectacularly to more than 85,000. The trench-coated union bosses had met their match.

We all knew what he was saying. Having a crack at the leadership may make you feel better, but unless you take the party with you, all that you’re going to achieve is your own marginalisation and defeat.

Six years on, as the tens-of-thousands of members Anderton had recruited between 1979 and 1984 voted with their feet against the comprehensive betrayal of Labour principles that was Rogernomics, the man himself was hard at work laying the groundwork for what would, less than a year later, in May 1989, become the NewLabour Party. This time, when Anderton went over the top he was not alone: thousands followed him.

Not that those of us drinking beer with him in that little house above Otago Harbour saw any of the trials and tragedies that loomed ahead of James Patrick Anderton. Of the damage his extraordinary efforts to keep Labour’s principles alive – both philosophically and electorally – were destined to inflict upon him and his family we knew nothing.

The mission required a person of towering egotism and inflexible will. It was, therefore, inevitable that in fighting the dragon of Rogernomics, Jim would become something of a dragon himself. And yet, what else but a dragon could have rescued the Labour Party from itself?

Jim Anderton was an unlikely left-wing hero. Successful manufacturer; devout Catholic; staunch opponent of trade union obduracy: he certainly did not meet the early-80s Labour Youth expectations of a revolutionary leader. And yet, like all genuine revolutionaries, Anderton understood that the essence of true left-wing leadership is the willingness to be guided by the need of the many, not the greed of the few.

It was the Fourth Labour Government’s inversion of this principle that so enraged Anderton. The point-blank refusal of David Lange, Roger Douglas and the rest, to accept that their New Right economic policies had received no mandate from those New Zealanders whose votes had put them into office.

“Always build your footpaths where the people walk”, he told us in 1982.

I have never forgotten his simple political aphorism. The Labour Party he rescued would do well to remember it.

This obituary was originally posted on the Stuff website on Monday, 8 January, and published in The Press of Tuesday 9 January 2018.


peteswriteplace said...

Excellent post. I remember Jim Anderton at Labour conferences. Unfortunately I didn't have the stomach to tolerate bullshit from some people in the party and let my membership lapse. I stood a couple of times for the Hutt council. But I have supported and worked for the party since. I was at one stage a fairly prolific letter writer to newspapers, especially in the Muldoon days.A truly great man, Jim. RIP.

Pinger said...

the old crate of quarts trick...

greywarbler said...

Events have proved Jim correct and I understand him more than I did, even when voting for him. Your picture of him and interpretation of his approach is spot on I believe Chris thanks.

Tauhei Notts said...

There is one sentence in that lengthy essay that I think Jacinda may have a REAL grip on;
"Jim Anderton understood that the essence of true left wing leadership is the willingness to be guided by the need of the many, not the greed of the few."

greywarbler said...

A rousing emotional song for Jim Anderton that expresses something that a lot of milk-and-water NZs couldn't express. They would think it was a bit OTT because they can't get passionate about feeling deeply about metaphysical matters. I hope that there are enough to save the country and guide us all towards a vision of a better and sustainable future.

Cordwainer said...

Excellent stuff, Chris.

David Stone said...

I always assumed it was loosing the labour party he had resurrected that taught Jim how tightly he had to control his organisation. I didn't realise he had already had such a salutary lesson.
To my own astonishment at the time,( I would never at that time have imagined myself doing so), but I joined the labour party during the time that Jim was still in it but Rogernomics was under way. And starting the asset sales programme. Jim Anderton's was the only public voice that seemed to be consistently opposing it, and I reasoned that there must be a core of traditional Labour members and administrators around him that were as perturbed as he was (and and I was) at what the government branch was doing to the country. I drafted a letter and had my local branch chair and candidate send it to head office. No support for any opposition to Rogernomics was forthcoming. The party hierarchy outside parliament closed around the parliamentary wing like a womb. Jim was completely alone it seemed to me. The members that followed him out and into the NLP must have been mostly pretty well down the pecking order , though the FOL and the PSA did what they could to try and tell the public what a disaster was taking place.
For the elite of the party , parliamentary and administrative , to have allowed it all to proceed it must have been known to most of them apart from Jim what Douglas was going to do once Jim had provided them with a victory at the ballot box , and that it would be devastating for him. He must have been isolated from the decision making core for long before the election and out of the loop. How was this if he had learned anything from the experience you site Chris?
No wonder he became a control freak from then on. I think the faults he is remembered for are something he learned he had to do.
Cheers D J S

Nick J said...

I for one still remember the betrayal by Douglas like it was yesterday, being one of those who bled away from Labour membership. At the launch of New Labour at a hall on Colombo St the audience was I remember wall to wall Labour LEC members, soon to be lost to Labour. Jim may have led the faithful away, and pulled Labour to the Left in coalition, but in reality he had lost. I for one only voted Labour again last election.

What I take from Jim and the Lefts failure in the face of Rogernomics was that he wasn't revolutionary in tactics like Douglas who proved to be a complete Leninist in how he dictated the revolution. Democratic principles put aside, Douglas slaughtered his own and adopted / created a new class that overtook it's real home, National.

Which is where Labour today comes in. Can they ever be revolutionary enough to reclaim their high ground?

countryboy said...

It's a pity Anderton never tried to take farming ( Primary industry )away from National and weld [them] to their down stream service industry unions? Then he'd a had the power to do anything he desired and NZ would have been a country, quite different from what it is today.
I do notice, however, that Anderton had a textiles export company? Was that textile wool I ponder? If so, then why oppose douglas when he was squeaking on about removing tarrifs?
Now? National still hold farmers over debt barrels while city people live in dire fear of their immediate future's as the Labour Party look more like a day time television soap opera but without the class. All glamour and puff but with no money to achieve much of anything because National hold the farmer's ( Primary Industry ) purse strings.
You'd think Labour now, and Anderton then, would've figured it out.
Perhaps they have, and did, and are just fuckin'with us?

jh said...

These grim, trench-coated men held the party in an iron grip, ruthlessly wielding their infamous “card vote” to crush any policy remits considered, by themselves, to be excessively radical. Against this frank tyranny of the affiliated union majority, the progressive branch membership of the Labour Party stood little chance.
what exactly did the "progressive" branch membership want?

BlisteringAttack said...

Of course Margaret Wilson was Labour party President from 1984-7.

She looked on when the 'run-away troika' was in action.

And did nothing.

sumsuch said...

Pragmatism v. idealism. I.e. how it is. I felt at the time the operator aspect of Anderton and McCarten undermined the heart of a cause that had the best heart. But, then again, the Greens.

Glad to hear the Samoans' citizenship mattered to Dunedin activists. Still remember the slapdown from Helen-in-power about that. The left should be a lot less realpolitek calculations (employing umpteen middle-classers like me) and a lot more bully pulpit. Isn't that absolutely vital to the cause of 'those that don't matter'?

D.S. I only joined Labour, at the cost of death by laughter, to vote for David Cunliffe, and then his recommendation

sumsuch said...

Disappointed at the number of comments for a hero of humanity and the NZ idea in comparison to your universal feminism post above, no matter its merits. Anderton, despite his limits (definition of human), was a vital, heroic New Zealander. The underdog was his heart. Where would we be without him?