Tuesday 6 November 2018

Labour’s Dunedin Conference: Returning To The Scene Of The Crime.

Perp Walk? Ruth Dyson moves towards the stage of the Dunedin Town Hall after defeating Jim Anderton for the Labour Party Presidency by 572 to 473 votes. Saturday, 3 September 1988.

THE LAST TIME the NZ Labour Party held its conference in Dunedin the stakes could not have been higher. Those for whom the Labour Party represented democratic-socialism were pitted against those for whom the Labour Party represented electoral pragmatism and the fulsome praise of New Zealand’s leading capitalists. In other words, it was a straight-out fight between the Left and the Right.

Tragically, the Right won.

Had Jim Anderton been elected President of the party (as he would have been, had the Engineers’ Union boss, Rex Jones, cast his 55 votes with the other affiliated unions supporting Jim) there would have been no NewLabour Party, and New Zealand Labour would become a Corbyn-style left-wing party long before its British namesake.

Anderton’s plan was simple: to have his allies on the Executive and Council of the party oversee the de-selection of the leading exponents of “Rogernomics” (Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Michael Bassett, Mike Moore) and ensure that their replacements were reliable opponents of the far-right policies these “Rogernomes” had introduced.

Anderton was well aware that de-selection would trigger a full-scale crisis within the party. Richard Prebble had already shown how far the right of the party was prepared to go by legally injuncting Labour's governing NZ Council from installing a hostile (but duly elected) electorate committee in his Auckland Central seat. At that time (May 1988) it was made clear to the party organisation that Roger Douglas’s supporters in the Labour caucus were willing to split the party rather than see Labour return to its traditional left-wing beliefs.

Anderton’s strategy was to call their bluff – precipitating their defection from the Labour Party. They would, presumably, be followed by their supporters in the Labour Party electorate committees and branches. Such a course of action would, in all likelihood, have caused the government to fall, requiring an early general election. Labour, purged of its free-market cuckoos, would have been free to run as its old self. The Rogernomes’ new party, hamstrung by the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, would have been defeated, and the Labour Left would have come into its inheritance.

The Labour “centrists”, led by Helen Clark, were horrified by the prospect of Labour moving so decisively to the Left. They may have hated Roger Douglas and his allies, but they feared Jim Anderton and his comrades much more. Rather than see the party split to the right, they prevailed upon the Rogernomes and their hard-line supporters in the infamous “Backbone Club” to acquiesce in the election of Ruth Dyson. The centrists hoped that Dyson, a senior party office holder with an honourable left-wing past, would encourage just enough of the rank-and-file to remain loyal to David Lange and his government - thereby ruining Anderton’s plans. Which is exactly what happened.

Did Clark and her centrist allies understand that by ensuring Anderton’s defeat they would be making a split to the left well-nigh inevitable? Almost certainly. But why would that worry them? Their strategic position would be secured by Anderton’s and the Labour Left’s departure. Moreover, the party’s inevitable defeat in 1990 would make it possible for them to appropriate Anderton’s de-selection strategy and make it their own in the run-up to 1993. The hapless Mike Moore could be duped into carrying the can for Labour right up until the moment Clark had the numbers to depose him – which she duly did just weeks after the 1993 General Election.

The Labour Party that last weekend (2-4 November 2018) returned to Dunedin, thirty years after the dramatic events of September 1988, is the inheritor of all that ideological and personal treachery. What’s more, it is a party that has never confronted and acknowledged its own wretched complicity in the events that inflicted so much harm upon its supporters back in the 1980s. It came very close in 2012 – at the Annual Conference held at Ellerslie – but, once again, a frightened leadership saw to it that the past remained unexamined. A pity, because as any theologian or psychotherapist will attest: sins unrepented have a nasty habit of repeating themselves.

In this regard, it was certainly fascinating to read Richard Harman’s account of the 2018 Annual Conference in Dunedin. The most notable feature of which he described as the “airbrushing” of Helen Clark out of Labour’s recent history:

“The weekend Labour conference saw the party rule a line under the last 30 or 40 years of its turbulent past and launch what in effect is a new Labour Party.”

Harman argues that “the new ‘progressive’ party is very much the product of the leader, Jacinda Ardern, with a new emphasis on pragmatism and the realities of MMP coalition government.”

The political legacies of Lange, Palmer, Moore and Clark went unacknowledged, says Harman: “[T]hat would have brought back too many horrific memories of the last time the party had a conference in Dunedin in 1988 and nearly ripped itself in two over Rogernomics.”

What Harman doesn’t say is that the only reason such political legerdemain is even possible is because Jacinda Ardern is such an extraordinary electoral asset. Single-handed, she has resurrected Labour’s morale; refilled her coffers, boosted her membership, and filled her activist base with confidence and delight. Her “relentlessly positive” personality is like a powerful spotlight, illuminating brilliantly that little part of Labour’s stage upon which she sits and smiles. Meanwhile, in the darkness her brilliance does so much to render impenetrable, the party leadership does all within its power to render a genuine shift to the left impossible.

It is fitting, in a way, that the decision to free the caucus from its crucial constitutional obligation to uphold the party’s manifesto – its policy platform – was taken in Dunedin. Justified as a practical and necessary concession to the exigencies of MMP, it nevertheless severs the last of the ties that bind the parliamentary wing to the party organisation. The caucus is now officially “Corbyn proof”. Thirty years after stabbing her in the back, the centrists have finally summoned-up the courage to drive the dagger of pragmatism deep into Labour’s democratic-socialist heart.

This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Tuesday, 6 November 2018.


peteswriteplace said...

The only decision possible. Without Jacinda Labour would have spintered after another loss in 2017, but she won the election for Labour and created a real MMP govt, and put National into shite street for posssibly 12 years or so.The only problem for Labour is 'who' will take over from Jacinda when Labour and NZ are put on the right course.

greywarbler said...

I have always been puzzled about NZ union leaders and where they vanished to when needed to boldly go and face up to the vanguard of the neo liberal ravening horde acting the part of sleek pussies in Treasury rubbing the trousers of impressionable Labour worthies.

Were the union bosses so firmly embedded in the mud in their trench that they couldn't see that they were about to kill the fatted calf, and it being a heifer, also cutting out their options for future betterment? Or were they so hard-nosed with entitlement feelings that they were convinced they should be able to match capitalists in their personal and union assets and standing? It seems there was a desire to live out an ideological position and to hell with the practical reality of those 'rank and file' dependent on their meetings and agreements arising from mature and wise understanding of their two camps.

It looks as if you will throw some light on the above Chris. I need some insight into the machinations needed to keep ahead in the 1970-1980's fevered level of business, labour and political intersection and how they were used. This is a knee-jerk reaction to a brief look at your essaying
into murky waters which needs time for study.

Jens Meder said...

How long will it take for "Democratic Socialists" to realize, that to veer too far to the Left of an overwhelmingly private enterprise and capitalism based Social Democratic party or government leads to reduced free voter support and popularity ?

adam said...

Glad you finally realised we have no democratic socialist parties in NZ Chris.

David Stone said...

Jacinda probably doesn't know her own strength. But she also is probably not confident in her own knowledge of economic matters to undertake the radical changes needed to return government to a NZ socially oriented economy. The relationship with Winston is the hope.

Tiger Mountain said...

A timely reminder of why the NZ Labour Party retains the structural underpinnings of neo liberalism, including the Reserve Bank Act, SOEs and free in and out flow of capital. The caucus would be lucky to have more than two members with a glimmer of a class understanding and analysis. The Party–did–leave Jim Anderton, and many others, and Clarks friends played the spoiler role, plus the “Joint Council of Labour”, where the FOL on behalf of the countrys workers would meet with the politicians, was sidelined.

And while we are on the subject of the ex Engineers Union, their leadership also ignominiously voted against national strike action to oppose the ECA at a special affiliates meeting, as did the PSA, both of whose organisations members had been marching in their thousands. Old news but vital to an understanding of how we got where we are today–a non fighting CTU, and an essentially neo lib Labour Party with some reformist sprinkles…National needed to go no doubt, but if Labour get a second term the priority has to be pressuring them to lift their miserly fiscal cap and repudiating Rogernomics.

Rachel Boyack said...

Hi Chris, I Chair Labour’s Policy Council and am the Policy Council Representative on the Party’s New Zealand Council. The requirement for Caucus to receive approval from Policy Council (with a 2/3 majority) before departing from the Policy Platform still exists in the Constitution. We made a small change to ensure anything negotiated during coalition talks has to be signed off by both Policy Council and NZ Council. Always happy to answer any queries - am easy to track down.

greywarbler said...

Where are you Harry Potter when we need you? Your task was to face Voldermort, save Hogworts and bring back your dead friend. Having done that maybe you could come and save the remnants of the Labour Party from joining their older members as they proceed towards the deathly hallows.

( 11. The Deathly Hallows has a real-life story inspiration behind it.
The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer is the story that Rowling chose to base the Deathly Hallows off of. The tale is one of many from the well-known book, The Canterbury Tales.)
Don't think the term 'off of' stands being printed. I see a Rowling connection - is there any arcane connection between our previous Prime Minister and the author J.K.Rowling?

You may think the above is entirely irrelevant. That is entirely a matter for you.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Rachel Boyack.

Many thanks for that clarification, Rachel.

The protections you describe were not spelled out in the news coverage I read.

Perhaps it would help if the news media were permitted to cover conference debates. The current obsession with hiding the slightest sign of dissension and debate - itself a centrist legacy of the battles against Rogernomics in the late 1980s - does Labour no favours.

Democracy is messy - but it's better than all the alternatives.

Wayne Mapp said...

Labour had a lucky break when Jim didn't win. Think what happened 15 years later with the Alliance. Jim managed to blow that up.

If he had won in 1987, National would have still won in 1990 probably by a bigger margin. In this alternative reality, Jim would not have been leader by 1999 when Labour won under Helen Clark. He would have been deposed, either after 1990 or 1993.

As for Jacinda being the spiritual successor to Jim, I think not. Yes, she has more appealing language than Helen, and a more relatable manner, but from what I can see of her government, she is no radical. Think of the core commitments of Robertson and her. essentially a more palatable version (to the centre-left) of National under John Key. Probably that will be her pathway to win in 2020. Not by going hard left.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Wayne Mapp.

You would be well advised, Wayne, to restrict your comments to matters you know something about.

For a start, Jim did not "blow up" the Alliance, it was the left of the Alliance that precipitated the fatal split in 2002. By effectively de-selecting a sitting Alliance cabinet-minister, Matt Robson, they made reconciliation impossible.

Jim could not, of course, have won in 1987 - since he did not run for the NZLP presidency until the following year - 1988.

Had Jim been elected NZLP president, driven the Rogernomes from the NZLP and peopled its caucus with staunch opponents of Rogernomics, I suspect he would have remained leader of the party for as long as he liked. Helen Clark, rather than "go down in a hail of bullets" by opposing him, would more likely have emerged as one of Jim's strongest supporters.

Where you got the idea that I consider Jacinda to be "the spiritual successor to Jim" escapes me completely. She is a remarkable politician and, as Richard Harman suggests, is keen to move Labour on from both the Clark era and the following wilderness years, but, she is no democratic socialist. She describes herself as a "pragmatic idealist" - that'll do me.

Your characterisation of her as someone with no higher ambition than to sell "National-Lite" policies to the NZ electorate is as ignorant as it is insulting. Already Jacinda has set in motion policies which stand as stark repudiations of the do-nothing Key years.

If I recall, rightly, Wayne, you served as a cabinet minister for quite a few of those years.

Which explains a great deal.

Charles E said...

Unless she is hiding her true nature, the PM is decidedly centrist. It is said she was a socialist before being an MP, and was brought up a Mormon. No evidence of those alleged errors now.
So perhaps she is a fake. She certainly speaks constant spin, in clichés and platitudes and never answers questions 'truthfully', in the sense that the words sound truly hers. But who knows? Perhaps she is what you see, and that is bland, sensible and rather boring. Just like HC, which she has described as her hero I think. Perfect tolerable PM then.
For the first time in its existence I am glad for MMP because, also a first, I am grateful for the deplorable NZF 'party', as they are holding the left to the centre. If they do not blow it, they are likely to be rewarded for it in late 2020.

aberfoyle said...

Auch, greywarbler,what fancy,neo liberalism could care for those disenfranchised union employers,the union members.One union did follow so called reformist reality progressive unionism,the engineers union,better to follow the no strike rule lets negotiate,so they did,sold off all other unions as they set a bench mark we sell off our travel time our overtime our penal and holiday entitlements,lets negotiate,no all they done was talk,and in some areas sold workers working conditions wages down the river,for maintaining their coverage of a membership drive to survival,selling even going to the employment court to demand union rights to cover workers working with metal as engineers,lowering those workers hourly wage rate from $22 to $17.50.

Neo Liberalism,trickle down,stop shaking it.

Wayne Mapp said...

I am aware that it was the left of the Alliance who were most perturbed about the Afghanistan War. The short point I was making was that Jim was the leader of the Alliance when it blew up. His confrontational style in 2002 was major contributing factor.

As for him remaining leader as long as he wanted, could he have survived two defeats (1990 which would definitely happened, and probably 1993).

What stark repudiations of National from 2008 to 2017 have there been? Modifications, yes, with some being quite substantial. But I don't see any radical change. For example, tax rates, the same, CTPP agreed to, 90 day trial periods, retained in part, three strikes, retained. The basic paradigm of the last twenty years continues.

Charles E said...

'Do nothing Key years'
Not true in the least of course, but actually the perfect government in my book.
Governments should be bound by the equivalent of the hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.
That is a tough ask I know, but good non-destructive governance is hard, so doing very little would be a way to at least pass. That is what is so abominable about most socialist governments. They may not always appear malignant tyrants but boy, the bodies they are responsible for mount up.
Here bad activist governance would not so much be bodies (so far) but blighted lives. Lange's lot stunted a few. What a vacuous self admiring windbag he was.

Pragmatist Ardhern eh? If true, I might forgive her poor diction, inane smile and idiotic youthful naivety. Could be a good harmless PM. Fine by me.

greywarbler said...

Wayne Mapp
You note that all the changes haven't been rolled back by Labour of what National had been operating under. That is so mendacious of you when you know the power of financiers on the economy, the strength of the capitalist nations, and the conservatism of voters who have prospered under the regime that has developed for NZ. You sneer at the lack of change, knowing that great change would signify a revolution, arousing concern and ultimately harming rather than helping NZ.
For example, tax rates, the same, CTPP agreed to, 90 day trial periods, retained in part, three strikes, retained. The basic paradigm of the last twenty years continues.

Your constituency will blanch at every little change that the Labour Coalition attempts to balance and humanise our country's laws and practices, expenditure, fairness and human values; they have no truck with these. Labour is actually prevented from boldly going forward by people like yourself. It is a triumph for your type but a loss to committed citizenry.

greywarbler said...

It is sad that union members have ended up in this unsatisfactory situation we see today. Surely no-one wanted this, but still the union leaders and negotiators couldn't achieve better, so something went badly wrong.

Makes me think of Robert Burns:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain For promis'd joy.

Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!

sumsuch said...

Well, that's why I read you. Though the wider NZ has developed cloth ears about themselves since 2000.

Unwillingness to bring things to a breach. Did you vote for Little? Rhetorical. I'm sorry Cunliffe didn't force the matter. Yes, he was dubious, but as big a douchebag egotist as Anderton. And MJS aside, most political leaders are full of it. Just watching 'Death of Stalin', knowing so much about Russian politics then, I think Beria, neck-deep crimes aside, might have been a better successor.

In the end we NZers prefer comfort to almost anything so we are easy meat for those who with a little finger flick can send armies off. A little Aussie hardnutness, a willingness to Glasgow kiss before thinking, would have helped, but we were the beneficiaries of power unlike the heirs of the convict settlements.

sumsuch said...

Greywarbler, you are full of it -- prose poetry as per 'Countryboy'. Puts a smile on my face as automatically as a saxophone.

KJT said...

Funny how politicians, and their apologists, spin merchants, claim that more left wing policies would make a Government less electable.
When both National, and Labour, pretend to be more left wing, than they really are, in election year. For example. National suddenly discovering poverty, and a housing problem, just before the last election.
I suspect it is the party funders that don't like left wing policies, not the public.
Hence the "Unpopularity" of measures such as CGT. Polls that said a high proportion of the public were in favour, are ignored. Beltway pundits are not in favour, because they are knee deep in housing speculation. It is then spun as "the public don't like it.
Issues like the signing of the TPPA, and asset sales show how much of a mockery of democracy, we have!