Members For The Distribution Workers Federation: By 1986, Trade unionists Larry Sutherland, Sonja Davies and Graham Kelly were moving steadily towards their parliamentary objectives. Observing their progress, the author, like so many Labour activists before him, posed the question: Why not me? The answer, as always, turned on exactly how much of his integrity he was prepared to sacrifice.
It was supposed to be a book about the birth of the
NewLabour Party, but somewhere along the way it became the story of what led me
into, and out of, the old Labour Party. In hopes of providing future political
studies students with a glimpse of what it was like to be a left-wing Labour
activist in the days of David Lange and Roger Douglas, I am publishing The Journey on Bowalley Road as a series of occasional postings. L.P. Hartley
wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” May
these memoirs, written in 1989, serve, however poorly, as my personal passport.
Tuesday, 16 September 1986
ST PATRICK’S HALL is filling up with members of the Timaru
Labour Party. I stand nervously at the entrance, trying to recognise the faces
of those I have canvassed for support. Noelene Hanifin, Mike’s mother, is still
locked up with the Timaru Labour Electorate Committee (LEC). Mike, Francesca
and I cast worried glances at the door separating us from the meeting. We are
all hoping that Alan Aldridge, the LEC Chairperson, will be able to head-off
the supporters of the Timaru Labour Establishment and its redoubtable leader, Oliver
Timaru, long a Labour stronghold, fell to the National Party
in the 1985 by-election. The meeting in St Patrick’s Hall has been called to
select the Party’s candidate for the 1987 General Election. I have decided to
seek the nomination.
My three-piece suit and trim haircut belie the feelings of
hostility I now harbour towards the Government that I am, quite
unrealistically, attempting to join. It was not always so.
SINCE THE BEGINNING of the year, a new expression has crept
into Labour party conversation: “constructive engagement”. It began as a Sean
Fleigner witticism. Constructive Engagement was the term coined by the Reagan
Administration to describe the United States’ relationship with the South
African apartheid regime. Sean drew the analogy with Fran Wilde’s insistence
that the left-wing of Labour’s caucus must seek to work with the cabinet and
attempt to guide them towards a more acceptable set of policies. I have used
the expression in my contributions to the National
Business Review. Now it has become respectable.
Other influences have been at work throughout 1986. Stan
Rodger’s Labour relations Bill is in the process of being drafted and nervous
trade unionists are working frantically behind the scenes to ensure that their
traditional rights are not legislated out of existence.
Rob Campbell has floated the concept of an Australian-style
“Accord” between the FOL and the Government.
Throughout the country, left-wing activists have been
pouring their energies into local body elections. In Wellington and Dunedin
(the most vociferous centres of anti-Government agitation) impressive gains
will be made by the Labour Party in terms of representation on their city
Everywhere, the energy and intensity of 1985 has been
channelled into “constructive” party work. And at the controls of the machine
sits Margaret Wilson and her coterie. The influence she exercises, by virtue of
her impeccable credentials with the Women’s and Affiliates’ Councils (the two
most influential bodies within the party) is impressive.
The secret of her
success rests upon a chameleon-like gift for blending into her environment. In
front of the Women’s Council she is the very image of a 1980s socialist
feminist. Speaking to the Affiliates’, she takes on the guise of a concerned
lecturer in industrial law, wrestling with the awesome difficulties of the Labour
Relations Bill. At the regional conferences Margaret is full of encouragement.
At Annual Conference, the stern guardian of the Government’s ratings. Wilson
controls the party in a way Anderton never did. The party is hers and she is
the Government’s greatest asset. Colin James, Editor of the National Business Review, will dub her
“Politician of the Year”.
* * * * *
I HAVE EXPERIENCED her skill at close quarters. As an
office-holder in Campbell’s Distribution Workers’ Federation, I have observed
the manoeuvrings of Graham Kelly, Sonja Davies and Larry Sutherland (all of
whom have close connections with the DWF) as they moved steadily towards their
parliamentary objectives. Why not Chris Trotter MP? It is the lure that traps the
most determined of dissidents. That siren-song of power. In the office of Tony
Timms, the party’s general secretary, Margaret Wilson sizes me up:
“You seem presentable enough,” she laughs, “and possess no
“Those Timaru bastards are all mad.” Timms leans forward
across the desk. “They write to me at least once a week! We have to have a
To those reaching towards the sunlight of political office,
such talk is the purest of all fertilisers. On the Third Floor of Fraser House,
in the heart of the nation’s capital, I am already beginning to succumb; pretty
speeches about the compatibility of Rogernomics and social-democracy trip off
my tongue. Timms and Wilson beam encouragement: candidates for selection have
little to gain by writing embarrassing anti-government articles for the National Business Review.
* * * * *
NOW I HAD a selection meeting to address. There was no
earthly chance of me winning: in the end I simply could not stick to the
script. One foray into the Timaru electorate, one evening of reciting the party
line, had been enough. My friends looked at me askance; was this really Chris
Trotter talking earnestly about the need for “realism”, about inflation
“tracking down”? Francesca hardly recognised me. I hardly recognised myself.
A new script would have to be written. On August 25 a letter was distributed to 500 party members throughout the Timaru
electorate. In the letter I accused the Labour caucus of “riding roughshod
over practically every principle the Labour Party stands for.” A surprising
number of Timaru people had welcomed this broadside from the Dunedin
“democratic socialist”; the local party faithful, however, were appalled.
The outrage was not restricted to Timaru. News of my attack
upon the Government had been carried in all the metropolitan newspapers. Labour
MPs in marginal seats were furious. I was to confront some of them at the
annual conference, held in Wellington between 29 August and 1 September 1986.
* * * * *
THE AFFILIATES’ COUNCIL met prior to the conference. Peter
Cullen, secretary of the Wellington Hotel and Hospital Workers’ Union, drew me
“Look Chris,” he said, “we’ve put you down as our third
preference for Industrial Rep’. When our delegates read that bilge you wrote in
the candidate’s biographies they just about threw up. We weren’t going to vote
for you at all until we read about that letter you sent out in Timaru.”
“No worries, Peter,” I reassured him, “I didn’t deserve any
better for that shit. I’m just glad I came to my senses in time.”
“If Rick barker makes it on to the Exec, our votes will go
to you. If he doesn’t, it’ll be him and Kelly.”
It’s a tricky situation. Campbell has sanctioned my
nomination for Industrial Representative on the New Zealand Council of the
party in an attempt to block the election of Pat Kelly. (Campbell and Kelly
have been at daggers drawn since the partial privatisation of the Bank of New
Zealand, a move Campbell facilitated.)
In my “candidate days” I had looked like a safe bet, but now, unbeknown
to Campbell, and in response to his conversion to Rogernomics, I have switched
my allegiance to his arch-rival.
The decision is not difficult to make. I seek out Rick Barker
(National Secretary of the Hotel and Hospital Workers Union) and convey to
him my determination to withdraw in his favour if he fails in his bid for the
Executive. By doing this I hope to swing my votes in Kelly’s direction.
* * * * *
THE WELLINGTON Hotel and Hospital Workers Union hall in
Marion Street is overflowing with what the news media are describing as “The
Broad Left’. I am a little sceptical. It seems that half the delegates to
conference are packed into this great cavern of a room in the heart of
Wellington’s red-light district. And from the ministerial LTDs parked outside,
one must draw the conclusion that the “Broad Left” is a very loose definition
Peter Cullen chairs the meeting, flanked by Jim Anderton
and Pat Kelly. We are witnessing the
birth of the Economic Policy Network – a loose coalition of Labour Party
dissidents, trade unionists and left-wing economists. The atmosphere is
boisterous and good-humoured. Even on the Left, it seems, the energy is now
controlled and “constructively engaged”. The next general election is just
twelve months away and the entire party is carefully tidying away the debris of
past conflicts. The conference slogan: “The Future is Ours”, is obviously being
interpreted in different ways.
Rob Campbell glowers darkly over the proceedings, keeping
his own counsel. There will be precious few votes for him from the Left this
year, his lobbying campaign will focus on the Centre and Right of Conference. A
little further down the hall stands Phil Goff. Perhaps he is recalling the days
when he, too, called himself a socialist?
The PSA’s economist, Peter Harris, launches into a lengthy
lecture on the failings of the Government’s economic policies. The speeches
that follow are passionate but unfocused. I find it difficult to concentrate.
Someone asks me to sing The Red Flag.
The audience struggles through the chorus, but the verses I sing alone. The
“Broad Left” has yet to learn the words.
BARKER’S BID falls just short of victory. The rumour mills
of the Women’s Council have done their work well and Ruth Dyson pips him at the
post. I am waiting in the queue of speakers at the front of the auditorium.
Barker is just behind me. “You made a deal – now stick to it!” I tell myself.
I move across the stage to Tony Timms and inform him of my
withdrawal. Wilson, seated next to him, swivels round in her chair and glares
“Don’t tell me, tell the returning officer!” Timms snaps
“Why?” Is all Wilson allows herself by way of comment.
Burly Geoff Braybrooke, is clearly enjoying the drama. As he
announces my withdrawal, all hell breaks loose among the delegates from the
Distribution Workers’ Federation.
“Point of Order! Point of Order!” Larry Sutherland cannot
believe what he has heard. “Chris Trotter is standing for Industrial Rep!”
“Not any more,” Braybrooke chuckles, “he’s just told me he’s
Campbell lunges up the aisles to the DWF delegation.
“Where’s Trotter!”, he snarls.
Francesca, feigning innocence, waves airily in the direction
of the exit. Campbell, dressed like a street-fighter in leather jacket and
jeans, lopes off in pursuit. Down at the front of the hall, resuming my place
in the queue, I breathe a large sigh of relief.
Kelly wins the election for Industrial rep by a mere 16
votes. Campbell is livid.
IT IS the Labour Party’s seventieth anniversary. The social
in the old Wellington Town Hall that evening is a celebration of the party’s
longevity. The events of the day are beginning to take their toll. Sick at
heart, I survey the revellers. Just what is the Labour Party in 1986? Certainly
not the party that was formed in 1916. I feel estranged, forsaken, alone. My
own union is barely speaking to me. Pat Kelly is strangely aloof. Annette King,
MP for Horowhenua, bails me up and lambasts me for the Timaru letter. A deep
sense of loathing congeals in the pit of my stomach. “At the Timaru selection”,
I tell myself, “I will tell the truth about this party.”
MINE WAS THE second-to-last speech of the evening: “Tonight,”
I begin, “we will talk of what Labour was, and of what Labour has become. It is
a tale of two cities: it is the story of Jerusalem, the City of Hope; and of Babylon,
the City of despair.”
All nervousness falls away as I lift up the banner of
dissent once more. I have passed the test, will remain myself: “I shall not
cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have
built Jerusalem … in New Zealand’s
green and pleasant land.”
The nomination went to Gary Clarke, a local lawyer. He lost.
This posting is
exclusive to the Bowalley Road