Monday 25 June 2012

The Journey: A Political Memoir - Posting No. 10

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 Gavigan.

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 councils.

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 obvious vices.”

“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 decent candidate.”

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 aside.

“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 indeed.

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 at me.

“Don’t tell me, tell the returning officer!” Timms snaps back.

“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 withdrawn.”

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 blogsite.  


Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

My commiserations on your failed attempt at becoming a Labour MP, or significant office holder within the Labour party.

In life there is often a price that is too hight to pay to satisfy our personal ambitions, and you appear to have recognized that, and stepped back from complete compromise.

I empathize with you.

For the record, there was a time I stood for the National Party, and won selection in a safe labour seat. It was a difficult learning experience for me, and in in hind sight, I'm glad of my 'failure'.

I did however get to ride in a Ford LTD taxi (former ministerial car) from my hotel to a National Party Candidates conference in Wellington, the closest I have ever been to a Cabinet Ministers experience.


I learned a lot about politics and also about myself during that campaign.

Who knows but that we may have once sat across the isle from each other. Hopefully we would have engaged respectfully and intelligently about the issues facing New Zealand and it's people.

More probably we would have been caught up in the moment, (speaking personally) and engaged in point scoring and ideological rhetoric across the floor of the house.

Such is the nature of the beast.

Thank you for your insights and memories.

Kind regards

Alex said...

@ Brendan - What an excellent and thoughtful comment.

markus said...

Good on ya, Chris.

I shake my head when I think of Campbell - what an extraordinary about-face. Now, of course, one of the casualties from the ACC debacle.

Fran Wilde's Road-to-Damascus conversion appeared to happen fairly late in the day. I think I'm right in saying she was part of the small Left opposition to Rogernomics within caucus in the late 80s. By the time she'd won the Wellington mayoralty she was well on her way to Neo-Liberal establishment politics. These days, as Wellington Regional Council Chair, you can always rely on her to get in behind Nat/Act policy initiatives.

Tony Timms = my former 5th form School Cert teacher (1980). Very dry sense of humour.

Madison said...

Gotta say Chris, I'm loving the in depth and behind the scenes views of what went on during those years. Good quality history like this is the type of stuff that often gets glossed over but shows far more of the past and future than the big picture views the textbooks like to paint.
Keep 'em coming.