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.