Wednesday 7 July 2021

Should The Left Have Left The Labour Party?

Comrades In Arms: Counterfactual history is nothing if not entertaining. Matt McCarten and I have often wondered what would have happened if Jim Anderton and his left-wing comrades had stayed in the Labour Party instead of leaving it to form the NewLabour Party and the Alliance? Forced to crush its own left-wing, rather than simply wave it goodbye, how could the New Zealand Labour Party have avoided the fate of the British Labour Party under Tony Blair?

I’M NOT QUITE SURE that I agree with Matt McCarten. He takes the view that, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better if the left of the Labour Party – the people who departed to form “NewLabour” with Jim Anderton in 1989 – had remained where they were. If they’d stayed put, he argues, Labour would have retained a solid core of democratic socialists who could, in time, have led the party out of its Neoliberal Babylonian Captivity and restored it to its rightful (or leftful) place on the political spectrum. Rather than the political cyphers currently holding ministerial warrants, says Matt, Labour would now have a Cabinet to match the nation-builders of yesteryear: politicians who could make things happen and get things done.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course. When confronted with moral choices, it would, I’m sure, be very humbling to see with crystal clarity all the consequences of our decisions. That such foresight is not given to human-beings is probably just as well. How many great deeds would ever have been attempted if the doers had been allowed to glimpse their inevitable denouements? Would Lincoln have signed the Emancipation Proclamation if he had seen the Jim Crow South in all its white-sheeted horror? Would Mickey Savage have bothered with the Social Security Act, if he had been shown Ruth Richardson gleefully reducing his welfare state to rubble?

Forced to crush its own left-wing, how could the New Zealand Labour Party have avoided the fate of the British Labour Party under Tony Blair?

Personally, I don’t think a Blairite lurch to the right could have been avoided. Large though Labour’s left-wing faction was, it was never big enough to outvote the rest of the membership’s loyalty to their Members of Parliament. There was – and there remains – a deeply ingrained intolerance among Labour’s rank-and-file of anyone who purports to know more, or know better, than their elected representatives. Such people are only grudgingly tolerated in good times. In bad times they are treated like traitors.

This was true even in Labour’s glory days when the party’s membership hovered around 100,000. In the early 1980s it was not uncommon to encounter party branches with 400-500 members. Regional conferences of the party attracted hundreds of delegates, and policy debates could be fierce.

Open dissent, however, was never encouraged. When the Otago/Southland Region’s little newspaper, Caucus, published an article critical of David Lange’s economic competence, the Port Chalmers’ Branch of the party ceremonially burned all the copies it had been sent. Just a few weeks later, pleading lack of funds, the Regional Council shut Caucus down. “Your big mistake,” Richard Prebble told the crestfallen young editors of the paper, “was to assume that the New Zealand Labour Party is a democracy.”

Prebble was right. After Labour came to power in July 1984, and the long sad journey away from democratic socialism began, branch members (and even some trade union affiliates) became increasingly intolerant of criticism. By 1989, the year in which both Matt McCarten and I helped Jim Anderton split the Labour Party, this intolerance of dissent had morphed into a palpable ideological shift to the right.

Party members who, nine years before, had proudly voted for avowedly left-wing policy remits, were loyally supporting the Fourth Labour Government’s increasingly harsh neoliberal policies. Fewer and fewer members who were not already in Jim Anderton’s camp wanted to hear “their” MPs criticised. When the party finally split, those who opted to stay breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. Now, at last, there could be unity!

And that is pretty much the way things have been since 1990. For the first 75 years of its life Labour had operated as both an ideological and an electoral force. People joined to promote left-wing policies and debate the issues of the day from a left-wing perspective. But, during that whole time, Labour was also a vehicle for carrying Labour candidates into Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these Labour MPs did not want anyone but themselves making party policy. They had no time for an independent, ideologically-driven and activist-led party organisation – and worked tirelessly to ensure that the tight little bands of supporters they gathered around themselves felt the same way. Following the 1989 split, it was these loyalists who inherited the Labour Party. In the years since, this loyalty-before-all-else attitude has only become more pronounced. Labour has become a party of helpers – not hecklers.

Hence, Matt’s second thoughts. But my own view is that, had we stayed, the latent hostility towards and intolerance of “disloyalty” that was already there in the party – the inevitable outgrowth of its role as an organisation for electing and re-electing Members of Parliament – would have been whipped-up into a poisonous lather of hatred and smeared all over the “traitors”.

By 1989, tens-of-thousands of members had already drifted away from the party in reaction to Rogernomics. Had those who stayed to fight neoliberalism not left with Anderton, I believe they would have been driven out. Some would have left because the hostility directed at them had become unbearable. Others would have quit because they could no longer stomach the party’s right-wing policies.

Matt, himself, knows the lengths to which the Labour caucus was prepared to go to protect itself from a party determined to force it to keep its promises to the electorate. He organised the successful ouster of Prebble’s supporters in the Auckland Central electorate committee, only to see the Labour Party injuncted by one of its own MPs, and threatened by a sizeable chunk of the rest with imminent mass defections to a new party. Matt counselled defiance, but the leaders of the party caved-in to the Rogernomes’ pressure.

Ironically, it was the creation of Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party and, in 1991, the Alliance of NewLabour, the Greens, Mana Motuhake and the Democrats, that forced the Labour Party caucus to keep itself electable by refusing to embrace Neoliberalism as fulsomely as the British and Australian Labour Parties, or the US Democratic Party. In the guise of the Alliance, Labour’s left not only paved the way for Anderton’s onetime protégé, Helen Clark, but cleared the path for MMP. Neoliberalism may not have been rolled back, but it ceased to roll forward. Practically all of the genuinely progressive reforms of the Labour-led Government of 1999-2008 were Alliance initiatives.

It is also true that while Matt McCarten refused to stay with Labour in 1989, he did agree to return to the party to become Leader of the Opposition David Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff in 2014. Without Matt’s wheeling and dealing in the aftermath of Cunliffe’s disastrous performance, Andrew Little could not have defeated Grant Robertson for the party leadership, nor been given three years to pull the bitterly divided Labour caucus back together. Without Andrew, of course, there would have been no Jacinda.

History has a quirky sense of humour. If I could have predicted her jokes before she hit me with her punchlines, I’d never have got out of bed – let alone the Labour Party.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 6 July 2021.


greywarbler said...

One needs a quirky sense of humour to keep heads-up and stand strong above the constant 'mills' of working politics and the slings and arrows, not of outrageous fortune, but from those with many axes to grind. (A terrible mix of cliches.) I fear for our expressive language if we have too tight a squeeze on our throats to prevent any upsetting 'hate' speech after reading some of the thoughts of those of some importance in the past. I ventured to buy Cassells Dictionary of Insulting Quotations and am transfixed by the steel in most of the comments. The malicious and vicious posing as wit is a shock. It is reading these unfettered thoughts that give an understanding of the brute nature of humankind which can be unleashed on politicians who persist in not carrying out policies that benefit those with the largest trumpets.

This from David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister (attrib.), quoted in the Listener, 1978: 'When they circumcised Herbert Samuel (British Politician 1870-1963) they threw away the wrong bit.

And from the USA on Franklin D. Roosevelt (US President 1882-1945) whom I think of with admiration for his leadership on the New Deal leading out of the Great Depression, and for seeing the value of declaring war on the Axis putsch with full support for the Allies.)

I have always found Roosevelt an amusing fellow, but I would not employ him, except for reasons of personal friendship, as a geek in a common carnival.
Murray Kempton, US political commentator. (With friends like that who could cope with enemies.)
And referring to his sterling, humanitarian wife Eleanor, an opinion on him apparently from one of her relatives: 'Two thirds mush and one-third Eleanor.' Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Washington wit and social arbiter.

He has every quality that morons esteem in their heroes. He was the first American to descend to the real depths of vulgar stupidity.
H.L. Mencken, US essayist, philologist and critic.

The USA male critics seem to be full of bile, unconstrained in their attacks on their targets,
illustrating the saying that the pen is 'smiteier' than the sword! And the British and others give good contest. Writers and poets are as devastating in their barbs at each other.

sumsuch said...

Malheureusement, I lived all this via my transistor. It is a sad tale in the end. Not, though, that the democratic socialism of our upbringing was wrong. Hate, rather, that the 84ists are still around, especially in the 'Left'.

Nick J said...

Sumsuch, I lived it all at a Labour Electorate Committee... We in our innocence thought that the local MP would take our opinions and act upon them. Much hot air and no action.

Meanwhile Party Central expected we the ignored to deliver pamphlets, knock on doors and raise funds. Definitely not a two way transaction.

Simon Cohen said...

Unfortunately Greywarblers history is once again in doubt. Roosevelt did not declare war on Italy or Germany. They declared war on the USA.
And yes he did declare war on Japan but only after Pearl Harbour when it was blatantly obvious that Japan considered itself at war with the USA.
In fact the USA was consistently reluctant to declare war on anyone even when Germany had conquered virtually the whole of Europe.

greywarbler said...

Nothing in history can be declared as the total story unequivocally. So Roosevelt steered the USA towards accepting the necessary (remembering that there was a sizable number of German settlers, whose men had been drilling, with Hitler salutes). There had been much opposition to stepping away from neutrality.

Here are some links for those who suspect they don't know what they don't know, except for Simon Cohen of course.

petes new write said...

And I walked away too. I voted New Labour in 1990, but Labour ever since. I had no desire to rejoin a make-believe party though.

Jens Meder said...

But where did the Alliance stand on the "Cullen Fund" and KiwiSaver, clearly the most progressively NZ wealth ownership creative policies of the Labour govt. 1999 - 2008?

And where stand the "Lefties" now on raising the NZ Super entitlement age rumors ?

Peter's Revolution said...

" 1994 the TUC adopted a “new unionism project” (Hall-Jones, Cradden, 2006) which intended to combine the dimensions of organizing and partnership (see below). For him, it is a question of stimulating, equipping and converging the policy of his unions. It is also a question, at a time when the prospect of an electoral victory for Labor in 1997 begins to emerge, to define the legislative reforms which would favor the implementation of this strategy. The union offensive and the change of political majority are therefore inseparable. To be sure, the New Labor government leaves essentially intact the restrictive legislation on trade union action introduced by conservative governments; however,it adopts several new measures which serve as a basis for the unionization policy (McIlroy, 2008)."

John Hurley said...

Michael Reddell
Sydney, Melbourne & (to a lesser extent) Brisbane are big & attract many NZers, but on these OECD numbers they struggle to match real GDP per worker of the Sunshine Coast (but still well outstrip NZ).
A v different story from Europe/US where big cities often far exceed the rest.

Replying to
so why is that?
Michael Reddell
Just like NZ, in effect natural resource based economies.

Tribal right religious left

and it's all coming out in the wash. A couple of days ago Judith Collins called RNZ "Red Radio"

I reviewed Don Brash's clash with Kim Hill on te reo and Guyon Espiner.
What a car crash - it gets petty and silly and it is (mainly) because it is Kim speaking a different language - that of the Critical Theorist.

Right now I might scrape in a C if I were to explain that but James Lindsay's views are in the 100,000's and people are starting to see this snake in the grass.

sumsuch said...

Nick J, it still fires up my wrist veins. Even in my oldage any mention of our now old but still good fight turns my blood fiery. Maybe I'm dim, maybe the mortgage people are right.

Nick J said...

Yep, me too. New bosses same people, always wanting whats ours to be theirs. Left or Right, the same apparachiks and bosses.