Like all new political organisations, Act had many factions (or political tendencies”) within the organisation in both its initial phase as a lobby group and then as a political party. There were rural tendencies, pragmatists, social conservatives, ex-Labour social liberals, and libertarian ideological purists. The relationship between these early factions was far from harmonious, as the internal life of the party fitted well to the theorem that ‘the intensity of party politics is in inverse proportion to the amount of power the party has achieved’. Yet because the party was instigated by its leadership rather than its membership, there was little in the way of disputes between the rank-and-file and the leadership – especially with Roger Douglas possessing a rather messiah-like standing with many. [Read more below]
According to party insider, Simon Carr, there was one “conservative” faction that acted as a brake on party transformation and growth. This faction argued against forming a party, but even once the party was actually launched, they then argued that Act:
Carr – citing himself in the opposite camp – believed that the “conservative” ‘school of thought is based on a reluctance to engage in the practice of vile politics; it's a policy-based vision proposed by people who have ideas about things but don't want the responsibility of seeing them put into practice’ (Carr, 1997: p.85). It is likely, however, that this faction merely believed that Act could be a more effective organisation if they worked with the existing parties rather than against them.
The formation of factions did not just relate to organisational and strategic issues. Political factions also existed around members from rural backgrounds, and from ex-Labour Party activists. Although not reflected publicly, there was a particularly strong rural faction in the party leadership right from the beginning. This was related to the fact that part of the rural sector had been one of the first groups to become converted to free market economics. This free-market farming group, which had been prominent in Federated Farmers leadership, had found little outlet for their deregulatory beliefs in the National Party during Muldoon’s leadership, and were instead won over to Roger Douglas’s leadership during the 1980s.
Owen Jennings (president of Federated Farmers, 1990-93) was the most prominent member of the rural wing of Act. Jennings, a lay preacher, was the chairman of the Christian Resource Centre, and had also been one of the public faces of the anti-MMP Campaign for Better Government. Peter Elworthy and Rob McLagan were two other prominent rural foundation members with a Federated Farmers leadership background.
This rural faction tended to be very socially conservative – in contrast to the ex-Labour Party members who were pushing the party towards a more urban-liberal image. The rural faction was responsible for pushing through conservative policies, such as Act’s illiberal law and order stances. The rural conservatives were joined by other conservatives such as former Labour Minister Trevor de Cleene, and former National Party members, such as party-financier Craig Heatley.
The ex-Labourite faction was particularly interested in reform of the social policy and education operations of the state. In these areas they were very successful in turning their party into one that was closely identified with wanting to overhaul these operations.
The relations between these early factions was far from harmonious. Carr admits, ‘From my experience it can be said that no organisation has had such a vivid emotional life’ (Carr, 1997: p.51). According to Carr, the internal politics of Act were exacerbated by the fact that the party was doing so badly: ‘with only an interim leader, no MPs and polling one per cent’ the party’s internal politics were particularly intense (Carr, 1997: p.51). This logic bears out Denis Welch’s theorem that ‘the intensity of party politics is in inverse proportion to the amount of power the party has achieved’ (Carr, 1997: p.51).
Despite the internal turmoil, the conflict between rank-and-file activists and party leaders was less obvious or pronounced within Act than might be expected. The party activists and membership appears to have been very much in agreement with decisions made by the leadership. Attending the party’s foundation conference, Gordon Campbell contrasted it with that of the NewLabour Party in 1989: 'The contrast with the fiery New Labour party founding conference of 1989 could not be greater. Then, the slaves of socialism fought the top table almost every inch of the way: here, the apostles of freedom toes the party line. In workshop after workshop, the desire to appear electable wins out over idealism' (Campbell, 19 Nov 1994: p.14-16).
Therefore although Act has an image of being a somewhat ideological party of strong convictions, even at that early stage its activist membership show signs of being “party-hacks” – lacking a strong interest in policy. They appeared to have a strong trust in their leadership and a strong desire for the party to obtain power at almost any cost. They had a trust in the intellectual honesty and expertise of their leadership. For the activists, Roger Douglas has always had a rather messiah-like standing. So it seems that there was always a strong division of labour within the party, between the leadership who make policy, the party management that get the troops into action, market the party, and the activists who do the work on the ground.
The harmonious relations between the activists and leadership can be partly explained by the fact that the party was instigated by its leadership rather than its membership. By contrast, political parties which develop out of a mass movement are usually characterised by competing sets of leaders and a high participation rate amongst members. Act, however, was, from the very beginning, identified as “the Roger Douglas party”.
Next blog post: Initial radicalism and branding