On being formed in 1989, the NewLabour Party (NLP) adopted an organisational structure very similar to that of the old Labour Party. It had policy commissions, party branches, electorate councils, district councils, a National Council, a National Executive, and the usual positions within this (such as leader, president, vice president, general secretary). In a sense, organisational forms and routines perfected in the old Labour Party to ensure centralised control were used as armatures to give shape and organisational form to the NLP. The influence of this established labour organisation, which had evolved over three-quarters of a century, meant that the NLP was born with a more top-down party organisational structure than might otherwise have been the case. [Read more below]
The involvement of all three groupings – discussed in previous posts – not only had an important effect on the political nature of the NLP, but also on the organisational nature of the party. Due to the involvement of the radical left and social liberal groups, the party was not created simply as top-down structure. Conversely, because much of the party did come out of an existing party organisation (the Labour Party) the party did not emerge as a bottom-up organisation either. However, it was the members of the labourites that dominated the positions of power in the new organisation.
Duplicating the old Labour Party
Naturally, the NLP’s structure involved the same aspects that many of the party’s members had resented in the old Labour Party. This led Sue Bradford to comment in her resignation letter that the NLP had begun to duplicate some of the worst features of the old Labour Party: ‘All it is a repeat of the old Labour Party. It is being run by a few boys at the top’ (The Press, 10 April 1990: p.2). Bruce Jesson later confirmed this notion when he criticised the ‘centralisation’ of the policy-making process inside the NLP. In a report to a National Council meeting in 1991 he asserted that: ‘I think we’ve made a mistake in trying to replicate an old Labour point of view’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.7).
Thus, although the NLP’s first constitution asserted the party’s belief in the ‘Decentralisation of decision making at the lowest possible level’ (NLP Constitution, 1994: p.1), the new party was in fact born as a relatively centralised organisation. However, this organisational structure became even more centralised with time. Originally, the NLP adopted Policy Commissions, which served to draw up policy in specific areas, on the recommendations forwarded from the party’s regional conferences. According to Workers Voice, these policy commissions:
were suppose to facilitate broad grass-roots involvement in NLP policy-making. In fact, many of the commissions have become defunct, while others are just limping along in a feeble way. Very little NLP funds were put into them so it was difficult for them to operate. A process of ‘killing them softly’ took place at top level in the NLP (CPNZ, 1990d: pp.19, 20).
This unofficial abolition, or sidelining, of the commissions hastened the process by which the centralisation of NLP affairs was occurring.
Organisational short cuts
The development of the party’s organisational structure was being shaped by the exigencies of the NLP’s formation period. Preparing for the 1990 general election was of crucial importance, not only because it was the party’s first real electoral test, but more importantly because the Labour Government looked likely to face a devastating defeat. This provided an opportunity that the fledging party could not afford to let pass. The NLP’s aim was to encourage, not just the destruction of the Fourth Labour Government, but also of the actual Labour Party, in order that the NLP could begin to replace it as the main opposition to National.
Furthermore, the fact that the NLP was performing poorly in the opinion polls added to the strain of organising for this major political test. In the middle of 1990 the party was only polling around the 2 to 3% mark. Party leaders were obviously concerned, and sought to improve the party’s public standing lest the 1990 election should spell the end for the NLP.
It was argued by the leadership that organisational short cuts had to be taken therefore in the preparation for the election. In effect, the party leadership believed that it was necessary to narrow the base of decision-making in the interests of ‘organisational efficiency’. The creation of the Strategy Group was a case in point. This body, composed of certain members of the Executive, was created to plan for the future and take decisions where urgency required. According to Bruce Jesson, who was for a time a member of the group, it ‘developed as a matter of pragmatism’ into a ‘fairly autocratic’ body (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.19). Citing conflicts within this group, Jesson withdrew from it.
Francesca Holloway, the party’s first treasurer, likewise became disenchanted:
The constitution of the party sets out quite clearly the roles of the various elected bodies within the party. It has become quite clear to me, however, that the constitution is irrelevant to the actual decision-making process. The Strategy Group acts as a de facto party executive.... In reality, it deals with all party matters — making the National Executive and the National Council redundant. It has led to the situation where I, as treasurer, was not even aware that we had entered into an arrangement with an advertising agency until I read about it in the general secretary’s report to the National Council. The fact that no one considered it proper for the treasurer to be consulted on such an arrangement prior to its finalisation indicates how marginalised party office-holders have become (Holloway, 1990).
So, just as Sue Bradford resigned in April 1990, claiming that control of the party was ‘devolving into the hands of fewer and fewer people’ (Bradford, 1990: p.1), Holloway resigned in the run up to the 1990 October election, pointing to the ‘failure’ of the organisational structures to prevent the party from being ‘dominated by its parliamentary leadership’ (Holloway, 1990). Alleging that Anderton had hijacked the policy-making process, Holloway asserted that the NLP was becoming overly labourite at the expense of its other integral elements. She said that the NLP was in fact a social democratic, feminist, bicultural and green party, ‘But no-one knows it. Instead we are thought of as the boring party’ (Holloway, 1990).
A new constitution
In 1991 the NLP adopted a new constitution indicative of the further centralisation occurring inside the party. Whereas the previous constitution had made National Council the governing body of the party, the new constitution effectively downgraded that body to the role of guiding ‘the work of the party between conferences’ (NLP, 1991a: p.3).
In contrast, the powers of the smaller National Executive were extended by the grant of new authority enabling it to make decisions on all ‘urgent organisational and policy matters when a National Council meeting cannot be arranged’ (NLP, 1991a: p.10). Because the National Council was relatively large — it had in 1991, 39 members — and its members are very geographically dispersed, activating it has often not been very ‘organisationally efficient’. This meant that the National Executive and the Manifesto Committee assumed increasing importance. According to the 1993 NLP Executive Report, the National Council was ‘too cumbersome and does not meet’ while, ‘the executive has effectively become the decision making body’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1994a: p.4). These smaller bodies were ‘very much dominated by Jim Anderton and his close allies’ (CPNZ, 1991c: p.27).
Jim Anderton and professionalisation
The character and strong personality of Jim Anderton has also played a part in contributing to the development of a highly centralised organisation. Anderton was already well known for his highly capable organisational skills — when he was president of the Labour Party, he ‘more than tripled party membership and his fund-raising skills boosted the party’s coffers almost to the point where it had more money than it knew what to do with’ (Hyde, 1994: p.82).
It was not surprising therefore that the NLP’s ‘advertising, fund raising, and overall presentation were professional from the beginning’ (Vowles, 1990: p.55). Such ‘organisational efficiency’ and effectiveness has remained the raison d’être of Anderton and other party leaders like Matt McCarten, both in the NLP and later the Alliance. However, the argument for ‘organisational efficiency’ can be seen as the argument for the control by the few. By asserting the need to have things done properly, the argument is often for the minimum number of people being involved in decision-making.
The push towards becoming more professional and responsible had important consequences for the type of activities the party was involved in, and its general focus. An example is given by the fact that the party produced detailed election policies in 1990, and then in subsequent years published a fully costed alternative budget that outlined what a NLP government would do over the next 12 months. The process moved the party away from thinking and acting merely as a social or protest movement to that of an alternative government. As Bruce Jesson pointed out, this public and thorough policy process ‘was a worthy exercise but an unnecessary one considering that there was no prospect of putting them into effect. It may even have been counterproductive in that it made the NLP look like just another boring party’ (Jesson, 1991a: p.158).
An exclusive electoral focus
The growing organisational focus on Parliament was at the expense of the party’s dual constitutional objective of being involved in grass-roots activism. Initially, the NLP had been involved in building mobilisations against health and tertiary education reforms, and later instigating a campaign against the sale of Telecom. However in election year, the NLP’s campaigns became almost solely concerned with winning votes. Writing about the NLP’s 1990 annual conference, Workers Voice reported, ‘There were no calls for action, and Anderton said later that the 1991 conference would deal with action’ (CPNZ, 1990b: p.8). However, after the 1990 election the party did not return to organising the grass roots of the party into extra-parliamentary activity. It seems that the 1990 general election served to set the party on a course away from such activity and towards an exclusively electoral focus.
There was, however a leftwing struggle against this mainstreaming of the NLP’s strategy and organisation. Initially this fight was led most visibly by Matt McCarten. Despite the fact that McCarten had come to the NLP from an active involvement in the old Labour Party, he was a strong believer in the necessity of NLP being more than simply a parliamentary focused party: ‘Politics does not begin and end at the ballot box.... It’s not so much about how many seats we win in Parliament. It’s about changing the debate, changing things in society’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1990b: p.8).
After McCarten decided not to stand for re-election as NLP president in 1990, Workers Voice commented that, ‘It’s common knowledge that he resigned... very unhappy about what he saw as an over-emphasis on parliamentary politics to the detriment of active support for working class struggles’ (CPNZ, 1991a: p.7). Significantly, McCarten used his last Presidential speech to voice his concerns about the direction of the party. He encouraged party members to become more involved in activism such as attending picket lines at industrial disputes: ‘Sometimes getting up early to go out on a picket line to support striking workers, along with your NLP banner, is more useful than staying at home to work on your next policy amendment paper’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1990a: p.7).
Although stressing the importance of policy for the party, McCarten emphasised that ‘policy is nothing without action, and action is what must separate us from other parties’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1990b: p.8). McCarten also stressed that the party had to ‘build links within organised labour’ or else the party would, he warned, ‘become another social liberal mainstream party’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1990b: p.8).
Others on the leftwing of the National Council, notable for their opposition to the increasing parliamentary focus included figures such as Dion Martin, Len Richards, Keith Locke, and Bruce Jesson. Dion Martin was concerned that with the NLP moving into the ‘new phase of targeting seats’ the party was in danger of losing sight of its constitutional intention to ‘mobilise people to fight back’ against government reforms (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.7). Likewise, Jesson warned that without at least some form of internal party education system, ‘We could easily end up like the Labour Party as an effective political machine with no clear sense of purpose’ (Jesson, 1991b: p.1).
The path that the development of the NLP’s organisational structure and activities took, illustrates the general shift from the diverse to the narrow and from the inclusive to the exclusive. Party structure and activity generally reflected the personnel involved in the party. So although the activities of those setting up the party before the founding conference attempted to create a more centralised top-down structure and organisation focus, the influx of the social liberals and radical left constrained this. But then with the exigencies of the 1990 election and the elimination of the radical left a centralising and narrowing process occurred.
Next blog post: Development of party policy