Initially the NewLabour Party (NLP) membership voted against a purely parliamentary focus for the party. The 1989 Constitution stated that the objectives of the NLP ‘may include education, activity and organisation at all levels of New Zealand Society, not restricted to political electioneering’ (NLP, 1989: p.2). The NLP thus decided on a strategy that sought to put emphasis both on winning seats in Parliament and mobilising community fight-backs against the attacks on working people. As National Councillor Laila Harre contended, ‘It would be opportunist to expect people to elect you to Parliament if you’re not doing work in the community’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.17). [Read more below]
Institutionalising social change within Parliament puts a particular imprint on a political party’s development. As Liz Gordon, a senior NLP National Council member, has stated about the effect of a parliamentary orientation:
Eroding the will for socialism
According to Adam Przeworski and John Sprague, participation in parliament ‘erodes the will for socialism’ in both a party’s political actions and their electoral programmes. Przeworski and Sprague contend that historically, once the ‘leaders of socialist parties decided to enter into electoral competition, the electoral system structured their future choices’ (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986: p.2). Therefore the eventual victory of the NLP’s rightwing over the question of a parliamentary verses grass-roots orientation, led the party down a path that limited the extent to which the NLP could push for reforms that might identify it as ‘socialist’.
Thus the emergence of a constitutional objective calling for much more than parliamentarianism was not due simply to all NLP members wanting an equal mixture of the two strategies. Instead this decision represented the existence of different factions wanting different activities. Workers Voice noted Bruce Jesson’s observations on the different interests in the party: ‘Jim Anderton’s ‘main emphasis’ is Parliament, Jesson noted, because ‘he’s in that position’. Other NLP members put the emphasis on community fight-backs’ (CPNZ, 1991a: p.17). Clearly the initial existence of a strong far-left presence in the party helped to establish community activism as an official, if not practised, goal on an equal footing with parliamentarianism.
Committing to respectability
To be successful, a social democratic party must be able to convince a sizeable portion of the electorate that it will be able to deliver a better standard of living and that it will not disrupt the current political culture and system of governance. Therefore, to counterbalance any ‘extremist’ or anti-capitalist image it might have, ‘a party cannot appear irresponsible or give any indication of being less than wholehearted about its commitment to the rules and the limits of parliamentarianism. At times the party must even restrain its own followers from actions that would jeopardise electoral progress’ (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986: p.21).
Consequently, a party that participates in parliament must abandon some alternative tactics. Such extra-parliamentary tactics are often based on mass actions and can be militant in nature. They are seen therefore by many social democrats as being liable to alienate potential party support or those elements of existing support that are less committed. This abandonment of such alternative tactics is a major factor contributing to the rightward deradicalisation process. Forsaken alternative tactics are sometimes those having the potential to build up the type of grass-roots mass movement that is capable of achieving more fundamental social change.
The abortion example
The anti-radical instincts brought on by a parliamentary orientation were made evident in the NLP when the strong influx of members of the women’s movement and far-left groups put the controversial issue of abortion on the party’s agenda. This was problematic in that not only did the party contain some conservative-traditionalists who opposed abortion, but also the issue had the potential to create an electorally dangerous image for the party.
As a counter to the proposals for liberalising abortion laws the Anderton group pushed for the NLP to agree to support Helen Clark’s more moderate legislation which was soon due to appear in Parliament. Anderton was determined that the NLP should deal with the abortion issue in a way that ‘won’t raise this issue into a divisive and corrosive one at a time when we really must focus our attention on the hostile economic climate’ (quoted in Welch, 1989: p.8). The alternative, according to one of Anderton’s closest allies, Jeanette Lawrence, would have been to ‘become known as the party of abortion on demand... the only thing that people know us for’ (quoted in Welch, 1989: p.8). According to Dennis Welch, an observer at the first South Island conference, the majority of NLP feminists agreed to let Anderton have his way on the issue: ‘Inspired by a combination of hard-headed realism and loyalty to Jim, women who normally take a hard pro-abortion line’ backed down and agreed to support the more moderate legislation instead (Welch, 1989: p.8).
Next blog post: Interclass support