The formation of the Alliance in 1991 was a watershed in the NewLabour Party’s (NLP) development, especially in that all four of the party’s Alliance partners were considerably to the right of the NLP on most economic issues, and largely unsympathetic to the NLP’s strong ideological emphasis on working class interests. Thus the NLP’s semi-merger with the Greens, Democrats, Liberals and Mana Motuhake contributed to the NLP leadership’s rightward movement. Politically, this project led to a watering-down of the policy and principles that the NLP has worked for. Organisationally it led to the NLP, especially its branches, being subsumed into the larger Alliance structure. [Read more below]
A tactical electoral expedient
Jim Anderton argued for the formation of the Alliance on the basis that minor parties were penalised by ‘the winner takes all’ bias of the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, and that they should therefore unite to counter this disproportionality: ‘With a first-past-the-post system, there’s little prospect of these parties winning seats in their own right. We will destroy each other if we stand against each other’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.36).
The Alliance was therefore sold as ‘a tactical electoral expedient; a means of... ensuring fairer representation’ (Trotter, 1994b: p.22) under the pre-MMP system. It was seen as sensible to fight under a combined banner — one time and one time only — in 1993, before enjoying the greater opportunities that proportional representation would give the individual constituent parties in 1996 and beyond. At this stage, there was no talk of any sort of formal merging of parties — only an electoral alliance.
It also appeared that general election candidates might still retain their respective party labels or stand as ‘Alliance-Greens’, ‘Alliance-NewLabour’, and so forth. This notion was propagated by the leaders of the individual parties, in the hope of allaying members’ apprehension that their respective parties might lose its identity if involved in an alliance.
Top-down coalition formation
Illustrative of the increasingly top-down nature of the NLP, the main impetus for the creation of the Alliance came from the party leadership rather than any membership demands for a coalition. In fact, enthusiasm was far from universal in the rank-and-file membership. Particularly in the left of the NLP, there were some doubts about the Alliance. According to Trotter, ‘Within the NLP there was widespread unease at the prospect of linking up with the Democrats. After all, in Marxist terms, the Democrats were the reactionary spokespeople of the petit bourgeoisie’ (Trotter, 1992d: p.24). Likewise, the Green Party was not very popular amongst many NLP activists as there was still some bitterness within the party over the fact that they had been outpolled by the Greens in 1990.
The more conservative politics of the Democrats, and the rightwing elements of the Greens were of much less concern to the Anderton group within the NLP leadership. Because this dominant group were generally more conservative than a large section of the NLP membership, they naturally had fewer political differences with these parties and less of an aversion to working with people outside of the traditional left. After all, as Chris Trotter pointed out, in the eyes of Anderton, ‘a few social conservatives would help to offset the not-always-helpful influence of the NLP’s social radicals’ (Trotter, 1992d: p.24). In one sense then, Anderton and the other rightwing social democrats of the NLP viewed the formation of the Alliance as an opportunity for their own faction to forge a union with outside conservative forces to defeat their internal leftwing.
Within the NLP, little open party debate occurred over the idea of the Alliance. The idea had the blessing of the leadership, and Anderton in particular, which held a lot of sway, and once momentum gathered, dissenting voices were not particularly welcome. However at the NLP 1991 annual conference — at which the party was set to make a decision on whether to join the Alliance — ‘Many delegates reported mixed feelings from their electorates’ (James, 1991: p.9). While some voiced doubts about the reliability of the other parties and about the possibility of the NLP losing its identity and support base, most delegates were in favour of joining.
The minutes of the conference debate illustrate a diversity of opinion on the question, with most being cautiously in favour of joining. Typical of the dominant opinion at the conference was the statement by Cliff Robinson, of the National Council: ‘I am a working class practical person — the stark reality is that we need an alliance. We could win seats like Titirangi and Te Atatu with credible Alliance candidates’ (NLP, 1991c: p.15). John Reeves, a Yaldhurst delegate told the conference:
Paul Mepham told the conference:
The fact that the NLP had already allied itself with Mana Motuhake in an electoral pact for the 1990 general election meant that NLP members considered that they were already involved in an alliance. This alliance with Mana Motuhake had proved advantageous, which made members less concerned about the more negative potential consequences of a larger alliance.
Anderton campaigned against the ideological opposition to the Alliance using an argument about the need for the minor parties to be pragmatic in order to achieve their goals. He stressed that ‘New Zealanders are practical about their politics’, and the third parties must not let narrow party interests get in the way of what is good for New Zealand (Anderton, 1991c: p.2). Similarly, Matt Rata of Mana Motuhake argued, ‘We have been living in a de facto relationship. Why shouldn’t we get married? ...Ideological differences should not stop us’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.37) This statement was typical of the lack of regard, amongst many of those who were pushing for an Alliance, for questions of ideology in the face of electoral opportunities. This was reflected in ‘The Alliance Declaration’ which was a very vaguely worded document with very few specifics.
Green Party reticence
The Green Party proved harder to get on board than the other parties. The Greens worried that their environmental politics and organisational independence would be sacrificed by joining the Alliance. In this, Green members were a lot more sensitive to the advantages of organisational and ideological autonomy than most NLP members. Leading the fight against what he saw as a marriage of convenience, Wellington Green City Councillor, Steven Rainbow labelled the attempts to form the Alliance as
However, many of the dissenting Greens were less concerned with ideological differences, than with differences of an organisational nature. They worried that an Alliance organisational structure would reflect the structures of the other constituent partners. Most of the Greens preferred a more decentralised organisation than the structures apparent in the other Alliance parties. But, in particular, the Greens were concerned about issues of leadership and the political style of Jim Anderton. As political scientist Joe Atkinson pointed out: ‘There has always been an aura about Anderton of authoritarian, almost priggish, moralism, which sits rather uncomfortably with the gentler, New Age values often associated with the Greens’ (Atkinson, 1993: p.58).
The social democratic-green dispute that occurred during the formation of the NLP was largely re-run inside the Alliance. Jesson commented that despite any similarities between the NLP and the Greens, they,
The Alliance as a Trojan horse for the NLP?
In many substantial ways, the Alliance was essentially a continuation of the NLP — certainly in terms of policy and key people the NLP was dominant. Even Anderton declared: ‘The NLP is the political backbone of the Alliance. The NLP has always been the political platform on which the Alliance is founded’ (CPNZ, 1994: p.2). According to Trotter, ‘It is the NLP that does most of the Alliance’s strategic thinking and... the NLP is supplying most of the tactical know-how’ (Trotter, 1992b: p.10).
In terms of party size, although the NLP was a relatively small organisation, it was quite large by comparison to its minuscule partners in the Alliance. At the time of the merger, the membership of the NLP was officially 6000. However, this was almost certainly an exaggeration. The Green Party, who were the second biggest partner in the Alliance, by 1992 still had less than 600 members (CPNZ, 1992: p.18), and the Democrats membership was, prior to the Alliance, in steep decline. Likewise, according to Trotter, ‘Mana Motuhake and the Liberals barely exist in any meaningful sense organisationally’ (Trotter, 1994b: p.21).
The NLP’s larger size led many in the other parties to be concerned that they might be submerged within the Alliance. To allay such fears, the NLP leadership, and Anderton in particular, encouraged an ‘equal partnership’. All Alliance parties were given the power of veto in the policy-formation process, and equal representation on all Alliance committees — regardless of the size of their membership. This was a substantial, but largely unavoidable concession on the part of the NLP leadership. In effect, it meant that even though NLP members might have constituted up to half of the total Alliance membership, they would only receive one fifth of the representation in Alliance affairs. This played a large part in determining that, proportionally, it was be the NLP which was subsumed in relation to the other parties. Yet, in fact, it was still the NLP which dominated the Alliance — which was indicative of the Anderton group’s well-developed organisational and tactical skills.
There is a myth that the NLP achieved all that it wanted to in the formulation of Alliance policy. However, despite the Anderton group’s predominance and the NLP’s numerical and organisational superiority, the NLP was not able to win all of its fights inside the coalition. (For example, in terms of economic policy, the NLP’s policies on marginal tax rates, capital gains tax, and re-nationalisation of privatised state assets). As Trotter has pointed out: ‘In spite of some commentators ill-informed assertions that the Democrats have been completely excluded from the Alliance’s 12-Point, “non-negotiable”, programme, at least two key elements of moderate social credit policy have been included’ (Trotter, 1994b: p.21), and more importantly, ‘The Liberal’s Frank Glover acts as an emergency brake on the Alliance Council, preventing the radicals from flying too far off the ground’ (Trotter, 1994b: p.21).
Over the period of the formation and institutionalisation of the Alliance, the NLP’s own party organisation was increasingly subsumed within this greater body. Although the Alliance officially remained, for many years, only a formal coalition of individual parties and not a party in itself, it has effectively developed a life of its own, at the expense of the individual member parties (although within a few years supporters could join the Alliance without joining any one of the five Alliance parties).
Reflecting this reality, the NLP National Executive suggested in 1993 that the NLP electorate branches should be dissolved into the Alliance-organised branches. Meeting some resistance from the more leftwing section of the membership, the idea was shelved until a later date when the proposal was more easily adopted. However, the NLP’s independence continued to be eroded by their Alliance involvement. At the 1994 NLP annual conference, outgoing general secretary Dave Macpherson (pictured on the right) reported:
Increasingly, decision-making power was being transferred from the NLP organisation to the Alliance National Council. This led to some discontent inside the NLP. However, for some members, the problem was not so much the organisational independence being subsumed in the Alliance, but the loss of political independence. Jim Anderton was hardly reassuring in this regard, repeatedly proclaimed the sentiments that: ‘By joining, we put aside our own political agenda’ (Anderton, 1992a: p.1).
Next blog post: Political differences within the Alliance