The NewLabour Party (NLP) was very much a ‘splinter party’, being formed from forces within the Labour Party. The fact that the Labour Party underwent such a transformation in the 1980s made it almost inevitable that some significant leftwing opposition, like the NLP, would emerge to challenge the Labour Government’s free market reforms. What was surprising was that it took so long to emerge. This blog post – in a series marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of the NLP – looks at the origins of the split, political forces emerging in resistance outside of Labour, and the rise of the NLP Jim Anderton. [Read more below].
Forces emerging against neoliberalism
The fact that a Labour government was implementing the economic liberalisation measures had important ramifications for the organisation of resistance to such policies. The commitment of the trade union movement and Labour Party organisation to the Government, and their desire to keep National out at all costs led many activists and officials in the labour movement to become, in effect, apologists for the Fourth Labour Government. Others simply withdrew from politics in disillusionment and confusion, while those interested in battling the implementation of neoliberal economic policy were largely paralysed by the lack of an organisation through which to do so.
Normally working class resistance would gravitate/orientate around the Labour Party and union movement. But because these organisations were attempting to harmonise with a government that was supposed to represent their interests, little momentum for collective resistance originated or was built up in these organisations. According to Bruce Jesson, the leftwing MPs and party officials,
For the two or three years prior to the NLP’s formation, leftwing opposition to the Labour Government’s market reforms emerged in the form of small regional groups. In Auckland there were the organisations of Left Alternative, the Workers Communist League (WCL) and the Communist Left; in Hamilton Liberal Labour; in Wellington, People First and the Permanent Revolution Group (PRG); and in Christchurch there was the Socialist Alliance. Nearly all of these groups were formed during the first term of the Fourth Labour Government.
Therefore prior to the formation of the NLP, Rogernomics provided the impetus for the establishment of much smaller organisations. This meant that the more public resistance to market reforms occurred essentially outside of the Labour Party. However, these groups were immensely disadvantaged by their lack of any well-known, credible or popular figure that could gain media attention for their viewpoints, influence public debate and rally public support. This remained their barrier to any real success, and they remained small in size. Many of these groups and their members later joined the NLP at its foundation.
The rise of Jim Anderton
Within the Labour Party, leftwing resistance evolved largely around Jim Anderton, the Labour MP for Sydenham. Anderton came from a working class and Catholic background. He joined the Labour Party in 1964, after initially being inspired by the politics of the new social movements. (The term ‘new social movements’ describes those political activists who were involved in the leftwing causes and movements of the 1960s and 1970s such as anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism, and peace issues - see Jesson (1989a), particularly pp.21-34, 44-49; and Trotter (1994a)).
Anderton went on to become elected to both the Auckland City Council and Auckland Regional Authority. Despite his working class sympathies, Anderton spent some time building a successful manufacturing business. He also worked at various times as an export marketing manager for UEB industries and as ‘a full time organiser and fund raiser for the Catholic Youth Movement’ (Hyde, 1994: p.81). According to Chris Trotter, ‘Anderton’s personal and political experience drew him naturally to a moderate brand of social democracy’ (Trotter, 1992d: p.22).
In 1979, Anderton became president of the Labour Party — a position in which he excelled, becoming arguably ‘the most successful Labour Party president ever’ (Hyde, 1994: p.84). According to Hanley, ‘Under Jim Anderton’s presidency Labour achieved one of the highest per capita memberships of any Labour Party in the western world’ (Hanley, p.15), and Hyde says his presidency made him a national figure and a force to reckoned with within the party’ (Hyde, 1994: p.82). However, Anderton was no party hack. When the Fourth Labour Government began to implement the freemarket policies that Anderton regarded as being contrary to the Labour tradition, he spoke out – but no longer as party president, instead as a new entrant backbench MP.
Along with Anderton, a loose faction of fourteen or fifteen relatively leftwing MPs formed inside the Government caucus (Jesson, 1989a: p.73). They included people like Fran Wilde, Richard Northey, Sonja Davies, Clive Matthewson, and Helen Clark (Hyde, 1994: p.82). However these MPs ‘were vastly outnumbered, proved irresolute and lacked direction. Anderton was the only one to flatly oppose what was occurring in economic policy, and to voice his opposition publicly’ (Jesson, 1989a: p.73). And by 1987 all of Anderton’s parliamentary allies had deserted him, accepting the Government’s economic reforms, but not the extension of Rogernomics into social policy.
Outside of Parliament Anderton found greater opposition to Rogernomics within the Labour Party organisation. However, many of these potential allies disliked Anderton’s very public and confrontational strategy, preferring to use ‘constructive engagement’ behind the scenes. Despite this, Anderton did find a substantial following amongst the leftwing of the party. At the 1988 Labour Party Annual Conference he sought to use this support in a bid to get elected once more to the party presidency, a position that he had given up when he entered Parliament in 1984. David Lange, Roger Douglas, and Richard Prebble all took the unusual step before the conference of issuing statements making it clear that the Government would not find Anderton acceptable as party president.
Although Anderton managed to win most of the union vote, he narrowly lost the overall vote to Ruth Dyson (pictured on the right). This was a turning point in the leftwing’s fight against Rogernomics. Anderton’s next move was to request the permission of his Labour caucus to abstain from voting on the sale of the Bank of New Zealand. Although the government had specifically promised it would not sell it, Anderton was denied such permission. When the sale went ahead, Anderton broke caucus discipline and abstained anyway. He was consequently expelled from the caucus in December 1988.
On April 18 the following year, Anderton called a press conference to announce his resignation from the Labour Party. Immediately, large numbers of members around the country took his cue and also resigned. This event was to mark the end of a long drought for leftwing politics and set the scene for the re-emergence of the possibility of a substantial leftwing force in New Zealand.
Next blog post: Party formation