Although in early 1989 Jim Anderton was not yet offering a party which ex-Labour Party members could join, and nor was it completely obvious that one would eventuate, the defections from Labour continued in large numbers. Despite the fact that no major party figures or MPs resigned, Anderton did have substantial numbers of supporters transferring their allegiance to the new party. This blog post, continues the blog post series on the history of the NewLabour Party (NLP) by looking at the formation of the party. [Read more blow]
Exploring the particulars of the roots and subsequent formation of the NLP is crucial to an understanding of the party’s later transformation. According to political party theorist Angelo Panebianco, while a party’s interaction with outside forces will continue to shape that party,
the crucial political choices made by the founding fathers, the first struggles for organizational control, and the way in which the organization was formed, will leave an indelible mark. Few aspects of an organization’s functioning and current tensions appear comprehensible if not traced to its formative phase (Panebianco, 1988: p.xiv).
Consequently it can be seen that the NLP continued long after its formation, to be conditioned by the outcomes of battles played out in the formative phase of its organisation.
Among the more important Labour Party defections were Hotel Workers’ Union organiser Matt McCarten; Auckland lawyer Matt Robson; the Education Minister from the Third Labour Government, Phil Amos; a ministerial executive assistant to Labour MP Fran Wilde, Laila Harre (pictured on the right); her partner Barry Gribben; the 1984 general election candidate for Manawatu, Dave Alton; Francesca Holloway; Keith Locke; as well as two former Labour Party National Executive members: Liz Gordon and Neville Taylor, and three members of the New Zealand Council of the Labour Party: Kathleen Mary, Dion Martin, and Chris Trotter.
In the immediate period after his resignation, Anderton gathered many from this group together for a secret meeting in Wellington to discuss the possibility of starting a new political organisation. From this group, Anderton selected an interim National Council of fifteen people.
‘New’ or ‘old’ Labour?
Anderton finally announced the formation of the NewLabour Party at a Sydenham electorate meeting on May 1, 1989. Here it was announced that the new party would be called 'The New Labour Party' — a label that recognised the politics of those who were setting it up. By borrowing part of the name of the old Labour Party, the choice of name acted to put the new organisation in a particular framework that would influence its subsequent political development.
By calling themselves the NewLabour Party the founders made clear their intention that the organisation would follow a traditional social democratic path, and that it would be seen as a factional offshoot of the Labour Party instead of a party in its own right. The name also indicated that they believed that they were the real Labour Party, and that they intended to supplant the old Labour Party as the mass social democratic party in New Zealand. As one veteran Labour Party member, who was present at the NLP’s formation put it: ‘We didn’t leave the Labour Party; the Labour Party deserted us’ (Interview).
However there were some in the interim National Council that were adamant that the NLP should be qualitatively different to the old Labour Party. Matt McCarten, the NLP’s first party president, stated:
Our name is important. It clearly states that we represent working people, waged or unwaged.... But danger also lies within the name New Labour. That danger is the tendency to see our party only in relation to “Old Labour”. Instead of forging our own programme, we are at risk of ending up with party policy courtesy of the Labour Government or simply settling for being our enemy’s enemy (McCarten, 1989: p.2).
An inaugural conference was held for the new party over Queen’s birthday weekend in Wellington. Attended by about 500 members, the conference played ‘a pivotal role in defining not only the party’s structure and policy but its position within the Centre-Left political spectrum’ (Press, 5 June 1989, p.4). Given that the initial impetus for the formation of the NLP had come from within the Labour Party it is not surprising that most of the top positions in the NLP were taken by the key defectors from the NZLP: Anderton was elected party leader, Matt McCarten president, Dave Alton General Secretary, Francesca Holloway became a Women’s Commission convenor, Chris Trotter (pictured above on the right - in an early photo) became the party’s publicity convener.
Immediately the party appeared to gain some public support: ‘The new party entered the Heylen opinion polls at 9 per cent. The MRL panel gave it 15 per cent’ (Vowles, 1990: p.55). However, over the next year the NLP’s fortunes decreased, as support dropped well below 5%. However, while the party was barely rating in the polls, it was nonetheless attracting an influx of people, with the party leadership claiming 5000 members by late 1989.
Next blog post: The development of party factions and tendencies