The incompatibility of the three factions detailed in the previous blog posts proved too great to allow their coexistence, and the first eighteen months of the NewLabour Party (NLP) saw the far-left groups expelled, marginalised, or dissolved fully into the organisation. The Communist Left organisation was the first to be purged, after they made clear their intention to attempt to split the party. There was some debate and dissension from party members over the expulsion (Boyle, 1989), but no one outside the Communist Left appeared to be willing to support their somewhat inept tactical manoeuvres inside the NLP. However, the expulsion of the Permanent Revolution Group (PRG) in April 1990 for unspecified acts of disruption and for unspecified incompatibility with the NLP constitutional principles and objectives was not so clear-cut and uncontentious. The PRG’s expulsion provides an interesting example of the political process of the NLP National Executive and also of the tensions inside of the organisation. [Read more below]
Allowing dual membership
At the founding conference there had been considerable debate over the issue of whether the NLP should let members belong to other political organisations. The Anderton group and labourites tended to be against allowing dual membership, especially after becoming aware of the involvement of the far-left groups in the party. However, the radical left and social liberals could see no reason to exclude anyone unless they acted against the party. This was the dominant view at the conference and it was therefore decided that dual membership should be allowed. According to Steven Cowan, a leftwing NLP member who belonged to no organised far-left group (and now blogs at Against the Current):
It is clear that the PRG could not be expelled under the constitution ratified at the founding conference. Anderton then pushed for the national executive to adopt a constitutional amendment on dual membership. Such an amendment would allow the NLP to bar from membership individuals who belonged to other political groups or parties. This amendment, when put to the regional conferences, had been rejected. The national executive however passed the amendment — but it was only passed on the casting vote of the chair of the meeting, President Matt McCarten. The national executive then voted to expel the PRG. The PRG however only learned of their expulsion when a report of the meeting was leaked to the media (Cowan, 1990: pp.4, 5).
The NLP National Council’s Report on the NLP declared: ‘Given that members of the PRG are not individual members free to participate, including taking office or being candidates, or free to vote in whatever way they wish as individuals, the National Council of the NLP resolved... “That pursuant to Article 5 of the Interim Constitution, membership of the PRG is incompatible with membership of the NLP” ’ (NLP, 1990a: p.2).
The expulsion became a minor news story. In a press release, Jim Anderton justified the expulsion by accusing ‘the ousted Permanent Revolution Group — a 20-strong hard-left Wellington group — of trying to “hijack” the NLP’ (quoted in The Press, 10 April 1990: p.1). He argued that the PRG’s ‘outrageous, attention-grabbing tactics did considerable harm to the acceptance of New Labour by uncommitted voters’ (quoted in The Press, 10 April 1990: p.1).
The resignation of Sue Bradford
Sue Bradford felt that her own position on the national executive had been completely marginalised by Anderton and his supporters, thus resigned from the party shortly after the expulsion of the PRG. Attacking what she saw as an undemocratic and bureaucratic move, she said:
I felt it was the beginning of the end in terms of a process whereby people who did not agree with what the Anderton group were laying down would eventually be kicked out.... They [the PRG] were the first to go. It could have been me or people from our group next. It could have been feminists. It could have been the green groups (quoted in New Zealand Herald, 10 April 1990, p.1).
Chris Trotter saw Bradford’s resignation as being a ‘bonus’ for the Anderton faction, as ‘Bradford had become the Left’s champion on the NLP National Executive. Her departure fatally weakened the radicals’ grip on the NLP organisation’ (Trotter, 1992d: p.23). She later maintained that her departure from the party was not so much the case of opting out, as being pushed out (Cowan, 1992).
Reinforcing the dominance of the Anderton group
It seems that these groups had wanted to debate issues which neither the right nor the centre of the party had wanted to for fear that it would publicly marginalise the NLP. The response of the party had therefore always been to seek to silence this faction, and expulsion proved to be one successful method of doing this. Furthermore, it is likely that the existence of groups such as the PRG and individuals like Sue Bradford threatened the dominance of the Anderton group and this resulted in their response, which was to expel them. Their removal then gave the Anderton group more room in which to manoeuvre.
However, because the PRG had constituted a large part of the core of the Wellington organisation of the NLP, and had performed a large amount of the party-building work in that region, its expulsion, and the subsequent division and turmoil created by it, destroyed the Wellington NLP organisation. This effectively meant that the NLP virtually ceased to exist organisationally in Wellington, a set-back, from which the party never recovered.
The subsequent media publicity on both the expulsion and Bradford’s departure, was both positive and negative for the NLP. On the negative side, the media coverage suggested that the NLP was wracked with internal dispute, and gave some impression of a heavy-handed or undemocratic leadership. However, in terms of furthering the NLP’s electoral acceptability, these negative effects were probably outweighed by the implication that the NLP leadership was cleansing itself of the ‘extremist’ element inside the party. (This point is probably debateable, as the expulsion coincided with a decline in the NLP’s showing in the public opinion polls. Two Tom Scott cartoons were subsequently published in daily papers, which mocked Anderton for attempting to shake off his leftwing.)
The expulsion of the PRG was therefore somewhat of a success for the Anderton group. The momentum of the expulsion encouraged the Anderton group to be able to instigate an informal witch-hunt against all socialists in the party using the same reasons. The leadership was able to point to the internal party turbulence ‘caused’ by the existence of the PRG, and also the public’s supposed negative reaction to the involvement of ‘extremists’ in the party. This appears to have had a silencing influence on the many independent socialists within the party. They had to accept the dominant position of the Anderton group in the party, and therefore accept the framework that they have imposed on the party. For example, Bruce Jesson who claimed to be on ‘the left of the NLP’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1993b: p.35) and a Marxist, concedes that he has had to ‘give away a lot of my socialist policies by being part’ of the NLP (CPNZ, 1993b: p.35).
Parallels with early Labour Party expulsions
The leadership’s elimination of far-left groups and tendencies had some very definite parallels with the purges undertaken by the old Labour Party leadership in that party’s formative years. Sociologist Bruce Curtis (1989a; pictured on the right) maintained that for the early Labour Party leadership to have been able to complete the party’s first major deradicalising step it needed to minimalise opposition by eliminating certain ideological factions from the party:
So, just as the early Labour Party leadership ‘Unchecked by radicals or communists... began a slide into opportunism’ (Curtis, 1989b: p.18), the early NLP leadership was able to move the party towards both the centre of the political spectrum and electoral success by eliminating its leftwing opponents in the party.
The influence of the far left on the NLP
The involvement of the far-left groups did have an important impact on the initial political nature of the NLP. Their attendance at the foundation conference, for example, brought about definite leftwing gains, such as the surprise election of Sue Bradford, of the Left Currents organisation, to the vice-presidency of the party. In terms of the debate over the interim party constitution at the founding conference, the far-left and socialists were influential in winning the conference over to several changes, such as getting references to 'socialism' included — which the draft constitution had not contained. The radical left, together with the social liberals and left-labourites, were also undoubtedly influential in ensuring that the inaugural conference decided that the party should not be solely concerned with a parliamentary strategy, but should also become involved in extra-parliamentary activity aimed at broad social change.
Next blog post: The influence of the social liberals