As well as the revolutionary-reformist divide within the NewLabour Party (NLP) discussed in previous blog posts in this series on the history of the NLP, there were other axis-lines of significant political conflict in the early organisation. Many social liberals were strongly represented at the founding conference, and were involved in several important early debates over party policy (especially about environmental and gender issues). Most significant was the involvement of activists from the women’s movement. According to Alison McCulloch, an observer at the first conference, ‘Feminists at the conference were one of the most united groups’ (McCulloch, 1989: p.13). [Read more below]
Sexual politics in the NLP
Gender issues therefore formed another cleavage of dispute. McCulloch noted that:
However, not all the debates around sexual politics were simply split along lines of gender. One conference remit aimed to get the party to adopt a stance in favour of greatly liberalised abortion laws. The abortion issue brought up the conflict in the party between its social traditionalists and more socially liberal elements. In this dispute, Jim Anderton represented the conservative forces: ‘Catholicism still guides me’ Anderton proclaimed (quoted in Hyde, 1994: p.79). The major proponents of the abortion liberalisation measures were the far-left and “socialist” members in the party.
The socially conservative group, made up of people who either opposed abortion or further liberalisation, managed to delay any decision being made by the conference, delegating authority for the issue to the NLP National Council. This effectively stifled the question, thereby quelling the substantial momentum inside the party for substantial abortion reform.
The other issue of sexual politics which caused some division, was the push by feminists for,
Environmentalism in the NLP
Another element of the social movements faction of the party was the growing environmental movement. At this stage the Green Party did not yet exist, and many non-environmentalists in the party could see the value in winning the growing ‘green vote’. In this, they perceived the need to construct a new constituency for the NLP, broader than that section of the public that had been marginalised by the economic policies of the Fourth Labour government. They therefore sided with the NewLabour Party’s environmentalist members in pressing for the NLP to identify itself publicly as ‘the green party’. This desire materialised in the development of comprehensive environmental policy — the ‘Red-Green Charter’ — and also in a push to give the party imagery an environmental flavour, such as adding the colour green to the NLP’s labour-red logo.
This ‘red-green’ conjunction, however, was not unproblematic. Disputes arose between the NLP’s social democratic growth-orientated goals and the anti-growth, anti-industrial and anti-consumerism of the green movement. Anderton was unconvinced of the relevance of environmentalism to a social democratic party: ‘You go around Sydenham and you won’t find too many people worrying about the ozone layer’ (quoted in Welch, 1989: p.8). The existence of environmentalists in the party alongside unemployed rights activists had created a cleavage of conflict between the traditional social democratic-labourist beliefs in industrial development and growth, and members of the social liberals who saw dangers in the environmental consequences of such a strategy.
Significantly, the new Green Party, which was formed in May 1990. The convenor of the NLP’s Environment Policy Commission, Erin Horsley notes, ‘Initially we had hoped there could be a coalition between the Greens and the New Labour Party for this election, but I think Jim (Anderton) effectively knocked that on the head’ (quoted in The Press, 12 August 1990: p.3). Anderton was still stuck in the early 1970s view of Greens as a small minority. Eventually he was to come to terms with the fact that they had sizeable support, especially amongst the liberal middle class voters and younger people. In the meantime, some greens such as Horsley, departed and many became involved in the new Green Party.
The dissolving of the factions
The factions, tendencies, conflicts, and diverse members of the NLP meant that the organisation was wracked with all sorts of internal disputes over its strategic goals, its policies and tactics of the moment, and its forms of organisation. This existence of diverse and distinctive factions impacted on the internal cohesion of the leadership, decreasing their ability to dominate. Conversely, as many of the more radical members departed the organisation, and the political ‘extremities’ of the more leftwing members were ironed out, the Anderton group that was within the leadership was able to increase its dominance and cohesion.
In hindsight, it can be seen that phenomena particular to the origins and outcomes of the early internal struggles of the NLP largely determined that the party would become another social democratic labour-type party — a party focused solely on Parliament. However, this was not by any means inevitable prior to the outcomes of these early struggles — certainly in the eyes of its more leftwing elements. Although Anderton was clearly the dominant figure at the time of the organisation’s formation, the more radical elements in the party were both numerically significant and held a number of prominent positions. The New Zealand left was still in a state of flux and it was therefore by no means inevitable that the party would solidify so strongly around Anderton’s own particular vision of social change and politics.
In the NLP’s first year, at least, the party was still formulating its function and purpose. The party could have taken any one of several different directions, a possibility reinforced by the involvement of the various factions. The participation of many diverse actors meant that the NLP had many different potential futures. However decisions and outcomes of these early conflicts set the party out on a particular path.
Next blog post: Party ideology