The NewLabour Parry (NLP) was born out of a rejection of political expediency. The people who formed the party perceived the old Labour Party to have given up its social democratic principles and traditions and implemented policies for which it had no mandate. Therefore the early NLP party organisation placed a strong emphasis on the fact that it would not be tempted by the methods of expediency and that it would strongly guard its original principles. But Anderton and the NLP constituted a peculiar contradiction – they claimed to be principled; they rejected expediency, yet they also claimed to be pragmatic and attempted to reject an image of idealism and of being ideologues. [Read more below]
The expediency that NLP members objected to in the old Labour Party was two-fold. First, they were critical of the leftwing of the party organisation and the parliamentary MPs who were prepared to compromise policy in exchange for power or for the need to get Labour re-elected. People in the NLP believed that the Labour-left had substituted pragmatism for principle in their lack of resistance to the 1980s market reforms.
However, the NLP was also critical of the failure of the party in government to follow the traditional principles that had been central to New Zealand political culture that dictated that political parties offered election promises, and if elected, carried these out. According to Debnam:
David Lange went so far as to proclaim before the 1987 election that his government could not be held to account for its 1984, or its forthcoming, manifesto promises:
A principled vision
Even the more moderate social democrats in the party, who placed their emphasis almost solely on a parliamentary focus, were determined to push the party to stay true to its vision of society regardless of the political climate or the public’s degree of agreement with this vision. As one senior party official, Jim Flynn (pictured on the right), contended, ‘we are the only party playing the humane, educative and civilising role of a social democratic party. Whether we get 5%, 50% or 1% of the vote, we have to keep that idea alive until New Zealand realises what it has lost’ (Flynn, 1991: p.13).
This illustrates the principled notions that even the moderate social democrats of the party had before the formation of the Alliance. Flynn saw the NLP as performing a valuable political role regardless of whether or not it achieved office. He maintained that a party could be effective in shaping society merely by its existence and ideological honesty (Castles, 1985).
Jim Anderton as ‘Saviour of the Purity of the Left’
To many people, Jim Anderton’s role in national politics over the previous decade had provided a model of the principled politician. Within the Fourth Labour Government, Anderton’s opposition to its economic and political direction drew wide support (Campbell, 1988: p.17). Thus Anderton and the Alliance were now somewhat equated with principled idealism. One journalist even labelled Anderton as the ‘Saviour of the Purity of the Left’. According to Anderton, ‘the people connected to this alliance are not known for expedience. I’m not, whatever other vices I have. I put my money where my mouth was and walked away from a party that I felt had betrayed people’ (quoted in Campbell, 1991: p.23).
However, Anderton was also constantly at pains to express his pragmatism: ‘We have a very clear philosophical position in the political spectrum. It’s not a purist position — it’s a practical position’ (Oxenham, 1991: p.23). As time went on Anderton even ceased to call himself a socialist in public. After all, he admited, his success depends on transforming his political image of ‘some kind of left-wing ogre’ (quoted in Campbell, 1989: p.15). The cultivation of an image of ‘reasonableness’ became apparent during this period, with Anderton describing his own politics as ‘moderate’ and ‘barely left-of-centre’ (Campbell, 1989: p.15). He said, ‘I’m deemed a radical, but I’m personally quite conservative’ (Hyde, 1994: p.80).
Anderton also had an anti-ideological and intellectual bent to him:
This was part of Anderton’s appeal. New Zealanders do not like ideology and Rogernomics, in particular is seen as ideological. Many people are unsettled by radical change and want to return to the comfort of the past — especially the middle-aged and old. Anderton represented that more comfortable, stable and certain past, and all the illusions that people have about it. They see themselves and their own desire for an end to these traumatic changes. In many ways, therefore, Anderton was identified in the same way that Rob Muldoon was ‘the ordinary bloke’.
A peculiar contradiction
Anderton and the NLP therefore constituted a peculiar contradiction. They attempted to reject the image of idealism and of being ideologues, but claimed to be principled; they rejected expediency, yet claimed to be pragmatic. This contradiction meant that activists in the NLP and other Alliance parties wanted to be very principled, but ended up constantly compromising their principles. This is probably not due to such people being necessarily very expedient themselves, but reflected their decision to work within a particular framework of social change that structured and pressured their political options. As political scientist Keith Jackson commented in the 1970s, the electoral system, ‘not unnaturally lead[s] to an emphasis by parties on opportunism and short-term policies. This tendency is intensified in New Zealand by triennial elections’ (Jackson, 1973: p.104).
At various times the leftwing of the NLP stated the potential for the party to lose its principles if it became transfixed on gaining power. In 1991 Workers Voice reported the concerns of Matt McCarten, which turned out to be rather prescient: