Some party members, particularly the more doctrinaire party activists, will not necessarily agree with the need to trim the party’s sails to match shifts in the electorate. This may be particularly the case with strongly ‘programmatic’ parties... where loyalty to the cause may, for some members, take priority over short-term electoral success (Mulgan, 1994: p.225).
NLP members who have objected to their party’s pragmatic and rightward deradicalisation have invariably taken up some form or strategy of resistance to the change. Many varieties of organising and orientating to the transformation existed. These varieties were also played out by the leftwing of the Labour Party in the 1980s, when the left attempted to stall and reverse the rightward direction of the party. So although there might have appeared to be little organised opposition inside the party during the 1980s, substantial opposition did in fact exist. According to Steve Maharey:
Inside the Labour Party resistance to the Government has taken a number of paths. Some people have resigned from the party in protest. Others have tried to use their positions within the Party hierarchy to prevent particularly problematic policies being implemented (Maharey, 1987: p.82).
Many of those in the Labour Party organisation who opposed the direction of Rogernomics, took up what became known as ‘constructive engagement’. This meant encouraging cooperation and discussion between the parliamentary caucus and the extra-parliamentary party organisation, in the hope that the later could influence the government’s direction. Margaret Wilson (pictured on the right), Rex Jones, and Ruth Dyson all represented leftwing opposition to Rogernomics, but they chose to use this form of ‘constructive engagement’ in order to pursue their opposition.
Margaret Wilson, in particular, had significant differences with the ideology of Rogernomics: ‘Despite her private opinions, however, Margaret Wilson remained publicly silent, and took a position as mediator between the cabinet and the critics on the left in the party organisation’ (Jesson, 1989a: pp.73, 74). Likewise, a ‘large section of the ordinary Labour Party membership followed a similar logic to Margaret Wilson. They couldn’t affect economic policy, but they could gain a trade-off — the anti-nuclear policy for economics, in many cases’ (Jesson, 1989a: p.75).
NLP constructive engagement
Surprisingly few people on the left of the NLP challenged the constant moderation of economic policy in the NLP and Alliance. Instead the NLP contained its fair share of people willing to use a form of constructive engagement. This had something to do with the increasingly marginal position of the both the radical left and left-labourites, but it also had a lot to do with individuals’ own political moderation and ambition. Such members were usually concerned to gain the favour of the Anderton group, and advance their own position in the party.
According to Panebianco, in a highly institutionalised party, such as the NLP, ‘there is thus only one way to make one’s career in the party: to allow oneself to be coopted by the center. The opportunity structure is such that the “ambitious members” (careerists) must, in order to rise to the party’s upper rungs, comply with central directives’ (Panebianco, 1988: p.60). Or as Bruce Jesson put it, in reference to the old Labour Party:
One of the reasons that people join the Labour Party is to have some influence on the course of events, to have the opportunity of getting close to power. In the interests of achieving power, however, they often find it necessary to compromise their original beliefs, and sometimes to renege on them completely (Jesson, 1989a: p.74).
Policy and non-policy rewards
John Orbell and Geoff Fougere (1973) suggest that party activists tend to be motivated by either policy rewards and non-policy rewards or a combination of the two. They perceive that ‘a great many party activists are only marginally motivated by their policy concerns and that their continued loyalty depends on less tangible rewards to a far greater degree’ (Orbell and Fougere, 1973: p.450). Non-policy rewards constitute such pleasures as: ‘status in the local community, a warm handshake from the leader or some other high-status figure, pleasurable company on Saturday nights at bingo, a feeling of involvement in significant goings-on, and so forth’ (Orbell and Fougere, 1973: p.450).
The fact that activists hold differing preferences for these incentives ‘leads to some interesting consequences for the composition of the party hierarchy’ (Orbell and Fougere, 1973: p.443). In particular, it means that those that are comparatively more concerned with non-policy incentives will tend to be preferred by the party leadership and given dominant positions within the party. Therefore those members that are least likely to resist party change are typically those people in the positions that are most able to do so.
Historical labour movement culture
Historically, the internal political differences of the Labour Party have tended to remain inside the organisation. According to Jesson, there exists a party tradition of secrecy and fear of debate: ‘The effects of this policy of secrecy was to put definite limits on opposition to the [Fourth Labour] government’s economic reforms’ (Jesson, 1989a: p.99). As with other Labour traditions, this policy of secrecy continued in the NLP — party members were expected to contain their differences to within internal party forums.
Related to this, according to Barry Gustafson, Labour’s union history produced a culture of solidarity that acted to suppress political ‘voice’ and ‘exit’:
Because Labour was originally a relatively homogeneous trade union and working class party, the principle of solidarity, embodied in strict collective caucus discipline, was and still is very important to it. The industrial condemnation of a ‘scab’ who defied the union was carried over to intense hatred of the ‘rat’ who defied or deserted the party. Disloyalty became the unforgiveable sin (Gustafson, 1989: p.219).
It seems that the leadership in any party has many ways to control those that publicly resist or challenge party change. Violating the rule of secrecy can close down many potential opportunities for an actor within an organisation — as Jim Anderton found out in the Labour Party during the 1980s . Other opponents ‘of the new politics felt intimidated by... the use by the government of its powers of patronage and funding to reward its supporters and punish dissenters. Many critics were simply overwhelmed’ (Jesson, 1989a: p.98). In the NLP, much of the leading left-elements were ill at ease to voice their dissent, for fear of falling out of favour with the leadership, who controlled the distribution of party resources.
The politics of dissent and suppression
Anderton has claimed that the Labour Party did not have ‘the political maturity or sophistication to handle dissent’ (quoted in Campbell, 1988: p.16), and that therefore his own ‘views had no chance in the Labour Party. Dissent was treason’ (quoted in Hyde, 1994: p.85). Anderton has asserted his belief that dissent is a political freedom that must be allowed to be exercised — when the need arises a politician must be able to say ‘I cannot sign this because it is not in accord with the traditions and policies of the party’ (quoted in Campbell, 1988: p.17).
However, in this, Anderton seems to be somewhat hypocritical — in terms of criticising the low tolerance for dissent inside the old Labour Party, but then acting so blatantly to discourage dissent in the NLP and Alliance. It seems that in the late 1980s, Anderton was practicing the ‘politics of dissent’, yet in the 1990s he was involved in the ‘politics of suppression’.
Obviously there are many advantages for those opposing party change to seek to work together with other like-minded party actors to achieve their aims. Without collective and unified action an individual faces an uphill battle against those forces pushing for party moderation. Despite the myth that Jim Anderton fought against the prevalence of Rogernomics alone, he did in fact seek to build a collective opposition within the party over a number of years before he decided to resign. First, he sought to create a ‘left caucus’ within the parliamentary Labour Party, and was largely successful initially, in that he managed to involve about 14 or 15 other MPs in this. However, this group gradually dwindled in size, leaving Anderton as the only MP to consistently oppose the market reforms. Alongside this ‘left caucus’ Anderton, together with Peter Harris and Pat and Cath Kelly formed the ‘Economic Policy Network’, which also involved non-parliamentarian Labour Party members. This group aimed to promote alternative policies to those being presented by the dominant ‘Roger Douglas faction’ in the Labour Cabinet.
The NLP was said to have a similar internal leftwing caucus. According to Chris Trotter, sources ‘within the NLP point to what they call the “NLP Left Caucus” which meets regularly in the Trade Union Centre on Auckland’s Great North Road’ (Trotter, 1992b: p.10). This group included Matt McCarten (pictured on the right), Matt Robson, and Bill Anderson (the leader of the Socialist Party of Aotearoa and the chairperson of the Auckland Regional Council of Trade Unions). The group aimed ‘to place “good people” in all the Alliance’s key seats in 1993 and to secure prime spots on any Alliance party list in 1996’ (Trotter, 1992b: p.10).
‘Exit’ or ‘voice’?
In the context of the way that the NLP and Alliance moderated over their short lives, the NLP leftwing was largely ineffective. There should be no doubt that many on the left of the party were considerably dissatisfied with the direction taken by that the NLP since 1989. This dissatisfaction emerged in various forms. Political scientist Albert Hirschman (1970) has pointed out that when such dissatisfaction arises amongst actors such as party activists they can either exercise their ‘exit’ option, and leave the party or they can stay within the organisation and exercise their ‘voice’ option. The exit option means choosing not to attempt to affect change from within the party, and the voice option means trying to make others aware of the dissatisfaction in order to reverse the transformation.
Leftwing sections of the NLP leadership were able to successfully utilise ‘voice’ as an effective tactic in their internal disputes with other factions in the party — largely due to their high profile and standing in the party. For example, Bruce Jesson was able to use his position as a journalist to propagate his own beliefs about both the NLP and the Alliance. As well as writing a political column in Metro magazine, Jesson wrote for and edited The Republican, which was a leftwing discussion journal that often served as a forum for opinion and news about the Alliance. Jesson used this forum to make some of his concerns about the NLP known. Among other things, at times he criticised that lack of intellectual discussion and education inside the NLP. As an example, in an article about the Alliance that Jesson wrote in 1991, he criticised the NLP failure to deal with its own ideological nature and direction. He wrote:
Although we are nominally a socialist party, there is little discussion of what this means. We have no educative system at all. We could easily end up like the Labour Party as an effective political machine with no clear sense of purpose (Jesson, 1991b: p.1).
Matt McCarten, too, at times appeared to use the Workers Voice — the publication of the now defunct Communist Party — as an external vehicle for his views. He gave numerous interviews to the newspaper, in which he was typically extremely candid about internal NLP issues. Workers Voice, also obtained a number of leaks and opinions quoted from ‘unnamed’ NLP insiders, who the paper claimed were leading members. It seems that because the NLP has no internal journal open for debate and discussion, this had to take place outside of the party.
Some NLP members found alternative strategies of ‘voice’. Len Richards, the Alliance co-spokesperson on housing between 1992 and 1994, used his Alliance position to issue a media statement advocating that an Alliance government should seize, without compensation, all state houses sold to speculators and private landlords. Richardson subsequently incurred the wrath of the Alliance leadership, and was forced to resign from his Alliance position. Commenting on his actions, Richards claimed that the Anderton group and Alliance leadership was becoming increasingly unresponsive to the membership (CPNZ, 1994b: p.2), and that his media statement was therefore the product of his ‘frustrations’ with the ‘lack of democratic procedures’ inside the Alliance (quoted in CPNZ, 1994b: p.2).
The option of ‘exit’ became the most common strategy for the majority within the NLP that had become dissatisfied with the direction of the party. This has been the case with both active and less-active members. As Steve Oxenham pointed out, ‘quite a few of those who graced the podium at the foundation conference in the Wellington Overseas terminal have, for one reason or another, departed’ (Oxenham, 1991: p.22). ‘There was a steady stream of less-publicised defections from the NLP’s leadership over the first 20 months. Of the 15 members of the NLP’s first National Council’ by June 1991 only five still remained on the council (CPNZ, 1991a: p.2). For instance, John Robinson, another National Councillor, left after the 1990 election with ‘misgivings about the autocratic style of leadership at the centre, the way policy was being made, the expulsion of left groups’ (Oxenham, 1992: p.18).
Typical of many of those that left the party, Sue Bradford said she had ‘given up hope of changing the party from within’ (quoted in The Press, 10 April 1990: p.1). After finding that they could not resist the shifting direction of the NLP, members decided to resign or just drifted away from involvement in the party. Similarly, after Matt McCarten resigned from his position of NLP president in 1991, Workers Voice commented that:
‘It’s common knowledge that he resigned... very unhappy about what he saw as an over-emphasis on parliamentary politics to the detriment of active support for working class struggles. (CPNZ, 1991a: p.7).
McCarten did not resign from the party however, only from the presidency. But he used his last Presidential speech to voice his concerns about the direction of the party.
The move away from grass-roots activism towards a more parliamentary focus that occurred within the NLP, discouraged the active involvement of many party members, particularly the radical left and the more leftwing sections of the labourites and social liberals. However, not only were party members drifting away from active involvement in the organisation, many were moving out of the NLP altogether. Ironically, this exit of activists fuelled a further move towards parliamentarianism, with the Anderton group and labourites in general thereby achieving a greater degree of power within the organisation.
The shift towards an increased focus on the need for parliamentary success was paralleled by the NLP’s gradual incorporation into the Alliance. In conjunction to this, was according to Workers Voice, ‘a marked exodus from NLP branches all round the country.... many of the activists who used to do the back-breaking hard slog are turning away from the party’ (CPNZ, 1993c: p.37). Certainly the membership of the NLP declined in the five of years following the 1990 general election. While in 1990 the party boasted a total of 6000 members, - which was almost certainly an exaggeration – yet in 1991, McCarten estimated that the paid up membership totalled between 1000 and 1500, with an active membership of much less than this (CPNZ, 1991a: p.2).
However, the decreasing amounts of members involved in party business was likely to have been welcomed by some sections of the NLP’s leadership. As Bruce Curtis has pointed out, in his examination of the early Labour Party, ‘Without the direct involvement of the membership the leadership of the Labour Party could pursue an increasingly opportunistic line in the chase for the Treasury benches’ (Curtis, p.20). It is certainly the case, as we have seen, that many party leaders will actually desire the departure of certain party members when they perceive them to be a threat to party harmony and an obstacle to party change.
This appeared to be the case with Sue Bradford (pictured on the right) and the far-left groups in the NLP — just as it was the case from the point of view of the rightwing of the Fourth Labour government when Jim Anderton departed from the old Labour Party. However, some of the NLP left leadership were concerned with the decline in the party’s membership. Bruce Jesson, for instance, declared that the NLP ‘won’t develop as the undisputed party of the left if too many points of view feel excluded’ (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.7), and he partly blamed ‘centralisation’ in the NLP for the ‘large number of activists’ who have left the party (quoted in CPNZ, 1991a: p.7).
Political scientist Frank Wilson (1994) suggests that the leadership are important in neutralising the forms of resistance to party change: ‘When the need to change is acknowledged, the party leaders must be able to overcome the inertia and internal resistance of party bureaucrats and activists’ (Wilson, 1994: p.275). However, in the NLP’s case it was not ‘inertia’ that Anderton was trying to overcome, but the radicalism and activism of the party’s leftwing — in order to replace this with inertia and bureaucratisation.
Hence the dominant leadership coalition pursued strategies for neutralising resistance and tactics that could coopt to the leadership’s position those who were susceptible to doubts about party change. However for a leftwing party like the NLP, the need for the leadership to act is limited. After all, when an organisation, like the NLP, is the furthermost significant political party on the left of the political spectrum, the risk of alienating the more radical or anti-capitalist elements of the membership and party support is not nearly as dangerous as risking the alienation of the middle-ground. The party may lose credibility in the eyes of the most radical elements of the working class, but despite their dissatisfaction, the majority of these militants would still cast their votes for a party like the NLP or Alliance at election time because no other significant option exists.
Therefore, the leadership of the NLP found very little need to attempt to neutralise the dissatisfaction on the left of the party. As Curtis has shown with the early Labour Party, the marginality of the leftwing contributed to the ‘bankability’ of their votes for the nearest significant political force:
In fact, as the degeneration of the Labour Party was to show, the very bankability of the votes of the industrial working class... were to count against the anti-capitalist elements within the party. All the Labour Party required come election time was votes. Sure in the knowledge that the party would receive the votes of the most advanced elements of the working class, the Labour leaders were free to bargain away the interests of their natural supporters in the drive for an election victory (Curtis, 1989a: p.16).
Next blog post: The cross-class basis of the Alliance and its consequences