By 1991 the struggles over crucial questions — principles, strategies — had been resolved in favour of the Anderton wing of the party. After this the NLP/Alliance consolidated organisationally around the essentially Keynesian programme of the Anderton group, a programme fundamentally similar to that of Labour and National before 1984. The NLP’s resolution of the ‘big questions’ was, interestingly, described in Brown’s 1962 comments on the Labour Party:
This absence of a doctrinaire approach was reflected in the political realism the Party displayed. Like all democratic socialist parties, it was confronted with the dilemma whether to hold on to the whole of the policy which it believed to be fundamentally right and face an indefinite political wilderness, or whether to modify the policy, retaining what it could without jeopardising the prospect of imminent electoral success. The New Zealand Labour Party inevitably chose the second alternative — inevitably, because the Party could not have been held together on any other basis (Brown, 1962: p.222).
Having won the internal battle, the Anderton group were able to concentrate on the external, public sphere — namely, winning votes and removing obstacles to their electability. An important aspect of this involved reassuring business sectors about the moderate nature of an Alliance government in order to ensure these powerful forces do not make people too scared to vote Alliance.
The significance of the Alliance
The creation of the Alliance was significant in terms of New Zealand history as well. It is the first time that minor parties joined forces to create a serious challenge to the existing political establishment. [It should be noted that following the election of the First Labour Government, the constituent elements of the devastated United Government created the National Party – however Reform and the Liberals were not ‘minor parties’ in the same sense as the Alliance constituents, since both had formed a series of earlier governments.]
Undoubtedly the arrival of the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system provided the NLP and Alliance with greatly improved electoral success. The dramatic increase of Alliance MPs in 1996 and the corresponding increase in parliamentary resources apportioned to the organisation was a shot in the arm for their capacity to improve their political standing. Parliamentary financial resources allowed for more Alliance staff to be hired, and for more money to be spent on the party organisation and election campaigning. Likewise, the increase in parliamentary representation greatly multiplied the amount of voices that spoke for the Alliance, both in Parliament and the public media —increasing the credibility of the party in the eyes of many who still saw the Alliance as a ‘third party’ or the ‘Jim Anderton Party’.
However, a dramatic increase in the NLP and Alliance’s parliamentary representation provided for a potential further widening of the gap between leadership and members, and in general provided for an increase in the oligarchic tendencies of the leadership. Up until then, the majority of the leadership of the NLP and Alliance were not professional politicians. There was not therefore such a clear divide between leadership and membership or between the ‘parliamentary party’ and ‘extra-parliamentary party’ as in Labour and National. Furthermore, the financial and political resources of parliamentary representation decreased even further the need for the Alliance to be a mass party, or to be involved in grass-roots activism.
This increase in representation also had an effect on the organisation’s politics. The closer that the Alliance got to power, the more the party came under the pressure of public and business influences. Therefore, further moderation of policy occurred as the party felt the need to become more ‘responsible’. As the story has already been told, the NLP and Alliance have displayed a certain ‘realism’ towards the economic system. Given the Alliance’s pre-1996 record, it was not surprising that it adapted itself fairly quickly to the demands of an economic situation in which government austerity rather than government largesse is the order of the day. [According to Cowan: ‘The NLP Left accepts there will be a flight of capital from New Zealand if an Alliance election looks likely. It is possible that this pressure will be enough to tame Alliance leaders, since Anderton rushed in to soothe the money markets when last November’s poll delivered a hung parliament’ (Cowan, 1994: p.3).] In effect this would involve a lowering of expectations about what it can offer. It became apparent that in the rather unlikely event that an Alliance Government ignored the demands of the market and adopted a radical nationalisation and wealth redistribution plan, New Zealand could expect to face not only economic turmoil, but political and social instability. In any case, the very nature of the forces involved made it unlikely that an Alliance or Alliance-led government would challenge the existing socio-economic order.
Maintaining and strengthening the coalition was clearly a priority for all five parties. The Alliance held together for quite some time, despite the pundits, and while National and Labour were haemorrhaging MPs and members. This success was based not only on an understanding that they rise or fall together but also on an increasingly common political approach. When it is also considered that in many areas the Alliance replaced the individual parties as the framework through which members are organised, a formal merger became inevitable.
The dominant discourses on the formation and evolution of the Alliance have regarded it as an NLP creation that was subsequently coopted to a narrowly NLP agenda. The headline of one article on the Alliance declared, for instance, ‘NLP’s Scheming Socialists at the vanguard of the Alliance’ (Trotter, 1992b). By contrast, the version of the NLP-Alliance story contained in this project has been an attempt to provide an alternative tale about a ‘selling of our soul’ process. The intention of this paper has been to outline this process as one occurring over the NLP’s first few years of existence. The crucial point made is that to understand the formation, nature, and likely future of the Alliance, the past history of the NLP has to be understood.
This history has involved processes of recruitment, political debate and conflict, manoeuvring and exclusion. Forms of organisation have changed — for instance the leadership quickly came to monopolise decision-making, the Alliance structure has to a large extent superseded local NLP branches.
The NLP and Alliance history also reflects the disintegrative trends within present-day politics, such as the fracturing of previously stable major parties. At the same time it also shows the way in which mainstream politics recreates itself. Thus, out of diverse fragments, relatively insignificant in themselves, a major force emerged yet ultimately fell apart.
The NLP/Alliance history reflects too the shift away from class-based thinking, politics and parties in the late twentieth century. It also shows the decline of clear principles and ‘big ideas’, and the way they have been replaced with pragmatism, personalities and clever marketing. Further, it illustrates the pace of change and transformation in modern society. While the Labour Party took three quarters of a century to achieve its rightward deradicalisation, epitomised by the Fourth Labour Government’s rejection of traditional social democratic policy, the NLP saw ‘a speedy transition from birth to maturity’ (Oxenham, 1991: p.22).
The transformation of the NLP, although having its own specific elements which I have outlined, can also be seen as an example of the process described by Barry Gustafson:
Over a period of time a party created in response to specific socio-economic circumstances and aspirations must allow itself to be recreated and to co-operate in its own transformation if it is to survive... the compositions, demands, values, social relations, and technology of a society change; the changes are reflected in the composition and policies of a party (Gustafson, 1976, p.55).
In looking at the history and evolution of the NLP in this series of blog posts, I have concentrated on internal factors and processes that have led to the moderation of the NLP’s overall policy. I have done this because much previous analysis has ignored or downplayed these dynamics. But I am not suggesting that external factors have not been important. The rightward shift of the NLP can also be related to broad changes in society. The protracted economic problems of the 1970s and 1980s, which resulted in the restructuring of much of New Zealand’s economy, wiped out sizeable sections of industry and manufacturing. Seventy thousand manufacturing jobs were lost between 1984 and 1990. An important section of the traditional working class very quickly ceased to exist. This phenomenon is apparent in much of the ‘first world’, as major companies relocated to countries where production costs, especially labour costs, are lower.
These changes in countries such as New Zealand are reflected ideologically in ideas about the outmodedness of the concept of ‘working class’. The working class is suddently said to no longer exist as a meaningful sociological category. This was reinforced by the decline in trade union membership and the marginalisation of the trade union movement. Moreover, by the 1980s much of the union leadership promoted unions as little more than ‘friendly societies’.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc also had an important effect. Although most Marxists in New Zealand would hold the view that the Soviet bloc was the antithesis of Marxism, this was not how it was perceived by the public. Its implosion reinforced ideas that socialism, class politics, collective solutions and so on have failed.
At the same time, the triumph of capitalism has been less than inspiring. Most of the leading capitalist countries have suffered a series of major recessions, beginning in the early 1970s. While there have also been booms, these have tended to be short-lived. So whereas the long postwar boom enabled the expansion of the welfare state and a significant degree of social reform, the present condition of the New Zealand economy is clearly not conducive to such policies.
The effect of all these developments — the long slump, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and traditional social democracy in both its party and trade union forms, the economic restructuring and changes in class structure — was to significantly lower the horizons of all parties. By the time of the NLP’s formation no party stood for any great principles. The vision — or lack of vision — was dictated by harsh economic realities. Given that the NLP leadership started from the same fundamental premise as all of the other present and aspiring parliamentary parties — the acceptance that capitalism/the market economy are here to stay — it inevitably had to modify its earlier plans for fundamental social reform.
These external factors combined with the internal factors, upon which this series of blog posts has largely concentrated on. But the external factors have worked, in the main, to reinforce the more moderate faction in the NLP and help explain the Anderton group’s complete triumph over their leftist opponents.
More than anything else, the NLP story has been about dissent and compromise. On the dissent side have been Anderton in the Labour Party, the establishment of the NLP as a dissident voice in New Zealand politics, and the fight by left elements in the NLP against the moderation of policy and focus. On the compromise side have been the record of much of the old Labour left, such as Helen Clark, in reconciling themselves to the rightward evolution of the party, the acceptance of the same reality by many leftwing individuals within the NLP, and the overall moderation of NLP policy and focus.
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Interviews with NLP members and ex-members