Anderton’s Shakespearean legacy

The great English historian E. H. Carr famously wrote that "we view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present". History, in other words, tells us as much, if not more, about our own time as it does about the times previous. These are pertinent words at a time when the New Zealand political establishment remembers one of its greats, Jim Anderton, who passed away over the weekend, writes Thomas Coughlan.  

His obituaries have universally stressed his integrity and principles, highlighting two great moments: his rift with the Labour Party over Rogernomics that led to Anderton resigning from the party in 1989, and his eventual return to the fold as a member of Helen Clark’s governments. Only when in government with Clark, do Anderton’s obituarists remember his pragmatic streak — as he pulled Labour back to the left and scored massive policy concessions, namely Kiwibank. 

Indeed, there is an almost Shakespearean poetry to this version of the tale: Anderton, a man whose integrity forbade compromise with his Labour colleagues in the 1980s, allied himself with former National Cabinet Minister (of State Owned Enterprises to add to the story’s poetry), Philip Burdon for his final act of public life — the campaign to save Christchurch Cathedral. 

This ordering of the story, however, ignores Anderton’s early reforming role within the Labour Party and his formative role in remaking the party into an electable force, delivering his nemesis-to-be, Roger Douglas to government in 1984 and ruffling no small quantity of feathers among Labour’s traditional, old-left — the very people, who, if you believed the hype, you’d think Anderton to number himself amongst.  

In 1967, Anderton, just 29, proposed reducing the overwhelming power of the unions within the Labour Party in the now infamous ‘red book’. His allies to reform the party were then-President of the Auckland Labour Party, Roger Douglas and Michael Bassett, both members of the neoliberal faction of David Lange’s cabinet that Anderton would later oppose. 

Trapped in near-perpetual opposition since the first Labour Government of 1935-49, with only brief single-term governments in 1957 and 1972, younger members of the party, the so-called ‘Vietnam Generation’ were desperate to modernise the party and reform it into an organisation capable of establishing a lasting government. To this generation, commitment to the party’s union origins was less important than social justice and, ultimately, power; compromise was needed.  

Anderton’s red book was enough to see him shunned by the party for a decade, but his reputation as a moderniser brought him back into the fold as momentum built behind the new generation of leaders that would be swept into power in 1984. Anderton’s star rose with Douglas’. Both had been employed, briefly, by the same Auckland firm, UEB Industries — Douglas as an accountant and Anderton as export sales manager.  

By 1978, the Labour Party was in disarray. It finished the election campaign with debts of $200,000, having won just 57,000 more votes than the previous election. The new generation seized their opportunity. Roger Douglas moved quickly to replace deputy leader Bob Tizard with David Lange.  

At the same time, Douglas and Michael Bassett joined a faction of the party that conspired to replace Arthur Faulkner with Anderton as president at the party conference that May. They failed, but only by a narrow margin (693-422) and Anderton was elected the following year on a wave of votes from branch delegates flexing their muscles over MPs. 

Anderton vigorously reformed the party structure, shifting power away from MPs and the unions to party delegates, who better reflected the complex mix of ideologies that the fourth Labour Government would come to represent. Unions, in particular, came under fire as their conference voting strength fell from 60 percent in the mid-1960s to 30 percent in the mid-1980s. Things didn’t go exactly as planned. After the 1981 election, the party was saddled with debts of $500,000. The unions began to turn their backs on the movement. In that campaign they donated a paltry $43,000 to the party.

Unions thumbed their noses in other ways, too. Only 15 percent of unions, representing 40 percent of the unionised workforce remained affiliated with the party. Journalist Colin James described embarrassing situations during the campaign in which Labour candidates struggled to gain access to some union workplaces for campaigning. 

But here, too, Anderton showed a side of pragmatism. Although he held fast in his drive to shift power away from vested interests like the parliamentary party and the unions to delegates, he was always keen to back unions publicly, even against the advice of colleagues in the party. He was a key figure in many union marches and was famous for his breakneck tour of union branches as president. 

In an interview conduced decades after he left the party, he recalled election night 1984, in which he was huddled in a corner, ashen-faced — a stark contrast to the jubilant party members around him. "I knew what was coming, I really did, and I knew it was going to be bloody". 

None of this, of course, prepared Anderton for the poisoned chalice of government. There is another great irony here. For decades, he relentlessly practiced the art of compromise to deliver Labour to government, yet as he got closer and closer to his goal he became more aware that government would test his principles to their core and deliver a policy platform that he was largely opposed to. 

In an interview conducted decades after he left the party, he recalled election night 1984, in which he was huddled in a corner, ashen-faced — a stark contrast to the jubilant party members around him. "I knew what was coming, I really did, and I knew it was going to be bloody."

The record validates Anderton’s recollection. In both the 1983 conference and the conference in Auckland regional conference in April 1984, three months before the election, Anderton who as president had fought hard to unify the party, warned against "some within the party who subscribe to free market principles". Lange accused him and other dissenters of treason and he was rebuked by MPs and the joint council of Labour. 

As Douglas was given ever greater scope in policy, Anderton dug in his toes, entrenching the split. Anderton and PSA economist Peter Harris tried to beef up the Government’s social democratic policy in the face of Douglas’ free-market reforms, but they were denied. Anderton was forced to conform and present a united front with the party, a position he struggled with until his resignation in 1989.  

This experience locked-in the two great strands of Anderton’s career. He was not immune to the pursuit of power, knowing full well that one must be in government to effect change, but he also had a unique ability of when principle needed to take over. 

This experience locked-in the two great strands of Anderton’s career. He was not immune to the pursuit of power, knowing full well that one must be in government to effect change, but he also had a unique ability of when principle needed to take over. He must surely be one of New Zealand’s most effective minor party leaders with a legacy that even the leader of a major party would be proud of: Kiwibank, the NZ Super Fund, and re-nationalisation of the railways all bear his mark.  

Lionising Anderton as a British-style old-Labour figure in the mould of Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Benn — someone who refused to modernise in the face of necessary change and stayed true to the ‘roots’ of the party as it morphed around them — is only partly true. It is a myth that does more to serve the needs of those on the left, who are keen to unpick the neoliberal structure put in place by Anderton’s opponents in the 1980s. But that only tells half the story. In the pursuit of power and the belief in modernisation, Anderton was willing to face down and ultimately chasten the very heart of the old party — an uncomfortable truth for those seeking a symbol of ideological purity. 

Leaving parliament as father of the house and scoring political victories right up to his death (Christchurch Cathedral’s fate was only secured last year) must surely validate publicly Anderton’s unique political acumen built on his unrivalled ability to balance principle with the pursuit of power. 

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