Contingency and Jim (1938-2018)

A review of some critical decisions in Jim Anderton’s life reminds us of just how contingent politics can be.

Jim Anderton was appalled by Rogernomics to the foundations of his soul and his political upbringing, at first in the Catholic Youth Movement and, from the age of 25, in the Labour Party, becoming its president in 1979 and an MP in 1984. Perhaps what hurt him most was that as president he had a hand in selecting the new Labour MPs in 1981 and 1984 but in parliament they betrayed the principles he stood for – and thought they stood for – meekly supporting neoliberal policies which were an anathema to him and the Labour Party.

He seems to have become depressed by the failure and certainly became isolated in the Labour caucus. The Rogernomics attack on him was twofold. They told Prime Minister Lange that Anderton had ambitions for his job, which was true; every able MP has a field-marshal’s baton in their knapsack. They said that he could not work with anyone except as boss – a calumny he disproved when he was a successful cabinet minister between 1999 and 2008 in the Clark-Cullen Government. (On occasions Lange thanked him for helpful support in caucus discussions.)

In 1987, voters elected ten new Labour MPs to Parliament, nine of whom were definitely anti-Rogernomics. New to The House, they were torn between their loyalty to Labour colleagues and their loyalty to Labour principles. Sonja Davies described the time as the most miserable years in her whole life. (On one occasion the group holed up in a room rather than vote for a privatisation measure. Told by the whips to come out because their vote was needed, Sonja said ‘We may never come out’.) They offered support to Lange in his political infighting with the Rogernomes, but nothing much happened (I think because Lange did not know how to organise a caucus). .

The group desperately needed experienced leadership but strangely Anderton never hooked up with them (and one other dissident backbencher). Had he, he would have led a parliamentary group proportionally larger than the Alliance MPs of 1999.

In 1988 he stood again for Labour Party President but was defeated 473 to 572 by a combination of the party establishment, party ultra-loyalists, neoliberals and unions. (In the 1970s he had earned their hostility by saying the unions had too much power in the Party.) So he left the Labour caucus – or as he put it ‘I did not leave the Labour Party; the Labour Party left me’ – forming New Labour which later merged with other small parties into the Alliance. Following success in the 1999 election it joined the Labour-led government but fell apart in 2002 (over the government’s involvement in Afghanistan, not over economic policy) and he formed the Progressive Party, almost as its only MP. He proved to be a valued and successful cabinet minister. Typically there are only five heavyweights in any cabinet; Jim was one of them. (After he retired he rejoined the Labour Party, resigning when it promoted an official he loathed.)

Thus far it is a matter of public record. Let me speculate on a counterfactual scenario. Suppose Anderton had taken over the leadership of the new MPs in 1987 and/or had won the Labour presidency in 1988 and that the party had accommodated to the rebalancing of power and policy which is new positions entailed. (Recall it was tearing itself apart at the time.)

I am not saying that he would have become party leader instead of Geoffrey Palmer in 1989 or Mike Moore in 1990 but he surely would have become a senior member of its leadership. Nor that the party would have done markedly better in the 1990 election when its electoral support collapsed, sinking it from 57 MPs in 1987 to 29.

However, had Anderton stayed with Labour, the party could have won the 1993 election. National policies – a continuation of Rogernomics sometimes called Ruthanasia and Jennicide – had been suicidal, and its voter share collapsed from 48 percent to 35 percent (similar to the collapse Labour had experienced in 1990; its voter share also sunk slightly in 1993). But National still won 50 seats (out of 99). The big winners in voter share increases were the Alliance and New Zealand First, but in the last front-runner election they won only two seats each.

Had even only half the Alliance vote gone to Labour, they would have won around 57 seats, a clear majority. At this point the counterfactual crystal ball gets cloudy especially as Labour had not yet purged itself of all its neoliberals. But certainly the course of New Zealand politics and policy would have been different.

So perhaps in his dismay at Rogernomics and his parliamentary colleagues, Jim Anderton made the wrong decision.

He was not alone among senior party members in his dissent against Rogernomics. But others chose a different course. Famously Helen Clark, who had been his close colleague in the 1970s, said she would not go down with Anderton ‘in a hail of bullets’. She stayed on in cabinet in 1989, quietly tending her portfolios, but not criticising Rogernomics publicly. Michael Cullen followed a similar strategy – although for a brilliant wordsmith he had no such memorable phrase. Their time came in the nine years after the 1999 election rolling back some of the neoliberal changes; Anderton joined them.

There is no simple conclusion from this historical recall except as to how contingent politics is. As for Anderton, it was convenient for many of the tributes to play down the difficult decade after 1984; far too many of today’s Establishment benefited from Rogernomics and Ruthanasia to want to draw attention to those who opposed it and its defects.

Yet, we should honour Jim for his dissenting then as much for his subsequent successes. If only different decisions had been made.