Jim Anderton has died at a time when the party he fought for, then walked out on, looks more like him than it does his erstwhile opponents.

Jim Anderton's final victory comes in the words of tribute from the leaders of the party that once famously "left" him and the sincerity with which they have claimed him as one of their own; a face once more on the Labour totem pole. Through much of the 1990s while he was bitterly attacked by Labour leaders - Helen Clark included - such tributes were impossible to imagine. And he gave as good as he got. But the warmth shown by 2017 Labour shows how the tides have changed.

The former Deputy Prime Minister and Labour Party president died yesterday aged 79 and he's been hailed since by those across the left, where once lay a massive and brutal faultline.

Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, for example, spoke of a man of "integrity" and "deeply held beliefs", without any suggestion those beliefs not long ago threatened the future of the party she now leads. 

The political earthquake that was Rogernomics tore apart Labour and the wider left of New Zealand politics. It often seemed the gulf between what might loosely be called the left and centre-left was wider than any other. Certainly, it was more toxic. Anderton and Helen Clark personified that split, as close friends torn asunder by the times and their choices. Clark, who like Michael Cullen, Steve Maharey and others chose to stay and 'fight for the party from within' were on one side; Anderton who, with very few others frankly, was the purist who stood against Labour's conversion to free market economics was on the other. They were the self-serving sell-outs. He was the ego-driven martyr. And that was the polite stuff.

Anderton himself was not quite as left-wing as his anti-Douglas stances suggested. He was a small business owner who, in his early political career was a moderniser willing to change Labour to make it match fit and de-power the unions, as described here. However he became a symbol of Opposition to laissez faire economics when its supporters insisted "There Is No Alternative" and he gave one. With both barrels. If he hadn't, it's hard to imagine an interventionist Labour Party in power, as we see today, led by a woman who has been willing to call herself a socialist. 

That has been achieved because he, Clark and the rest of those who once attacked each other so viciously were also adept politicians. If ever you weary of political compromise or bemoan political pragmatism, look to Anderton - both his initial intransigence and the ultimate rapprochement. For every thing there is a season.

Political scientist-turned-New Zealand First Chief of Staff Jon Johansson likes to talk about the two handshakes that healed the left and created the political space for Labour to become government in 1999. Clark's handshake with Mike Moore in the 1996 campaign (that salved the Labour wound) and her handshake with Anderton in 1999, which brought the wider left into alignment. Without that healing, the public would not have trusted Labour and its MMP allies with power. Seasons, indeed. 

The 'what if?' questions from those times are many, but Anderton's death raises what is perhaps the core unresolved (and unresolvable) question from that tumultuous time. What if Labour's left had seen off the Rogernomes and Anderton's side had won? Would we be a robust, protected (still subsidised?) economy safe in the ownership of its own assets? Or the Greece of the South Pacific, awash in debt and isolated from the global trading economy? Could we have found a middle way?

We will never know. (Although Gordon Campbell has a wonderful pre-1984 'what if?' in his fascinating blog on Anderton). It's easy to argue that the loss of assets and industry and government spending cost us. It's also easy to argue that the fiscal discipline, cutting subsidies and cuts to government spending helped us. 

Whatever your views, you can look at the way most of the Rogernomic foundations remain New Zealand's economic foundations, how Labour still endorses most of them and conclude that Anderton lost. We remain a low-taxed, market-led economy with a lightly-regulated labour market. Most of that which was privatised remains privatised.

And yet. And yet in many ways the Anderton legacy seems to be on the rise.

The new Labour government's talk of re-thinking capitalism, its seeming willingness to wriggle its way further left and its embrace by the protectionist mindset of New Zealand First is all vindication - right or wrong, you decide - of Anderton's often lonely stand on the left. That's his victory.

Here's the rub: The new Labour government looks more like an Anderton-esque version of Labour than it does a Rogernomic one. The new era of Labour leaders such as Ardern, Robertson and Little can talk with more sincere warmth and more fulsomely about Anderton today than they will be able to if they are still in power when Sir Roger Douglas passes away.

Anderton has died at a time when he is on the right side of history, in the minds of those in charge. This Labour government won't have charter schools, it will spend on social services and in the regions, and it will reform the Reserve Bank Act. Kiwibank is not just safe, it's thriving. For all its ideological desires, the previous government could not and did not sell it or KiwiRail. The trend is towards more government intervention and investment, not less.

In that sense, he dies back in the arms of his party. But not because he changed all that much. Indeed, you might say, he didn't re-join the party; the party has re-joined him.

Comments (5)

by Chris Trotter on January 08, 2018
Chris Trotter

While it is true, Tim, that Jim Anderton failed to detach any other serving MPs and few serving NZ Councillors from their allegiance to the Labour Party, he was astonishingly successful at the lower levels of the party organisation. In the case of the Labour electorate I knew the best, Dunedin North, virtually the entire LEC resigned to join the NewLabour Party. In the first few weeks of the NLP's existence, thousands of New Zealanders joined up. The NLP Inaugural Conference attracted upwards of 500 attendees.

Jim was by no means alone or unsupported.

by Greg Presland on January 08, 2018
Greg Presland

Thanks Tim.

As a young self confessed lefty Labour activist at the time of the Anderton Lange dispute I thought that Anderton with his attempts at "modernisation" of the party as well as his Catholic businessman background put him on the right of the Labour Party.  And Lange with his work for the impoverished was on the left.

One of the two was clearly going to be the next leader.  Anderton thwarted Lange's first attempt in 1980 by getting a couple of LECs to change their MP's vote in a crucial Caucus showdown between Lange and then leader Bill Rowling.  Lange lost that vote by 1 and Labour then lost the 1981 election but only just.  How things could have been different if he had become leader earlier.

Then Lange veered to the right under the influence of the Rogernomes and Anderton veered to the left although Lange had the decency of realising that Douglas had taken things too far.  I wonder how much the rivalry had to do with their position although having said that I believe that after that Anderton never made a wrong decision.

Things could have worked out differently ...

by Tim Watkin on January 09, 2018
Tim Watkin

Chris, I meant more amongst MPs. And it was also meant as recognition of what it must have cost to make that stand. But he obviously had a lot of NZers support, in and outside the party. Interesting about Dunedin North.

Greg, that's a big call about Anderton never making a wrong decision... Do you mean since 1984? Or earlier? But yeah all that '81 stuff had a long tail alright. How do you think things could have gone differently if Lange had become leader in 1980? 

by Greg Presland on January 09, 2018
Greg Presland

Tim I meant after 1987 although the Afghanistan issue is still something I have not got my head around.

It was funny really.  I thought that Anderton was well to the right of Lange, particularly with his views about unions.  FIfteen years later Tony Blair was wanting to do the same thing ...

My strong recollection is that when Labour took over in 1984 there was a crisis.  The foreign exchange market had closed.  Muldoon was refusing to devalue and Jim McClay was threatening to be appointed temporary PM just so that he could do that.  Think Big had failed spectacularly and the economy was in the doldrums.  The Rogernomics response I believe was fashioned by the circumstances of the time.  This is not an excuse, I still think they were wrong, but it is easier to understand crazy decisions if they are made in a background of crisis.

If Labour had won in 1981, and I am sure they would have won under Lange's leadership, then the economy was in better shape and maybe some of the excesses could and would have been avoided.  Lange was the one opposition politician who could completely defuse Muldoon's claim to be a tough guy.

by Anne on January 12, 2018

" Anderton thwarted Lange's first attempt in 1980 by getting a couple of LECs to change their MP's vote in a crucial Caucus showdown between Lange and then leader Bill Rowling."

It was Lange's backers who were responsible for the outcome of that caucus vote in 1980 - Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Mike Moore, Michael Bassett and co. At the time the fight was more to do with ideological differences than it was individual personalities.If Lange's supporters had comprised a more diverse group of colleagues he would have won hands down.That vote marked the 'official' beginning of what became a very bitter and protracted cold war within the Labour Party and the consequences were far reaching for this country.

Another pivotal point which occurred behind the scenes in the lead up to the vote was a massive ring around of party members... exhorting us to send messages of support for the incumbent, Bill Rowling. I think it probably played a role in swinging one or two MPs back to Bill Rowling. 

Muldoon certainly had a lucky escape and managed (just) to win his third term in office. 


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