Jim Anderton's political legacy... & his final win

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.