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Chris Ford: Now The End Is Near For Progressives And Jim Anderton

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Over the weekend few people may have noticed that the Progressive Party released a statement stating that it would not contest any future elections.

Or let's put that in even more straightforward language. Jim Anderton has effectively signalled his intention to retire (for the second and I hope final time) from Parliament at the next election. With him will go his fictional political alter ego, the Progressive Party or as it has been known at the past three elections as 'Jim Anderton's Progressives' to save any confusion for those who may still think that Jim leads the Alliance and lest might be inclined to vote for the party to which I belong by mistake.

I feel that a balanced assessment of his political career since his time as Labour Party President in the early 1980s can now be done (but only up to a point). Jim did do some good during his time in politics from my perspective in that he helped re-build the Labour Party into an well organised machine that was able to win the 1984 election. Anderton, in alliance with Helen Clark, helped keep the Labour caucas focused on the need to declare this country nuclear free when Lange appeared to be wavering in the face of American pressure in the mid-1980s. And who can forget the fact that Anderton spearheaded opposition within the Labour caucus to the Rogernomics juggernaut only to see some of his early allies like Helen Clark ("I'm not going to go down in a hail of bullets with Jim Anderton"), Larry Sutherland and others fall by the wayside? Without Anderton, the NewLabour Party and then the Alliance could not have survived their early days either.

However, many of us (especially in the modern day Alliance Party) are still feeling rather raw (myself included) at the behaviour that Anderton exhibited while in coalition with Labour. Many of us are still taking pins out of Jim Anderton voodoo dolls, throwing darts at his picture on the wall or cursing his name too much after his social conservatism and authoritarian bent became only too apparent while the Alliance was in government. Many on the left, even before the formation of the NewLabour Party in 1989, knew that he was no socialist but more of a traditional right-wing social democrat in the old Keynesian mould. After all Anderton (as some of his early detractors on the right sometimes forgot) was a successful businessman himself and he merely saw that Keynesian economics was the best way to keep capitalism and the welfare state afloat and therefore he was opposed to any great extension of trade union power, for example.

But the political spectrum had shifted so far to the right by the mid-1980s and early 1990s that many on the left from the Marxist/Trotskyist end of the spectrum to the Keynesian social democrats now found themselves in uneasy alliance with one another. All these developments occurred for one reason - the rise of a common enemy in the form of the New Right who were seeking to colonise the Labour Party organisation (in the form of the big business backed Backbone Club) with the goal of turning the party organisation to the political right once and for all. Thus Anderton, despite all his apparent downsides, was the favoured candidate of the left at the 1988 Labour Party conference in Dunedin (which I attended as an observer and was my first introduction to active politics). In this cause, he was backed by a young, radical unionist Matt McCarten, who recounted the story in his autobiography of his first clandestine meeting with Anderton in the back of a car on a stormy night to seal the deal that the bulk of the unions (whom Anderton once wanted to cut down to size in terms of their voting strength within the party) would back him for the role.

As history went, Anderton's bid failed due to then Engineering Union secretary (and then outgoing party president) Rex Jones's agreement to back Ruth Dyson, the cabinet-backed candidate for the job. From there, it was onto Anderton's defection from Labour to found NewLabour and then its metamorphosis into the Alliance with the Greens, Liberals, Mana Motuhake and the Democrats (ex-Social Credit) joining in for the anti-New Right ride for the rest of the 1990s.

That's a brief synopsis of why we on the social democratic/democratic socialist left were stuck with Anderton. After the highs of the 1993 election and his daughter's tragic suicide things began to go downhill. While many of us on the Alliance left genuinely respected Anderton, we did have our misgivings and these soon became evident with his first resignation announcement in November 1994 and then his return in May 1995 after several months when the party hovered near the five percent threshold in opinion polls. The damage was done though and we soon began to experience a leader who made decisions without consulting the Alliance National Council or even (sometimes) his caucas. Our party support began to plunge at each successive election and even when the Alliance secured a role in government with Labour in 1999, we only polled 7.5% or thereabouts, which meant that our influence within the coalition would not be significant (as it proved to be).

At that juncture (after 1999), Anderton began to divide and rule well and truly. The final straw, as many political historians and commentators now recognise, was Anderton's decision to support Labour in their desire to send forces to Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After eight years, those of us on the left who remain in the Alliance are being proven right due to the deteriorating strategic situation in that country where many innocent Afghan civilians continue to die at the hands of western (including New Zealand) forces.

After 2002, Anderton decided that if he couldn't get his own way, he would split entirely from the party he largely created in the first place and found another one which would be entirely responsive to his will. With the founding of the Progressives, Anderton held Wigram and became a Labour MP in all but name.

Now with Anderton's invitation for his devoted followers to re-join the Labour Party, the end is near for both him and his party in the electoral sense. A man whose selfishness triumphed over any desire to rebuild a genuine social democratic political hegemony in this country has now decided that the time has come to call it a day without getting anywhere near that goal.

The one thing though I would seek to say is this - the original party he helped found (the Alliance) will long outlive him both electorally and possibly naturally as well. Ideals and principles matter more than mere electoral expediency to people like me and my fellow Alliance comrades. Without him, I can truly say that we are a far more democratic party than we used to be and even though we have polled minutely over the last two elections, there is a will and determination to keep fighting on, irrespective of the odds stacked against us.

Contrast that with the behaviour of Jim Anderton whose social democratic principles were surrendered for the whiff of power. Now that he has enjoyed that, he feels that he can move on but for people like me, social democratic/democratic socialist ideals will far outlive any one person or party.

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