Jim Anderton played a critical role in changing our electoral system


Jim Anderton played a critical role in changing our electoral system.

In 1992 and 1993 New Zealanders voted for a new proportional electoral system, MMP. They wouldn’t have done it without two credible “third parties” in the electoral arena – the Alliance and NZ First, both headed by rebel MPs. The Alliance, ably led by Jim Anderton, polled 18% in the 1993 election, with support of MMP as one of its main planks.

In 1993 Anderton was the Alliance’s sole MP, but he was masterful in his use of the parliamentary stage to project a credible alternative to the new right policies of both National and Labour. Of course he didn’t do it on his own. By 1993 there were thousands of Alliance activists behind him, including this writer.

It wasn’t an easy ride for Anderton. Suspended from Labour’s caucus in 1989 for refusing to support the sale of the BNZ, he agreed to lead a new progressive party, NewLabour, into the 1990 election. Retaining his Sydenham seat in that election was critical to the future of NewLabour, and later, in 1991, the Alliance – in which NewLabour was joined by the Greens, Mana Motuhake, Liberals and the Democrats.

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Jim Anderton was the Alliance’s biggest, most critical asset, but also its biggest liability. He dominated the Alliance party politically and organisationally, sometimes to its detriment. I was an Alliance candidate in 1996 and I noticed a significant drop in support after Anderton came out with the absurd policy that a Labour/Alliance government was only possible if a coalition policy agreement was worked out before the election. The Alliance vote dropped from 18% in 1993 to 10% in 1996. Labour’s vote, which had been languishing, rose to 28%, and NZ First’s to 13%.

Anderton also bears of lot of the responsibility for disharmony in the 13-member Alliance caucus elected in 1996. His domineering style helped the Greens decide to leave the Alliance in 1997 and run independently in the 1999 election.

He also bears much of responsibility for the demise of the Alliance itself in 2002 Anderton is rightly credited with several progressive reforms during 1999-2002 Labour/Alliance government, such as setting up Kiwibank. However, his overall policy stance became less and less distinguishable from Labour’s. He supported the “war on terror”, repressive anti-terrorism legislation and the sending of SAS troops to Afghanistan. The Alliance ranks rebelled, the caucus split and the Alliance lost all its seats in the 2002 election. The aptly named Jim Anderton Progressive Party won two seats in 2002, as a slightly more red version of Labour.

Overall, Jim Anderton made a great and irreplaceable contribution to our society and democracy. Without his leadership of NewLabour and the Alliance – and his support of MMP – we might still be stuck with a narrow, two-party, first-past-the-post political system – like Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States. We owe Jim a lot.

Keith Locke was a Foreign Affairs spokesperson for NewLabour and the Alliance, and later a Green MP.


  1. There was also the determination by both Jim Anderton and Winston Peters under adverse circumstances to challenge the tidal wave of neo liberalism sweeping the globe at that time.

    Which is why he chose to leave Labour and Peters to leave National and start their own party’s / movements..

    And their mission was to ensure social democracy and Keynesian style economics remained relevant and thus protecting what remained. It was a turbulent time of negative change for many and mistakes would be made. The odds were stacked against them.

    After over three long , dreary decades – and after one of the most corrupt, anti democratic NZ govts of all time under John Key , we now , finally ,… seem to have a coalition govt that is only timidly attempting what Anderton and Peters were doing / attempting to do right in the middle of the subversion of the Douglas, Richardson , Shipley years.

    When viewed in that light we can see how genuinely courageous these two men really were. Notwithstanding any mistakes they made along the way.

    Certainly not when contrasted with the ingratiating , lying , corrupt John Key .

    And in answer to your statement ” Jim Anderton was the Alliance’s biggest, most critical asset, but also its biggest liability ” … that may be true , – but true also was the fact that no shrinking violet wallflower would have even thought about attempting to do what Anderton or Peters was doing .Sure , there were others leading other partys that were effective , but ALL of them needed that ‘rocky’ type personality with a dash of quick humour to get the job done.

    They were not given to political correctness at all. They were born and raised by the ‘greatest generation ‘ , – those that fought World War two and earlier, – by the parents who endured the Great Depression and the aftermath of World War one ,… and as such they inherited much of those same gritty values. It was a time of not being afraid of confrontations and sticking up for the battlers ,- even Muldoon adhered to those values. Muldoon himself serving in World War two.

    I can see why they had such strong personality’s , – they needed to have to survive . And they also saw the evils inherent of neo liberalism and how that would impact those ‘ battlers’ who were their mates and they set themselves against it.

    Be that how they were , … New Zealand is a poorer place for the passing of Mr Anderton and that generation of politicians. They were there at a critical time for all of us, even for those too young or not even born at the time. In that respect , we can say that not only was Jim Anderton resourcing values from the past , – he was also way ahead of his time in ensuring those same values for the future.

    We could do with a whole lot more just like them.

  2. My parents were friends of Jim Anderton’s and worked closely with him. My dad was his campaign manager in the NLP and then the Alliance and my mother volunteered in Anderton’s office.

    Jim was very good when my mother was dying horribly and sadly. He was kind and thoughtful.

    But politically he was also an autocrat with a limited political vision. At the end of the day he supported the invasion of Afghanistan, something which the Afghani people are still paying a heavy price for.

    Most Alliance members revolted against his support for that invasion. But supporting the invasion was the price he was prepared to pay – in other people’s blood – for a few small post-2002 reforms by the government he was part of.

    While I admire him for showing some principle in the 1980s, when every other Labour MP showed a total lack of principle, he sadly ended up siding with the Labour establishment against the activists of his own party.

    My take on the two sides of Anderton – the decent and kind individual and the career politician – is here: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2018/01/09/jim-anderton-1938-2018-new-zealands-last-social-democrat/

  3. I was lucky to hear him speak at an event In Christchurch when the NLP was being formed. His passionate dedication to social justice and the criticisms levelled at Roger Douglas’ undemocratic reforms were enough to convince me to tear up my Labour Party membership and join his movement.

    Had it not been for Jim Anderton, who knows how far the neo-liberal reforms would have taken this country!

  4. Always derided as the “looney left ” Jim Anderton was anything but.

    Articulate , intelligent and courageous he had the impact as a speaker to motivate and energise those who were opposed to the neo liberal order and lead a movement that had a profound impact on the fight against new right policies.

    He was prepared to fight when many just rolled over and were silent and blind to the ravages of the free market on everyday kiwis and future generations.

    MMP would not have been seriously endorsed with out Anderton and the betrayal of National and Labour and their MPs who voted and endorsed these policies from 1984.

    Jim Patrick Anderton has secured his place in our history as an exceptional New Zealander who was driven by his desire to stand against economic dictatorship and the corruption that has followed.

    Unlike the shyster who was desperate for a legacy after his time as PM Jim Anderton created a real one with out having to buy anyone to do it.

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