Should the Left have left the Labour Party?


I’M NOT QUITE SURE that I agree with Matt McCarten. He takes the view that, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better if the left of the Labour Party – the people who departed to form “NewLabour” with Jim Anderton in 1989 – had remained where they were. If they’d stayed put, he argues, Labour would have retained a solid core of democratic socialists who could, in time, have led the party out of its Neoliberal Babylonian Captivity and restored it to its rightful (or leftful) place on the political spectrum. Rather than the political cyphers currently holding ministerial warrants, says Matt, Labour would now have a Cabinet to match the nation-builders of yesteryear: politicians who could make things happen and get things done.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course. When confronted with moral choices, it would, I’m sure, be very humbling to see with crystal clarity all the consequences of our decisions. That such foresight is not given to human-beings is probably just as well. How many great deeds would ever have been attempted if the doers had been allowed to glimpse their inevitable denouements? Would Lincoln have signed the Emancipation Proclamation if he had seen the Jim Crow South in all its white-sheeted horror? Would Mickey Savage have bothered with the Social Security Act if he had been shown Ruth Richardson gleefully reducing his welfare state to rubble?

Forced to crush its own left-wing, how could the New Zealand Labour Party have avoided the fate of the British Labour Party under Tony Blair?

Personally, I don’t think a Blairite lurch to the right could have been avoided. Large though Labour’s left-wing faction was, it was never big enough to outvote the rest of the membership’s loyalty to their Members of Parliament. There was – and there remains – a deeply ingrained intolerance among Labour’s rank-and-file of anyone who purports to know more, or know better, than their elected representatives. Such people are only grudgingly tolerated in good times. In bad times they are treated like traitors.

This was true even in Labour’s glory days when the party’s membership hovered around 100,000. In the early 1980s it was not uncommon to encounter party branches with 400-500 members. Regional conferences of the party attracted hundreds of delegates, and policy debates could be fierce.

TDB Recommends

Open dissent, however, was never encouraged. When the Otago/Southland Region’s little newspaper, Caucus, published an article critical of David Lange’s economic competence, the Port Chalmers’ Branch of the party ceremonially burned all the copies it had been sent. Just a few weeks later, pleading lack of funds, the Regional Council shut Caucus down. “Your big mistake,” Richard Prebble told the crestfallen young editors of the paper, “was to assume that the New Zealand Labour Party is a democracy.”

Prebble was right. After Labour came to power in July 1984, and the long sad journey away from democratic socialism began, branch members (and even some trade union affiliates) became increasingly intolerant of criticism. By 1989, the year in which both Matt McCarten and I helped Jim Anderton to split the Labour Party, this intolerance of dissent had morphed into a palpable ideological shift to the right. By the end of the 1980s, party members who, nine years before, had proudly voted for avowedly left-wing policy remits, were loyally supporting the Fourth Labour Government’s increasingly harsh neoliberal policies. Fewer and fewer members who were not already in Jim Anderton’s camp wanted to hear “their” MPs criticised. When the party finally split, those who opted to stay breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. Now, at last, there could be unity!

And that is pretty much the way things have been since 1990. For the first 75 years of its life Labour had operated as both an ideological and an electoral force. People joined to promote left-wing policies and debate the issues of the day from a left-wing perspective. But, during that whole time, Labour was also a vehicle for carrying Labour candidates into Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these Labour MPs did not want anyone but themselves making party policy. They had no time for an independent, ideologically-driven and activist-led party organisation – and worked tirelessly to ensure that the tight little bands of supporters they gathered around themselves felt the same way. Following the 1989 split, it was these loyalists who inherited the Labour Party. In the years since 1989, this loyalty-before-all-else attitude has only become more pronounced. Labour has become a party of helpers – not hecklers.

Hence, Matt’s second thoughts. But my own view is that, had we stayed, the latent hostility towards, and intolerance of “disloyalty” that was already there in the party – the inevitable outgrowth of its role as an organisation for electing and re-electing Members of Parliament – would have been whipped-up into a poisonous lather of hatred and smeared all over the “traitors”.

By 1989, tens-of-thousands of members had already drifted away from the party in reaction to Rogernomics. Had those who stayed to fight neoliberalism not left with Anderton, I believe they would have been driven out. Some would have left because the hostility directed at them became unbearable. Others would have quit because they could no longer stomach the party’s right-wing policies.

Matt, himself, knows the lengths to which the Labour caucus was prepared to go to protect itself from a party determined to force it to keep its promises to the electorate. He organised the successful ouster of Prebble’s supporters in the Auckland Central electorate committee, only to see the Labour Party injuncted by one of its own MPs, and threatened by a sizeable chunk of the rest with imminent mass defections to a new party. Matt counselled defiance, but the leaders of the party caved-in to the Rogernomes’ pressure.

Ironically, it was the creation of Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party and, in 1991, the Alliance of NewLabour, the Greens, Mana Motuhake and the Democrats, that forced the Labour Party caucus to keep itself electable by refusing to embrace Neoliberalism as fulsomely as the British and Australian Labour Parties, or the US Democratic Party. In the guise of the Alliance, Labour’s left not only paved the way for Anderton’s onetime protégé, Helen Clark, but cleared the path for MMP. Neoliberalism may not have been rolled back, but it ceased to roll forward. Practically all of the genuinely progressive reforms of the Labour-led Government of 1999-2008 were Alliance initiatives.

It is also true that while Matt McCarten refused to stay with Labour in 1989, he did agree to return to the party to become David Cunliffe’s, Chief-of-Staff in 2014. Without Matt’s wheeling and dealing in the aftermath of Cunliffe’s disastrous performance, Andrew Little could not have defeated Grant Robertson, nor been given three years to pull the bitterly divided Labour caucus back together. Without Andrew, of course, there would have been no Jacinda.

History has a quirky sense of humour. If I could have predicted her jokes before she hit me with her punchlines, I’d never have got out of bed – let alone the Labour Party.


  1. Should the left have left? an age old conundrum in Parliamentary Labour type parties. Unfortunately there would have been little choice going by the activities of the “Backbone Club” and the way Jim Anderton was shamefully treated at Conferences. Matt McCarten was hounded out of the old Hotel Workers Union for his efforts by certain Labour loyalists.

    NZ Labour was always on an ultimate loser trajectory, in class left terms, because of the party being split into Parliamentary and ordinary branch member wings. The MPs can still lord it over the rest of the party, despite a little wrangling during the brief Cunliffe era. The rules ultimately allowed Jacinda Ardern to take the leadership given Andrew Little’s timing. And of course popular participation is way down on previous decades anyway.

    No, I think Chris and Matt and many others did the right thing, as at least Paid Parental Leave, and the existence of the Greens attest. The Alliance could actually still be a force if they had not fallen for the NZ hard left trap–inappropriate weighting to internationalism over localism regarding Afghanistan.

  2. I would argue that the Left didn’t leave. The people that departed were the ACT people followed by people like Mike Moore. These were mostly the reasonable people who weren’t ideologically hidebound and had a general managerial competence. What remained were just representatives of minority radical factions.

    There’s a theory in management called ‘Contingency Theory’ which boils down to the idea that every single decision should be based on the individual circumstances (contingencies) of that instance. It requires managers to pragmatically analyze individual issues and find solutions that are specific to those circumstances.
    Applying this to politics, anyone going into government with a fixed doctrine is the equivalent of a tradesman who only has one tool – a hammer (because nobody uses sickles anymore) and every problem becomes a nail.

    • Well, Andrew, all I can say is that, at the time, the Labour Party, the National Party, other left-wing parties, university professors and virtually the entire mainstream news media were (for once!) in agreement. The Labour Party had split, and its left-wing members had followed Jim Anderton into the NewLabour Party.

      You are, of course, welcome to your opinion, but the facts of 1989 are against you.

      • We’re talking at cross purposes – I was talking about the ACT split from Labour in 1993 that removed the remaining pragmatists from the party.

        • “that removed the remaining pragmatists from the party.”… Are you quite sure about that?
          I always thought of Roger Douglas as both an arch “neoliberal” considering that he was the principle architect of the Lange governments economic program, ans a one of the greatest traitors to the labour movement in NZ that has ever lived… Pragmatist… Hell yeah!!

          • Stefan, but isn’t neoliberalism the creed of simply ‘doing what works’? The ultimate in pragmatic policy.

            This is shown internationally where those countries that adopted neoliberalism have been more successful than the rest.

            • So, according to you, the Uk and NZ did better than Germany Sweden, Norway and Denmark from the 1980s onwards?

  3. We need a new genuine left party such as the Alliance was. Labour died with Douglas neoliberal betrayal and the final coup de grace by Blaircinda has happened. The Labnats are one. A large section of the population are deluded by the illusion of wealth by capital gains while our youth are forever shut out from home ownership. It’s all a waste of breath. A government that refuses to control the market will be controlled by the market.

    • Well said jay11 . It still irks me that “Labour” kept that moniker and didn’t change their name to something more honestly descriptive.

  4. “Should the Left have left the Labour Party?”
    I’m not exactly sure what ‘Left’ is? I do know the difference between arse holes and the rest of us. I mean, arse holes kind of self categorise don’t they? I’ve never met a right winger who isn’t an arse hole come to think of it? Their modus operandi is a self declaring thing. They’re an I/Me species of human and I do truly wonder if, in fact, they are human at all. And I/Me is as dumb as it is evil. No one can go it alone and even if you have all the money in the world, you’re still an arse hole.
    Where there is confusion about whether a politic is ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ means the right have already infected the left to exploit and manipulate anyone who gets in their God given right to make money. Confusion in the left is because the Right who’ve infected the Left are puffing out contradictory pheromones.
    Looked like The Left. Fucked us like the Right. Neoliberalism is a perfect example of manipulative arse holes cunningly using the concept of good intentions to fuck normal people over to make off with their money, assets and amenities. To the Right wing, it’s all about money. Clearly, they’ve read Alan Watts. In his writings and lectures he details that with the openness of someone who’s simply unafraid of anyone trying it on because he could see them coming a mile away. But not so the ordinary person in the street or on the land.
    To the untrained eye neoliberalism sounded wonderful. Trickle Down! OMG? Better buy a bucket.
    I’m proud to write that roge the runt and his cadre of crooks never fooled me for a single fucking second. The moment I called eyes on those piggy eyes and that moustache I knew we were in the deepest shit imaginable.
    We’ve suffered more than 35 years of hardship and uncertainty because a nasty little arse hole managed to sell us the idea that selling our assets was a much better idea than keeping them for our enduring use and enjoyment.
    Has Adern’s Labour ever mentioned that? Has she or her ministers ever talked about the catastrophe of roger the runt’s neoliberal scamming’s? Has she talked about initiating public inquiries into which business interests most benefited from the theft of our resources?
    Even I could name them all. They’ve still out there rolling about on our billions from the realisation of money from the sales of our stuff and things. What gas is it that’s escaping which numbs our brains to that?
    What right wing arse holes have done to us, and still do, with complete immunity is an astonishing accomplishment. I’ll give them that.
    The psychological ensnarement of our hearts and minds is chilling.
    One last thing. A fantastic film in my opinion.
    Not for those in need of a good night’s sleep.
    It’s not vicious or sadistic but my God it’s clever. Think shades of District 9 .
    ‘Captive State’. Netflix.

    • …”We’ve suffered more than 35 years of hardship and uncertainty because a nasty little arse hole managed to sell us the idea that selling our assets was a much better idea than keeping them for our enduring use and enjoyment.
      Has Adern’s Labour ever mentioned that? Has she or her ministers ever talked about the catastrophe of roger the runt’s neoliberal scamming’s? Has she talked about initiating public inquiries into which business interests most benefited from the theft of our resources?”….


      Yup. Well said.

  5. If labour can’t get their shit together in a coalition government and deliver what they promised in 2017. Then having a majority government from 2020 and are as ineffective now as they were then, then they have no chance of delivering anything whilst in government.

  6. “Democratic Socialism?” Really?

    Sorry but putting the term “Democratic” in front of something doesn’t make it so. North Korea is actually called The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and East Germany was The German Democratic Republic, hardly the epitomes of democracy.

    I just get deeply suspicious when people seem to think that they must use the term Democratic in naming an system, just as I do when they use “Peoples”, eg The People’s Republic of China – an oxymoron if ever there was one.

    • Well, Bg, the NZ Labour Party has included “Democratic Socialism” among its aims and objectives for several decades – long before AOC was born!

      The term was created to differentiate Labour’s ideology from that of the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China – and all the other totalitarian “socialist” states. This was, of course, an important consideration during the Cold War.

      Prior to the adoption of “Democratic Socialism”, Labour’s objective had been a variation on the British Labour Party’s famous Clause 4 – long since eliminated from the BLP’s constitution by Tony Blair – which called for “the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

      Personally, I prefer that to “Democratic Socialism”. It’s more descriptive – and honest!

      • Thanks for your reply Chris, good history lesson.

        To understand where I come from, is that I spent 6 months backpacking through Africa in the late 90s and with not much to do but read and try to get a handle on the recent history’s of each country I visited, the one thing I noted was that most countries that had either Democratic or People’s in their country’s name, were generally far from it. From then on I’ve been very suspicious of either term. Yes, I’m slightly younger than you to be fair, so my presumption is that every system IS (as a goal) democratic and for the people. I know that is fantasy, but like I said I’m very distrustful of those who say they are, it’s like they’re over compensating.

        Btw I don’t regard AOC as relevant.

  7. Should the left have left the Labour party ? NO ! Despite all its faults the members lost sight of what the party was formed for in 1916 and the reasons for the formation are to fight the same enemy that is still the same as it was then… Capitalism and the effect of that on ordinary people.

    It maybe the 21st century but the ever present enemy is still the same and was able to infect and weaken the only opposition to its rampant advance by infecting the only threat which is Democratic Socialism hence the contagion in 1984 and the advancement of capitalism unhindered and acceptable with a pretend socialist smile captured by market forces.

    Capitalism has with the help of technology and the destruction of the socialist alternative to fight it by infecting the Labour movement to embrace Social Democrat ideals in the 80s -90 s which is nothing more than a kinder version of capitalism but cannot and never will address the worst excesses of greed and market economics on the most vulnerable.

    The current system is working by creating obscene wealth and indifference to the plight of less fortunate members of our fellow citizen or countryman.

  8. Jim Anderton had put his life (and perhaps that of his family) into the labour party. When he found his project had been hijacked by the” fish and chip club” he first tried to take it back but all his comrades within the executive turned out to be traitors. The most hurt full being Hellen Clarke.
    When he saw that all was lost and he was without support he understandably tried to take the traditional labour voter with him into a party that would continue the ideals that labour used to hold.
    His decision to leave and start New Labour made it inevitable that those who were similarly horrified by what Douglas was doing to the country would go with him. If he had stayed most of these would have stayed too and hoped to get the party back one day. And after loosing the election 6 years down the line they might just have done so because by then they would probably have had Lange on their side.But without Anderton in there it’s hard to see that happening.

    D J S

  9. Good article , I think I favour your opinion Chris, however,… it seems it was easy to marginalize Anderton via the press which they did,. And by his larger neo liberal opponents in both National and Labour. It was a slow grinding down,…I remember being dumbfounded that so many chose to stay with Labour and its right wing policies at the time,…to flippantly throw away all the the benefits of 60 odd years and simply hand it over to the wealthy ( both domestic and foreign ) in such a short period of time. I had hope for the Alliance yet still, the NZ public continued to vote for the treacherous partys that beat them over the head with a hammer and then came back asking for more…they were well propagandized to accept the lies of ‘trickle down’ theory and ‘short term pain’ for ‘longer term gain’…

    Not many of us were there like you and Matt were,… so its difficult to say what would have happened if left leaning Labour voted to stay within the party,…working from within. But I suspect like so many other human institutions, in the end, there would have been splinter groups and doing exactly what did happen with New Labour and the Alliance.
    ..”Would Lincoln have signed the Emancipation Proclamation if he had seen the Jim Crow South in all its white-sheeted horror?”…

    Some interesting points to the above…depending on what one reads and perspective one takes.

    * Lincoln saw a future half a million to a million loyal votes from freed Afro Americans guaranteed to vote for him and his Republican party. It would be difficult to overlook the political benefits he saw.

    * Crucially, the hypocritical industrial North relied on the agrarian produce of the South to produce textiles for on sale to England and France and to the people of America themselves.

    * Many tout and think slavery as being the only cause of the civil war but a close runner up was the issue of states rights and self determination, a fact that is buried in time, changed by revisionists, dismissed as Southern apologetics, yet ignored when taken in context for that period of history.

    * In many Southerners eyes when the North declared war it was akin to a looming invasion, so naturally they resisted – as would we or anybody else.

    * The so called ‘reconstruction’ of the South was seen in many peoples eyes as nothing more than an occupation and land grab by the victors, and a form of early open door ‘reeducation camp’.

    * Among those advocating ‘reconstruction’ were the usual gaggle of financiers, bankers, speculators, land grabbers and opportunists waiting in the wings like hawks from both the North, Europe and even the South to loan and invest in the coming bonanza they saw.

    * Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation was shelved for a long time because fellow political colleagues did not want it released because they were unsure if they could win against the South and could lose them votes in the advent of a détente being reached and a preservation of the Union of sorts…. It was one reason why Lincoln pressured his generals for intensifying the war, sacking one (General George McClellan) and replacing him with (Ambrose Burnside) then ( General Joseph Hooker) then (George Meade)- and not forgetting Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman who went on to play major roles in the theory of manifold destiny, westward expansion and the genocide of many native Americans. Admittedly, the South also had its sackings but not nearly as many. They seemed to have been more unified in purpose with examples of dissent or disorderly conduct less common.

    Interestingly, the modern day Democratic party had its origins in the South and was pro slavery, whereas the Republicans ( Lincolns party) were opposed to it. These days that is all reversed and the Democrat’s are the ‘good guys’ and the Republicans are the ‘bad guys’. Slavery was a hideous thing for those who were abducted and suffered. Yet, some were treated well. Many Afro Americans fought for the confederates, strangely enough. Yet one cannot ever justify selling human beings, nor slavery , nor the initial abductions. The American civil war is a complex piece of history when taken in historical context and there were many vested interests both at home and abroad who wanted the war. It was never simply just about slavery. Money and political power were also major influences for both sides. And while Abe Lincoln is seen today as a virtuous, ethical leader and which I believe he essentially was ( Yet confederate General Robert E Lee was equally viewed as such ), he still intensified the war effort and is inadvertently yet ultimately, responsible for the deaths of around half a million American lives in the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil, and for the population of that time, – the toll was horrendous.

  10. “On September 14 1991 The New Zealand Herald reported that Sunshine Pig Farms Ltd, situated at Old Great South Road, Ramarama, near Drury in South Auckland had gone into receivership the previous day, but that the receiver would continue to trade. Managed by Roger Douglas Associates the property kept 5,000 pigs in stalls. The article goes on to report that earlier in the year the company was fined $5,000 in the Otahuhu District Court and ordered to pay $9,419.79 in costs for spilling 30,000 cubic metres of effluent into the Manukau Harbour and surrounding countryside. The spillage occurred when the largest of a series of oxidation ponds on the farm burst its embankment. When Sir Roger Douglas was questioned about his pig-farming enterprise he is reported as saying: “There is money in it.”
    On March 4 1992 the Holmes Programme exposed the horrors of the sow stall in a programme which featured pig-farmer ex-Minister of Finance Roger Douglas, in which criticism was levelled at this former politician for his factory farming activities. Holmes reported that prior to screening the programme he was contacted by the Managing Director of the Pork Marketing Board, Dave Dobson, who reminded him what the Board spends advertising its products on television!”
    As posted on 5.6.2009 at

    The political actions while Douglas was the Minister of Finance in the Lange government are remarkably comparable to his actions as a pig farmer.

  11. One might ask the question – if they did not leave would not Mike Moore have won the 1993 election (but at the cost of a failed MP referendum)?

    • Labour literally throw any old shmuck into the leadership position. It was our role to surround those shmucks with our guys. And you call me low IQ right-wing you shmuck. Wake up to yourself.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.