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.
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.