From the vaults: The escalating history of Labour Party conference protest

Posted: October 28, 2014 by Admin in Afghanistan, At the coalface, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Imperialism and anti-imperialism, Iraq, Labour Party NZ, Middle East, New Zealand politics, Protest, Unions - NZ, Workers' rights

Even though bad things happen, it’s hard to get much consistent protest against the government these days.  Many people are understandably put off parliamentary politics, but don’t see any alternative.

Sometimes it helps to look back into the past , to see what seemed to work then. With that in mind, here’s an article written just seven years back.  It first appeared in the December 2007 issue of The Spark, a journal a number of us at Redline were heavily involved with.

Intolerant of  bureaucratic anti-worker bullshit from the Labour Party and EPMU head office, this article sets out a spirit and attitude that we’d do well to revive today.

We don’t know what the author’s up to these days but trust he’s keeping up the same principled revolutionary position.

by Nick Kelly (Dec 2007)

On Saturday 3 November, around 100 to 150 people demonstrated outside the Labour Party conference at the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna, keeping alive the recently-established tradition of leftist protest outside Labour conferences.

It was a loud and angry protest but mostly peaceful.  Demonstrators focused their anger on the police raids, the trumped-up charges against activists, and Labour’s anti-democratic “terrorism” laws.

Inside the conference were Labour’s predominantly middle-class and elderly members, and a number of union officials.  At one point Jill Ovens, former Alliance leader and now northern secretary of the Service and Food Workers Union, came out of the conference and told the demonstrators that she was on the same side as them.  She got booed, and loads of people shouted things like “What are you doing in the Labour Party then?”

She stormed off, but her partner, Len Richards, came out to remonstrate and yelled to the crowd that they’d never effected change, they’d “destroyed the left”.  When Workers Party member Jared Phillips reached for the megaphone to reply, Richards whacked Phillips. His blow also hit protester Bronwyn Summers.

Richards then threw the megaphone on the ground and walked off, while the police arrested a protester who tried to intervene.  The guy was dragged away and taken to a police van where he was cuffed and searched.  Richards’ assault was seen by police who were by his side, but he walked away scot-free.

This quite graphically demonstratesthe role Labour-aligned union bureaucrats play with regard to radical mobilisations.

Later, Richards vehemently denied hitting anyone, but when shown video footage offered an apology.  At the very end of the demonstration, when numbers had dwindled, a group of Maori performed a haka in front of the police line.

This was not the first protest outside a Labour conference at the Bruce Mason Centre. In December 2001 a picket of a similar size to this year’s one protested outside the Labour Party conference at the same venue.

The focus of that protest was the invasion of Afghanistan, where Labour had supported the US invasion after the September 11 attacks in New York.  There was also a small picket of teachers on the first evening of the protest.

Inside, Nick Kelly, the recently-sacked chair of MP Paul Swain’s electorate committee (now a Workers Party member), yelled “Stop the bloody war!” at Helen Clark during her main conference speech.  Member of Labour’s ruling council and EPMU official Paul Tolich and a couple of EPMU heavies worked with the police to have Nick dragged out, and shut down any dissent within the Labour Party conference.

At the time, the Socialist Worker Organisation (SWO) argued that others from the Anti-Imperialist Coalition, which included ACA (now Workers Party) members, should have tried to “engage” more with Labour delegates, rather than treating Labour like the enemy.

The following year the SWO took control of the protest at the election-year conference (which under Labour’s constitution must always be held in Wellington in an election year).  The SWO held a “mass meeting” at Victoria University that they talked up beyond belief, saying hundreds would attend and so on. In the end the 30-odd usual suspects showed up.

They had a lobby outside the conference with an open mic.  The whole focus was to try and convince Labour delegates of progressive politics.

Nick Kelly tried to enter the conference, pulling out his Labour membership card and demanding that he be allowed to enter to hand out leaflets.  Paul Tolich and some EPMU heavies were at the door.  Later they had Nick arrested for trying to enter the conference, but charges were dropped after a couple of hours.

In 2003 the conference was held in Christchurch.  The protest was a united front group that included most of the Christchurch left.  Socialist Worker argued that the protest shouldn’t be too aggressive.  Alliance and Green members joined the ACA (Workers Party) in opposing SW on this.

The march had around 300 participants.  Issues included the closure of a local hospital, Labour letting university fees go up, the GE moratorium being lifted, New Zealand army engineers in Iraq, and troops in Afghanistan.

Before the main protest, a group of ACA members went down to shout at the conference delegates through a megaphone.  One MP yelled at them that they were “only helping Act”, to which they replied, “You guys gave birth to Act!”  A police officer told one of them off for swearing into a megaphone.

The 2004 Labour Party conference was held at the Bruce Mason Centre, like this year and in 2001, but no protest was organised in Auckland that year.  However, Labour didn’t get a year off protests at their functions.  In April 2004, the Labour Party held a fundraising dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Wellington.  Appropriately, the restaurant was on Tory St – hence the slogan “Labour: up Tory St without a paddle”.

Around 70 people showed up to the protest.  2004 VUWSA exec member Scott Trainor, who’d been put up as the Labour candidate months earlier but became radicalised, stole this show.  Scott burnt his Labour Party membership card in front of Helen Clark when she walked through the picket line.

Later in the evening someone (not sure who, but not the WP) called in a bomb threat – so the Labour delegates probably missed out on dessert.

In 2005 the election-year conference was held in Wellington, and a united front group was set up like for the Christchurch conference in 2003.  Some National Front members showed up (like about 20) but were heavily outnumbered by left activists.

Protesters did a short march, stopping outside Ed’s Juice Bar where Benson-Pope and some others were having a faction meeting, and made some noise about youth rates etc.

The protest continued around the Town Hall for two hours, meaning delegates who turned up for Helen’s conference speech had to cross a picket line.  Youth rates, troops in Afghanistan, student debt, the foreshore and seabed legislation, the right to strike and various other issues were raised at this rally.

It has been a fairly recent event on the NZ left that people have begun protesting outside Labour conferences, with many in the past not fully seeing that Labour is the enemy of working people.  But after the recent “terror raids”, and eight years of government serving the capitalist class, working people are starting to see what this party is really like.

Next year, Labour’s election convention will be in Wellington (Labour always has its election-year gathering in the capital).  It’s important that the left stand up and protest against Labour’s anti-worker and pro-capitalist policies in government.  And it’s important to build a movement outside of capitalist parties and their conferences, where the left can really effect change.

Below is a selection of material on Redline, dissecting Labour:

Workers, unions and Labour: unraveling the myths:

The truth about Labour: a bosses’ party:

Shane Jones and the nature of the Labour Party:

Labour gains, workers lose (about Matt McCarten returning to Labour):

Labour’s GST and conventional weapons:

Union movement gathers for fairness at work, Labour gathers missionaries:

Labour’s leadership contest: illusions and confusions on the left:

Some further observations on the fourth Labour government:

Labour’s legal leg-irons:

Wharfies’ fight shows futility of unions giving money to Labour:

Labour’s introduction of peacetime conscription and the fight against it:

  1. Don Franks says:

    “It has been a fairly recent event on the NZ left that people have begun protesting outside Labour conferences, with many in the past not fully seeing that Labour is the enemy of working people. But after the recent “terror raids”, and eight years of government serving the capitalist class, working people are starting to see what this party is really like.”

    Good point.

  2. Phil F says:

    In 1990 as many union members voted National as Labour. In the following elections, more union members voted Labour but in 2011 and 2014 it became even again. This is according to academic research by a guy at Vic who has been monitoring this for a quarter century. Moreover, in terms of the wider working class, most of whom don’t belong to unions, more workers voted National than Labour in 2011. I suspect 2014 would turn out to be similar.

    The continuing attachment of chunks of the left to National is about a kind of childlike emotional attachment rather than a clear political and class analysis.

    Moreover, the only reason that Labour still has the level of support it has among the working class is largely due to the collapse of the Alliance. Although the Alliance never had a long-term future – there’s just no space here any more for a stable, substantial left social-democratic movement – if it had’ve stayed out of coalition with Labour and continued to treat Labour as part of the problem, as it did in its early development, Labour might have been on the ropes facing a knock-out by the early 2000s, instead of being able to partially recover.

    Now we have Anderton back in the Labour Party, his chief protegee Matt McCarten back in Labour and the guy who wrote the article above back in Labour as well. Labour is like the political equivalent of a black hole in the universe. But of less use.


  3. Cameron says:

    If I remember rightly there was a protest at the 2004 Labour conference. A couple of people joined Labour so they could get into the conference and then dropped a banner saying “Free Ahmed Zaoui”. It was on the news at the time.

    There were a lot of important civil liberties struggles when Labour was in power, including the terror raids, Iranian asylum seekers in Mt Eden prison and the campaign to free Ahmed Zaoui. Labour passed the Terrorism Suppression Act which National has now used to designate many legitimate national liberation groups, such as the PKK, FARC and CPP/NPA.

  4. Beth says:

    “We don’t know what the author’s up to these days but trust he’s keeping up the same principled revolutionary position.”

    Nice bit of irony. As you rascals must know, Mr Kelly became Andrew Little’s man and is back in the Labour Party where he began.

    Next time we’re protesting at a Labour conference, he’ll be inside looking out at us.