Ken Douglas: Labour lieutenant of capital

41408-ffmThe piece below was first written for The Spark newspaper back in 2006.  We re-run it here as Douglas is speaking in Christchurch later this month on the relationship between trade unions and Labour and there has been some discussion of Douglas and this meeting on a union facebook page. The piece here was a review of the television programme Ken Douglas – Traitor or Visionary (TV1, Saturday, June 17th, 2006).  I stand by the arguments in the 2006 article and am able to provide factual reports relating to all the struggles it refers to.

by Don Franks

In the words of its producers, this program “attempts to answer the question: did Douglas betray (his) socialist beliefs  and trade union principles to kowtow to the employers; or is he a man of great integrity and vision, who understood how the world was changing in the 20th century?”

In fact, the programme was centred on the personal, at the expense of the politics. Much time was devoted to the doings of Ken’s alcoholic mother, his schooldays and his talents at ballroom dancing. Later in the show viewers learnt of Ken’s golf, his extra-marital affairs and his battles with obesity. The connecting theme was Ken’s rough diamond personality. The show presented  a folksy image bolstered by interviews with Ken’s former union colleague Peter Harris and National MP (and former minister of Labour) Max Bradford. If this programme was to be their only source of information, viewers would see a hard-case battler, honest, realistic, getting what are probably the best possible deals for workers. Maybe not quite a visionary, but at the very least, an honest joker doing his best for the lads.

Such personal frames of reference don’t properly assess political people like Ken Douglas. An ambitious union functionary who rose to key positions of leadership, Douglas was also a lifelong self-described communist. In sum, a person who’s chosen to assume huge responsibilities to the working class.

To see how Douglas actually handled his chosen responsibilities requires more than an appraisal of his personality, although persona was always an important part of his manoeuvring. His presidential address to the 1997 Council of Trade Unions (CTU) conference was typical of his substituting that persona for class politics. Douglas began by thundering: “The CTU was born the day the sharemarket crashed. At the time the gut class instinct was to applaud it – the greedy bastards got what was coming to them.” Having set that militant tone, Douglas then advised unions to concern themselves with the creation of wealth as well as its distribution and to have “realistic expectations”. Douglas used this formula over and over again, because he could make it work.

Beneath his loud blustering, Ken Douglas invariably directed unions to move rightwards. Big issues during the Douglas years were the government/union “Compact” – which restricted wage growth; the Labour Relations Act, which restricted the ability to strike; Workplace Reform; and the National Party’s imposition of the Employment Contracts Act (ECA).  In all those struggles, and in others, Douglas consistently compromised right up to the point of capitulation. Whether a general strike against the Employment Contracts Act would have been able to kill the bill, we’’ll never know, because Douglas successfully talked other union leaders out of taking action. What we do know, only too well, is the role Douglas played in creating the ECA’s replacement. His first attempt was the infamous Workplace Relations Bill, which retained the anti strike laws of the National Party’s ECA.

At the time I wrote to Douglas arguing: “It’s incomprehensible to me how an experienced union leadership can put up a proposal to a future government which allows workers to be jailed, sued and fined, and yet that’s what the ERB unambiguously calls for. It’s bewildering to read a proposal for a labour law restricting the right to strike, when that proposal is put up by the union side.” Douglas replied, describing his WRB as “alternative legislation that builds on the core conventions of the ILO” and simply ignored all my points about the right to strike. Today, 9 years later, the same anti-strike restrictions remain law in the Labour Party’s Employment Relations Act, which Douglas also supported.

This sell-out style of CTU leadership provoked increasing union discontent. In 1998 the Service Workers Union complained: “The CTU has continued to seek to influence policy in government forums rather than adopt an active campaigning role with a diverting of resources towards this. There is a perceived reluctance on the part of the CTU to participate in large scale campaigns which could change the climate, be catalytic events and lead to the downfall of the government.”

In response to this and other criticism, CTU leaders commissioned a ‘review” by professor Nigel Haworth, which found the CTU to posses “a powerful and respected public presence… the work by its officers attracts high regard from across the political spectrum and from external organisations”.  CTU leaders then pushed divisive contestable funding through the CTU. All its 14 district councils were dissolved, along with their rights to retain a proportion of capitation fees. All CTU money was now controlled by a finance committee of 6. Outlying districts that required funding for any campaigned now relied entirely on approval by the new central committee.

The Traitor or Visionary TV programme skipped over all these struggles with barely a mention. Years of various counter-arguments against Douglas’s capitulations were represented by just two five-second soundbites from opposing unionists. Balanced journalism, capitalist style.

The programme did more justice to Douglas’s career as a jet-setting member of many boards and official bodies. Most revealing was his recent ILO-sponsored Mongolia junket, advising trade unions there how to cope with the privatisation of the Mongolian economy. Ken was shown telling Mongolian unionists, “There’s no point opposing the government because you can’t win… well, not unless you’re prepared to use rifles, ha ha.”
What kind of Marxist sees armed anti-government struggle as nothing but a joke? The answer is, those who broke away from the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) in 1965. It was then that Ken Douglas and some other CPNZ members left the party to set up the Socialist Unity Party (SUP). This political split was seen as a reflection of differences in the CPNZ – a majority identifying with Chinese socialism and a minority identifying with Russian socialism – but the underlying issue was revolution or reform.

From the day of its birth, up to its disintegration after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the SUP was a fire blanket on the union movement. They supported the Labour Party regardless of what the Labour Party did, kept to the law in all circumstances and counselled unions to cooperate with the bosses. The SUP always opposed union involvement in anti-nuclear and anti-imperialist struggles, saying that workers would only fight when their own pay was affected. This was communism in name, but with the heart, brains and guts removed. It is no wonder that a leader of these ‘communists’, Ken Douglas, was awarded the system’s highest possible award, The Order of New Zealand, not very long after playing a leading role in preventing a general strike against the ECA.

Traitor or Visionary? Enough raking over of old rubbish! More important to ask how activists today can build a revolutionary socialist workers’ movement that’s real and not a grotesque impersonation.


  1. Being a loathsome flunkey, stabbing the working class in the back while advancing his personal career, Douglas certainly ended up in the right party – Labour!

  2. In the 1970s there were basically four left groups in NZ. Whatever their varied failings, the SAL, WCL and CPNZ were genuine attempts at trying to create something revolutionary. The SUP never had the slightest revolutionary whiff off it. I remember as a young high school student looking around the NZ left, initially at the CP (they were the first people I came across as they ran a bookshop) and then at the SAL. It simply would never have occurred me to consider, even for a split second, the SUP. They never attracted people from the youth radicalisation of that era – all of us went to the SAL, WCL or CP (and a few to anarchism).

    The SUP snuffed out industrial militancy wherever it found it and a rake of aspiring upwardly-climbing union officials joined it as a good career move.

    My dad was a (politically fairly right-wing) worker and union activist, but I recall that he was far to the left of the SUP in terms of ‘pure’ industrial militancy. In fact, he used to say he was more militant than “the commos”, as he called the SUP! In Christchurch in the 1970s there were a number of left-wing union officials who – mistakenly/foolishly (as some of them subsequently learned) – were paper members of the Labour Party who were far to the left of the ‘communist’ SUP.

    Part of the SUP’s problem was, in my view, that some of their founders had been through 1951 and had drawn the conclusion that it was simply not possible for unions to take on the state and win. Of course, a revolutionary attitude would have been to look forward to the next opportunity and pay back the state double – not through merely reckless confrontation, but through preparing the ground for a second round. The SUP leaders, however, simply gave away the ground and turned into timid souls who stood to the right of the more leftish elements of the Labour Party. (Of course, later most of those ‘leftish’ Labourites took their LP membershoips to the logical conclusion of abandoning left politics and settling in for well-heeled political careers in the Rogernomics era and after.)

    Another element was the reactionary influence of Moscow. The SUP was a simple stooge outfit that blindly followed the old grey men who ran the show in Moscow. And like the Moscow leaders, the dreary old men atop the SUP just wanted a peaceful life, drawing privileges by sitting atop the unions. Moscow wanted harmony with US imperialism and the SUP wanted harmony with the NZ boss class.

    I think the other factor is the nature of unions and the union movement in an imperialist country like New Zealand. The role of unions in this situation is problematic. On the one hand, they defend workers’ material interests (sort of). On the other hand, they mediate between workers and the ruling class, simply trying to improve the pay and conditions under which workers *will continue to be exploited*. In Douglas’ case, he couldn’t even do that. He was very much in the (Uncle) Tom Skinner mode of union bureaucrat.

    The other conception of trade unions is as ‘schools of class struggle’. This is the conception of real working class fighting leaders like Jim Larkin and James Connolly in Ireland, the IWW leaders in North America and the likes of Jock Barnes (the last of the NZ syndicalists) here. Unfortunately, class-struggle unions can only emerge in the wake of workers entering into struggle – and, in NZ, the bulk of the working class, for whatever reasons, remains obstinately passive.

    Thankfully, workers in the Third World and in a few imperialist countries, like France, do fight and provide glimpses into the alternative to Ken Douglas-style business unionism.

    Phil F

  3. Your comments about the political landscape on the Left in the 70’s chimes in exactly with my own perception when I first became politically engaged in the early-mid 80s. The Leninist parties had everything locked down, with the only variations being which version of sputnik you wanted to follow. Each satellite seemed in thrall to one of the seemingly eternal regimes. Personally the first party whose literature I encountered was the CPNZ which you immediately sensed was completely out of touch with reality (Albanian hydro-electric dams were models to follow and the Moscow Trials weren’t rigged etc). The SAL was more up with the times due to the situation in Nicaragua being a red hot issue at the time and the WCL style seemed less jargon heavy. The SUP just appeared tired and boring, study tours of cotton mills in Uzbekistan, reports of union resolutions supporting some Moscow ‘peace’ conference or whatever, while being utterly obsequious towards the Labour Party no matter how much hostility or indifference they received.

    For me though, as someone already sympathetic to anarchism (despite having had a Trotskyist English teacher at high school. He was aligned with the Spartacists so that probably explains my lack of infection lol) I found the actual members of the various sects I encountered arrogant in the extreme. They had ‘the left’ completely under their control and were so self-assured about their domination, they wouldn’t even engage politically with someone like me. Mostly they would just laugh, mumble “infantile disorder” and move on. They saw anarchism as a redundant joke. Ironically within a very few years, their own mother regimes were exactly that.

  4. One of the ironies in the SAL case was that they were more plugged into the US SWP head office than the WCL or CPNZ were plugged into China (or, later, Albania in the CPNZ case).

    I will get round to writing about this at some stage, but the blind obeisance of the SAL to New York was a major factor in destroying the organisation (another was getting the LP wrong). The SAL didn’t move without New York moving first – they were like the SUP-Moscow relationship in that sense, much more blind followers than either the CP or WCL ‘Stalinists’.

    I don’t know about the WCL or CPNZ, but certainly the SAL was very arrogant. Y’see, we had The Baton. The Baton went from Marx and Engels to Lenin to Trotsky to Cannon, and thus the US SWP had The Baton and, by being attached to the US SWP, we of the SAL had a direct relationship with The Baton. We were the (self-)Chosen Few. Everything we needed to know was in Pathfinder Press books.

    I was quite high on that nonsense for a number of years and it was only by getting out of NZ that I was able to look at things afresh and realise there is No Baton, no line of succession, no pope and no Chosen Few.

    But it’s amazing how people who are supposedly in revolt against all the orthodoxies of capitalist society replace acceptance of the existing order with acceptance of some pope somewhere, some left tinpot despot, sitting in an office somewhere in London or in the States, issuing orders and expecting blind adherence and obedience.

    A lot of the left is like a mimickry of corporate culture.

    In the absence of mass working class engagement, all sorts of scum rises to the top or acts as flunkeys doing the bidding of the sect and cult bosses.

    None of this has anything in common with *human emancipation*, which is what the goal is supposed to be.

    I certainly don’t want to romanticise the left of the sixties and seventies – which had serious faults – but, frankly, I’ve never seen such appalling behaviour as I have in recent years on the left.

    Phil F

  5. I have to say the my experience in the life of the WCL and with the last years of the CPNZ was not of some sort of immersion in arrogance. There were all sorts of personalities and political styles. Including arrogance, but to me that is not the same thing is confidently and energetically presenting opinion. Many of us in the WCL and probably SAL had the cockiness of youth, which may well have come across like arrogance. Of course manners have a bearing on political life, but I think the political judgements we made were the pivotal thing and so many of those were bad. I spent at least 20 years considering myself a revolutionary and in practice being a trade union based reformist. Towards the end of my main activist years I think I got the formula a bit closer to the mark, but was unable to pass my experience along to younger comrades.
    Twice I was told in a meeting : “Don, you’re in your sixties…..( so what would you know about anything)” Guess you could call that arrogance. I just call it disappointing.

    • Having been a member of Fightback, the section that would have been the young people in your WP years have basically left aside from one. I think the organisation basically was getting by on the enthusiasm of youth and an oily rag after the older members of WP left – it sustained itself largely through activity and a kind of voluntaristic enthusiasm. That eventually hit a wall, various members were approaching 30 and couldn’t keep up the regimen of students-shouting-about-everything any more, but seemed unable to transition into senior roles as mentors and serious thinkers and writers in order to deepen the analysis of the org, or it’s practices. Now it is effectively a media project – though one with fairly good reach (well, compared to the average for left blogs, more than most but less than The Daily Bog). So clearly a turn to a media project, to writing, wasn’t “giving up” as was the accusations towards the older WP people who left… since that is what Fightback does now.

      My perspective is there is a generational gap now, where no lessons or serious historical and theoretical work has been passed on – and sadly a large chunk of the older ‘progressives’ today I meet are extremely into compromise, coalitions with Labour, and a kind of welfare state moralism rather than anything to do with human emancipation. Are they suffering from nostalgia from before the cuts of the 80s and 90s? I don’t understand it.

      • It’s interesting you say it hit a wall as people were heading up to 30. Most of us involved in Redline continued on as organised activists long after 30. One of the problems in WP was that few of the younger people were interested in learning anything much from older comrades. They were immersed in an essentially student left/liberal milieu and we never succeeded in winning them away from that, with one or two notable exceptions.

        As bad as the behaviour of a number of them were, that was not the key problem. At the end of the day, they were the creation of their time and place. When we woke up to this fact, there was simply no point in staying. The pressures on them from a liberal-left milieu and society were far, far greater than the counter-weight of a handful of older, experienced comrades. It was simply not possible to build a revolutionary organisation in those conditions.

        We were proven right on that too, not that this will be recognised by any of them.

        My view was that there was simply nothing worth fighting for in the organisation by early 2011. I was woken up to this when another of the leading comrades suggested we should just leave them to it. For a split second I was horrified, but then had an epiphany; the comrade was right, the conditions simply didn’t exist for any other outcome than the degeneration of the group into the swamp politics we ourselves had fought so hard against, initially with some success (we built WP into the biggest of the tiny left groups) but, ultimately, we ran into the limitations imposed by objective reality.

        All was certainly not lost, however. The project brought together people from what had been the major anti-capitalist organisations of the 1970s and 1980s – or with links back to them: CPNZ/SW, SAL, WCL. And, indeed, even to the Alliance. This cross-fertilisation is a great strength because we all had to think critically about the groups we’d come from and try to draw the lessons from them. So that was a success. We tried to pass those lessons on, but those we tried to pass them on to were simply not interested and/or not capable of grasping them and understanding their importance. Instead, they felt most comfortable in the swamp politics around them, despite those politics having failed over and over again.

        I also think this partly comes with the territory of NZ. Most people here do not like robust debate, hard principles, following stuff through to the logical conclusion when that conclusion is not a popular or safe one. I think this is especially true of pakeha NZ; Maori NZ is a bit more robust. But there’s not enough there to change the overall culture.

        Once in a generation, a significant chunk of people here resist: 1913; 1951; the youth revolt of the late sixties/early seventies, which was also a period of expanding working class militancy and Maori land struggles; 1981; 1991; and since, 1991, pretty much nothing. This generation is the first that hasn’t really put up much of a fight about anything and that is remarkably disinterested in the past and learning the hard lessons that those of us involved in Redline learned.

        Fightback, whatever remains of it as a ‘media project’, is a kind of political equivalent of a bunch of kindergarten kids throwing paint on a big bit of canvas and feeling really good about it and themselves at having created what is really just a mess of colour.

        Anyway, it’s boring to talk about them. The big issue is when and how will the working class move – or will the class move? And, within that, is the smaller, more immediate issue of establishing some kinds of working relationships between people who are more concerned with anti-capitalist politics than feelgood self-affirmation stuff.

        We have some very good relationships with serious leftists here and in other parts of the world. We have 8-10,000 views a month on the blog; we also have a significant readership in a couple of unions. Overall, not bad for a wee unresourced independent Marxist blog at the arse-end of the world, and which doesn’t even have a facebook page.

        Phil F

  6. Its interesting the way the Leninist sects really did (some still do) have that baton thing going. It was bad enough in cases where they followed a particular regime, but the ones that followed a tinpot guru like Healy or Robertson seem even worse for the sheer microscopic pettiness, not to mention some dreadful internal culture within their cult. I read some of Cannons stuff e.g. ‘American Trotskysim’ and I was unpleasantly surprised how viciously sectarian he was ie whatever I say is orthodox and to hell with you if you don’t go along. Personally I cant see how its possible to square the circle when it comes to an ideological commitment to the thoughts of an individual. Either you adhere rigidly to what somebody said in 1917 or whenever, in which case a hundred years later you look increasingly weird and irrelevant or you change bits of it and get accused of being a revisionist by the other groups. If you keep changing stuff, at what point is the original label still meaningful? Its a sort of reverse political homeopathy, it gets watered down to the point that it loses any efficacy.

    Obviously you have the benefit of an insiders perspective Don regarding the groups you mentioned. I thought about what you said regarding their attitude when talking to others and I really have to stand by the perception they came across as arrogant. Some of it may have been a youthful cockiness but I think the root cause was the mistaken belief that ‘history is on our side’ (afterall, large chunks of the world had ideologically compatible regimes in power for a number of decades at that time) combined with having a local monopoly on power within the left domestically. I lost count of the number of times people from the CPNZ/WCL/SUP/SAL/PRG and the rest of the alphabet soup simply laughed (and I mean literally, laughed) if you mentioned anarchism or syndicalism. They wouldn’t even engage in discussion about something history had decided was finished as far as they were concerned (no wonder Fukuyama was flavour of the month a few years later, the specific ideology was different but the arrogance was the same).

    As a curious aside, when I requested my SIS file a few years ago, the only organisation whose literature they were aware I was subscribing too at that time was that of the WCL.

    • When I was in the SAL I took in what I think was a common view in the organisation. We were part of the Fourth International and the FI had sections in somewhere like 50 countries at the time. I figured one of them was bound to make a revolution somewhere in the next few years, then it was all over for everyone else.

      Jaysus was I wrong?!

      Neither a section of the FI nor any other variety of Trotskyism came anywhere near doing so. The one possible exception was the earlier case of the Trotskyist LSSP in Ceylon. And once that became a really big organisation, it just sold out.

      The US SWP – the outfit that that the SAL was umbilically tied to (and throttled by) – was more social-democratic than Marxist.

      That game is all up now, has been for a long time. There are no batons, no gods, no lines of succession, etc. There is just what we do in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we use revolutionary theory and lessons well, we might be able to move forward. . .

      Phil F

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