Jim Anderton 1938-2018: New Zealand’s last social democrat?

At the beginning of the NLP (NewLabour Party); vice-president Sue Bradford; president Matt McCarten; party MP and leader, Jim Anderton

by Philip Ferguson

Jim Anderton passed away peacefully on Sunday, January 7, just two weeks away from his 80th  birthday.  I have two sets of views about Anderton: a political assessment and also a personal view, as my parents were friends and strong political supporters and co-workers of Anderton’s for several decades.

First, the personal side.  This Anderton, I’ll call Jim.  I only met him once and this was when my mother was dying.  She had collapsed at home and been subsequently diagonised as riddled with cancer.  She went home for a fortnight before being transferred into a rest home with hospice facilities.  Jim showed up at my parents’ house with a load of food when my mother came out of hospital.  During the visit he gave me his personal cell-phone number and told me to call him at any time; also, that if he was in a meeting and couldn’t answer, he would get back to me straight afterwards.  He was particularly concerfned if we had any trouble with the public health bureaucracy – he told me to just let him know and he’d get onto them straight away.

Ferocious in dealing with petty bureaucrats

I knew from my mother that he was  ferocious in dealing with state bureaucrats who put any obstacles at all in the way of people receiving their just rights.  She had volunteered in Jim’s constituency office for years, both when he was a Labour MP and later, when he (and my parents) departed from Labour and founded the left social-democratic NewLabour Party and, subsequently, the Alliance.  I had heard stories from her of being in the office when Jim, outraged at one or other a tale of officious state mistreatment of one of his constituents (or anyone from across Christchurch who visited his office) would literally rip the jumped-up bureaucrat a new one.

My mother had also told me of his personal generosity.  The office was in a small block of shops in Selwyn Street in Spreydon and Jim and Carole Anderton’s home was up a driveway at the end of the row of shops.  This made it easy for him to dash back to the house and grab blankets and/or other household items from their own home to give to impoverished people who came to see him in his office.  According to Carole, she could come home on any day and literally find anything missing as Jim had given it away.

On a purely personal level, then, Jim was thoughtful and caring in relation to humanity, and especially to those who had suffered the worst that capitalism could inflict on them, albeit in an imperialist country.

But he was also Jim Anderton, politician and political leader.  And that calls for a political judgement.  This Jim Anderton, I’ll call Anderton.


On the positive side, he was a politician of principle.  As a Labour MP, and president of the party, he strongly opposed the ‘new right’ economic reforms launched by the foruth Labour government of 1984-1990.  These reforms amounted to the biggest attack on working class living standards and rights since the Depression.  Workers’ wages fell and a sbstantial chunk of the state sector was commodified – what had been produced as free or below-cost services were now produced in order to make a profit.  Tbe most profitable parts of the old state sector were flogged off to private interests, especially ones which were matey with Labour Party figures; other parts made profits for the state through the imposition of “user pays” and the slashing of jobs and conditions.

By 1989, Anderton and other genuine social democrats in Labour had had enough.  I remember that some years later my mother told me that she decided after the 1987 election that she could not vote Labour again.  Both my parents were very active in the Sydenham Labour Party, where Anderton’s seat was.  My dad was both chair of the local LRC (Labour Representative Committee) and a delegate from his union, the Rubber Workers; my mum volunteered in the local LP office.  My parents had just played an important part in seeing off right-wing Labour MP John Kirk and had been so pleased with Anderton and the election of Labour in 1984, and suddenly they were confronted with a Labour government which was much more viciously anti-working class than the previous National Party government.

Happily for them, Anderton decided Labour was a lost cause and decided to split in early 1989.  The last straw for him was when the Labour government decided to privatise the Bank of New Zealand, despite having promised not to do so.  Anderton refused to vote for the sale and was suspended from caucus.  He then resigned from the Labour Party and he and his supporters launched a new party at a public meeting in Spreydon in April 1989.  The founding conference of the rather ironically titled NewLabour Party – in fact the NLP was very much Old Labour in terms of economic ideas – took place in June.

My mother told me that there were supposed to be 14 Labour MPs leaving and establishing a new party but when Anderton leapt out of the trench and ran forward, he looked aorund and found he was the only one.  The other 13 had decided to stick with Labour.  These utterly loathsome wretches, one of whom was Helen Clark, put their personal advancement ahead of any sort of political principles, and ahead of the rights of workers.

Although all the odious fake-left MPs – like Helen Clark – stayed with Labour, a big part of the rank-and-file departed with Anderton.  Indeed, the Labour Party was essentially gutted of activists and has never recovered.  Today it is small party dominated by fashionably liberal middle class professionals who look down their noses at the working class and especially at the poorest sections of the working class and who would double-cross their own mothers to advance their careers.  There is no left, in any meaningful sense of the word, in Labour today.  And it is certainly no workers party of any type, bourgeois or otherwise; it is simply a liberal-bourgeois party which leeches off a minority section of the working class.

Formation and growth of NewLabour Party and Alliance

The two main elements involved in forming the NLP were disillusioned Old Labour people like my parents on the one hand and activists from the far left and ‘new social movements’ on the other.  Among the former members of far-left currents were Sue Bradford (of the by then defunct Workers Communist League) and Keith Locke (a former longtime leader of the Socialist Action League) as well as a number of other ex-WCL and ex-SAL members and people who were or had been involved in the women’s liberation movement, environmental campaigns, the anti-nuclear movement, unemployed action, anti-racist campaigns like the 1981 anti-Springbok tour and so on.

Despite a vicious campaign by the Labourites to destroy the NLP – for instance, even trying to get NLP union officials sacked from their jobs – Anderton became the first MP to leave Labour and yet retain their seat in parliament.  For the 1990 election, the NLP had also formed an alliance with the leftish Maori political party Mana Motuhake, which had been formed by a former Labour cabinet minister, Matiu Rata.  The NLP called on people in the Maori seats to vote MM and MM called on people in the general seats to vote for the NLP.

Very early on, however, the limitations of Anderton’s brand of left-wing politics were revealed.  The NLP was not to be a ‘broad church’ of the left.  Anderton ahd his tight-knit cabal clamped down on two tiny Marxist currents in the organisation.  One tiny, and very ineffective, group walked out while another small group was purged, albeit unsuccessfully resisting the purge.  Following this Sue Bradford resigned as vice-president.  While pushing out the far left, Anderton welcomed forces to the right of the NLP.*

Labour was routed in the 1990 general election, and National swept to power, pledged to return to the ‘decent society’.  However, National quickly broke its promise and began to deepen the ‘new right’ economic course pursued by Labour.  One of the results of this was several splits in National, by elements who supported more Keynesian economics and the old welfarist postwar consensus which Labour had abandoned from 1984.  Two National MPs left the party and established the Liberals.  The NLP, Mana Motuhake, the Liberals, the Green Party and the remnants of the once-significant Social Credit movement then formed the five-party Alliance.  In 1993 Anderton retained his seat and the Alliance won Auckland Central off Labour – the successful Alliance candidate was Sandra Lee, the deputy-leader of Mana Motuhake and the defeated Labourite was Richard Prebble, one of the key figures associated with the ruthless pursuit of ‘new right’ economics.

In the early 1990s, Anderton often figured in public opinion polls as the politician most preferred as prime minister and the Alliance popularity ran as high as 30 percent, equal too and occasionally even ahead of Labour.

Also, although the Alliance didn’t have affiliated organisations, its existence was a factor in a number of unions ending their affiliation to the Labour Party.  Several more militant unions were closer to the Alliance and a split took place in the wider trade union movement with the more radical Trade Union Federation (TUF) beong closer to the Alliance, while the CTU (Council of Trade Unions) was more pro-Labour.  (Since the demise of the Alliance, several unions have drifted back to Labour, although Labur -affiliated unions are a minority of unions and only organise a small fraction of workers.)


Anderton then began moving the Alliance further rightwards, towards being basically Old Labour economically, but with more liberal social views than the Labour had held traditionally.

In 1993, the Alliance had gained 18.2 percent of the vote but also faced a rival in a new split from National – Winston Peters and his new party, NZ First, an organisation that shared much of the Alliance’s Keynesian economics and its economic nationalism but was more socially conservative.  Peters was a wily, popular politician who combined Keynesian economics with often virulently anti-Asian immigration politics.  Although NZ First only won 8.4 percent of the vote, they too won two seats – Peters retained his seat in Tauranga and NZ First captured Northern Maori off Labour, a feat Mana Motuhake/Alliance leader Matiu Rata had been unable to achieve.   (The NZF candidate was a previous Alliance supporter).

The 1993 election was accompanied by a referendum on proportional representation as opposed to the existing first-past-the -post system.  Voters opted for MMP – mixed member proportional, the system whereby people have two votes – one for a local constituency, in which they vote for gthe person they want as their MP and the other vote for the party they prefer; the total seats in parliament are divided between constituency MPs and party list MPs.  The total number of seats a party gets aligns with its total vote, proving it either wins at least one seat or reaches 5% of the party vote.  This system came into operation in 1996.

Becoming just another political party

However, by 1996, the Alliance was already well on the way to becoming just another political party.  many of the people who had joined the NLP in 1989 and formed much of the base of the Alliance, wating it be a crusading movement for people’s rights, had already become disillusioned and left as the 1990s wore on, as it became clear that Anderton was building a parliamentary party in his own image – and under his own tight control.

In 1996, the Alliance vote had dropped to just over 10 percent although, under MMP, this translated to 13 MPs. NZ First, however,  did better and took 17 seats, including capturing all of the Maori seats, as well as holding Tauranga.  They went into coaliton with National.  The rise of NZ First partly stymied the Alliance.   But in 1997 the Alliance also suffered a significant split, as the Greens decided to leave.  Several veteran leftists who had previously been in the NLP also joined the Greens, partly in opposition to Anderton’s autocratic methods and partly because of the rightward drift of the Alliance under the domination of him and his cabal.

In 1999, however, the coalition imploded and NZ First split.  Even though, on paper, this opened up new prospects for the Alliance, the reality was that Anderton’s pulling the Alliance back towards the centre-ground gave it less differentiation from Labour, which was the prime beneficiary of the meltdown of the National-NZ First government.

In the election, NZF lost 12 seats compared to 1996 and Labour gained 12 seats.

The Alliance lost three seats while the Greens picked up over 5% of the party vote and thus took seven seats, included the sole constituency seat they have ever won (albeit for just one term), Coromandel.  The combined Alliance-Green vote of 7.74% and 5.16% respectively totalled 12.9%.

Coalition with Labour

Like every other ‘winning’ party since MMP began, Labour didn’t have enough seats to form a government and, having spent the best part of a decade trying to destroy the NLP/Alliance, had to offer a coalition deal.  The Alliance’s ten seats were crucial, along with the Greens agreeing to support a Labour-Alliance coalition but not joining the government.  Labour only exists to be in government and run NZ capitalism, so it had no choice but to offer the Alliance a coalition deal.  Moreover, the Labourites had also become aware that the best way to kill the Alliance as a competitor was not to continually attack them and knife them in the back, as had been their strategy since the formation of the NLP in 1989; rather ,it was to embrace the Alliance in coalition, incorporate them in government and force them to defend the Labour-dominated activities of that government and even cause a split in them.  And this is exactly what happened.

Having spent 15 years in the wilderness (five as a Labour MP and 10 as an NLP and Alliance MP and leader), Anderton now became deputy prime minister and minister of economic development.  The Alliance extracted some concessions from Labour – for instance, although Helen Clark had declared that paid parental leave would be introduced “over my dead body”, she had to swallow that bitter pill and the Alliance gained universal paid parental leave.  Anderton also got his new state-owned bank, Kiwibank, although this would be run as a profitable business, thus paying its employees less than the expanded value their labour-power created.  In other words, people who work for Kiwibank are exploited just like the workers employed by ANZ, BNZ, Westpac etc.

However, a huge price was about to be paid.

Labour is not just dedicated to managing NZ Capitalism Ltd; it is also dedicated to the maintenance of the imperialist order globally.  When the United States assembled its coalition for the invasion of Afged a split hanistan, the NZ Labourites were in the front rank.  NZ armed forces were dispatched to take part in the invasion, both as part of the wider imperialist alliance and as part of securing the interests of NZ imperialism.  The Alliance was now forced to deal with this.  The Alliance MPs initially voted in favour of invading Afghanistan, however were soon confronted by a mass rebellion within the party (needless to say there was no rebellion in the Labour Party).

The bulk of Alliance activists and most of the middle leadership opposed western military intervention in Afghanistan and were prepared to make a fight of it.  Anderton attempted to impose his views.  One of my best friends at the time worked for the Alliance at parliament.  He was summarily sacked and escorted out of the building by security guards, later taking a case for unfair dismissal against Anderton.  A number of Alliance employees and party activists working at parliament then had their computers taken and investigated by ‘security’ at Anderton’s behest.  He hoped to find material he could use against them.

Most of the Alliance MPs, however, changed their minds on the invasion of Afghanistan and sided with the ranks.  Anderton was relatively isolated and lost control of the party, a situation he was not used to and couldn’t stand.  Now it was his turn to side with the Labour establishment.

Paying the price – with the blood of others

Essentially, supporting Labour over the invasion of Afghanistan was a price Anderton was prepared to pay to stay deputy prime minister and in government.  He led his pro-war supporters out of the Alliance and established the Progressive Coalition on the eve of the 2002 general election.  The Progressives only won 1.4 percent of the party vote, but Anderton held his own seat.  They thus were allocated two parliamentary seats.  The Alliance itself was annihilated.  Although it did come second in two seats, it only won 1.27 percent of the vote and thus no seats in parliament.

In 2014, the Alliance ran just one candidate and she won 59 votes; this from a party that in 1993 had won 350,000 votes in the much more difficult conditions of the first-past-the-post electoral system.  In 2015 the Alliance asked the Electoral Commission to deregister it as a party, having few active branches and members left.

In 2005, Anderton again held his seat but his party, now named the ‘Jim Anderton Progressive Party’ in the hope that name recognition would boost the outfit’s party vote and thus its seat numbers, lost votes and thus their second seat.  It was now only a matter of time before they would be absorbed back into the Labour Party.

When Anderton retired from parliament, his place was taken by longtime supporter Megan Woods.  However, the deal was that she would stand not as an open Andertonite but as a Labour candidate.  I knew her in the late 1990s and early 2000s as we worked on our PhDs at the same time, were in offices next to each other and often chatted.  Back then, Megan was a left-wing feminist.  She has nlow been a Labour MP since 2011 and is completely indistinguishable from all the other Labour MPs.  You would never know she was once part of a substantial leftish movement.

The collapse of both the Alliance and Anderton’s post-Alliance project marked the end of left social-democracy in New Zealand, indeed the end of social democracy per se.  After all, there is simply no party or individual politician of any significance which adheres to social democracy, in the classic sense, today.

Last gasp of social democracy?

The story of Jim Anderton is the story of the last gasp of social democracy in this country.  His political career reflected the contradictions of what remained of social democracy in an era where the ruling class simply had no need of it.  Moreover, because social democracy by its very nature always subordinates itself to capitalist ‘realism’, it could not consistently pose any serious alternative to Labourism, a form of middle class careerist politics.

Ultimately, there is only capitalist politics and anti-capitalist politics.  Shadings only have a very limited shelf life.  When crunch political questions are posed, there is no space for the shadings.  Crunch questions like whether or not to support imperialist invasions.

The political space for social democracy just does not exist these days.  Whether it’s the Workers Party in Brazil or the Alliance in New Zealand, once in government social democracy reverts to capitalist managerialism.

The lesson of Jim Anderton’s life is that there are no solutions to the problems of poverty, inequality, exploitation and oppression which I believe he genuinely did not like.  He fought for his own Old Labour principles ahead of his own personal career in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.  He was the last Labour politician to ever do so.  In that sense, he does stand head and shoulders above the vast bulk of Labour politicians and certainly the Labour politicians of recent decades.  However, in the end, sick of being in permanent opposition, he decided to lead the Alliance into coalition with Labour in 1999 and 2002, and that meant going along with the imperialist intervention in Afghanistan and all the terrible consequences for the people of that country.  The cost of getting some reforms in New Zealand was to be paid for in blood by the people of Afghanistan.

And that was NZ social democracy at its best in its final days.

What we need is a new political movement, an anti-capitalist movement rather than the vulgar anti-Toryism that dominates most of the tiny fragments of the far left in New Zealand, groups that just can’t bring themselves to see Labour for what it is and break once and for all with it.

Anderton’s CNZM investiture, Christchurch, September 2017

Footnote: After his retirement from parliament Jim Anderton stood for the Christchurch mayoralty in late 2010 and was a certain winner before the September earthquake saved existing mayor Bob Parker.  Subsequently, Anderton (who had a strongly Catholic background) devoted himself to trying to save the city’s Anglican cathedral and get it restored to its Victorian splendour, while the Anglican church itself was happy for the remnants of the Cathedral to be demolished and a more modest and culturally representative structure be erected in its place.  He was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in June 2017, and a special investiture was held for him in Nazareth House in Christchurch in September 2017, where Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy presented the insignia to him.  He died very much a part of the establishment he had once opposed.

*Jan 11th: Thanks to Joss Hannah for alerting me to some confusion over the time-line.  As a result, I have edited/reorganised this paragraph.

Further reading:

Notes on Jim Anderton and the NZ left

Burying or reviving the corpse of social democracy

Redline articles on the Labour Party



  1. Anderton suffered the common NZ leftist curse of social-democratic nationalism. Economic nationalism and imperialist nationalism. Even at its most radical, the NLP never came to terms with that curse of the NZ left.

  2. Probably his heart was in the right place, and he did get kicked out of the Labour Party – but the real curse of the NZ left is their refusal to espouse the only economic mechanism that will permit them to implement their well-meaning ideas for social reform.

    • He didn’t get kicked out – to his credit, he actually left. I watched the TV3 news item on his death and was amazed that they made several basic errors. Saying he got expelled was one. I can’t recall the other two, but I thought it was really shoddy research.

    • I’m curious too Alan about what you mean by ‘mechanism’. I think for both Barry and myself the only possible mechanism is a workers’ revolution.

  3. A ” mechanism of rational economic planning to meet human needs” can only be operated by a social force with the political will and the political clout to achieve that. Capitalism meets human needs only as a by- product of making profit. If theres no profit to be had the need won’t be met. Which we see examples of across the globe, every day.

    • Yep, and since production is already international and there is no possibility of returning to petty production or guild formations the only option left for communists is for a socialist *world*, or at the very least successful revolutions in enough core areas to begin the immediate tasks. So the only economic mechanism is planning, and the only political mechanism is well.. basically a world party (whether we call it a world party or not) which can bring the class to power that has an interest in establishing this system not by becoming a new ruling class living off the labour of others, but instead by abolishing itself and all other classes.

      I was wondering if that was the simple mechanism Alan was talking about. Of course.. perhaps it’s not so simple after all. Maybe a better demand to make would be “alright, we’re reducing the work week by 1 day per year for the next 5 years”. There you go, a 5 year plan worth supporting 😉

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