But not an alternative to capitalism

by Don Franks

Jim Anderton’s death revives memories of recent political times that will not be repeated.

When the past president who’d revived Labour broke away from his party and formed NewLabour I was one of those lefties who became excited. Not since the resignation of Matt Rata had a major politician broken with the Labour Party and become active somewhere on its left. This time the rupture was very much wider and possibly a fine opportunity for becalmed kiwi socialists. Initially it looked like some new political space had opened up. We might move in from the margins and make some inroads.

So a huge proportion of the New Zealand left were bedazzled when Jim’s NewLabour Party was formed. No MPs but many left Labour activists decamped to go with Anderson. A notable exception was my mentor, Pat Kelly, trained in the old communist tradition that you stayed and fought in the existing organisation rather than joining spinoffs. In my recollection the only left group who definitely stood aside and criticised was the Communist Party of New Zealand. Those other of us who joined the gold rush saw it as an easier option than the hard slog of taking revolutionary politics out to workers who didn’t seem to be very interested in our message.

Soon Jim made it clear that NewLabour was not going to be a vehicle for revolutionary ideas. He cleaned out the obvious communists very early on, beginning with the Communist Left and then the Permanent Revolution Group. Ironically, Anderton was at one stage in a position of defending the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, mostly to support his allies in the union bureaucracy-dominated (pro-Moscow) Socialist Unity Party. Not publicly, but in a closed meeting, David Steele and I wound up in a very tense tussle with Anderton over this issue. As time went on, several of our Workers Communist League comrades, including David, finished up putting a lot of time and energy into the Alliance. Because, for a while, it still looked like some solid reforms at least could be achieved. But for all the hopes Jim’s party raised, it was never against capitalism and that’s what eventually sank it as any sort of workers’ alternative.

I think Anderton had sincerity and a genuine wish to help the lower-rung people. None of today’s Labour Party careerists demonstrate those concerns in any real way. They pretend to be progressive but it’s all just spin. Before the election Labour leader Jacinda Arden told us climate change was the number one issue; when in power she immediately ruled out opposition of offshore oil exploitation.

The last time I saw Jim Anderton was at a Service and Food Workers Union meeting expounding his promise to get raw logs processed in New Zealand instead of being shipped offshore to make others wealthy. The log processing promise is always a winner, combining the heady aromas of jobs and nationalism. Classic orthodox Labourism; Jim Anderton was basically politically consistent. Unlike those of us revolutionary socialists who looked to hitch a ride on his NewLabour wagon and ease it over onto a road it never intended to take.

Today there is little danger of our opportunist mistake being repeated, no current comfortable Labour MP can be imagined doing a Rata or an Anderton.

No-one has yet cracked the problem of raising revolutionary politics in the hearts and minds of the New Zealand working class: that job remains to be done, and is becoming more urgent. Today inequality bites harder and harder, and the risk of involvement in America’s next military invasion increases – an invasion that our new prime minister has already signed us up for.

Further reading:

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

Burying or reviving the corpse of social democracy

Redline articles on the Labour Party


  1. […] Notes on Jim Anderton and the NZ left January 11, 2018 […]