Jim Anderton was New Zealand's last significant social democratic politician. While some are claiming he pulled Labour Party back 'from the brink' and back to the 'centre-left' this is a convenient rewriting of history. The Labour Party today bears little resemblance to the Labour Party that Jim Anderton once knew.
JIM ANDERTON WAS New Zealand's last significant social democratic politician and the Labour Party he leaves behind bears little resemblance to the Labour Party that he devoted much of his life to.
The New Zealand that Jim Anderton knew, the one he recognised and which decisively shaped his politics, was built on the Keynesian-driven regulated economy with a strong welfare state that provided for those who needed help. He was an orthodox social democrat and he was genuine about it - unlike the present bunch of charlatans who might lay claim to the social democratic tradition but speak the language of the 'free market' and act accordingly.
But the New Zealand that Jim Anderton knew was provided by a capitalism when it could afford to be generous. When the squeeze went on, and the profit margins began to decline, the calls started to be heard about there being 'a better way'. And programmes featuring monetarist economist Milton Friedman were suddenly appearing on New Zealand television on Saturday afternoons.
Social democracy, or New Zealand's version of it, was being portrayed as a creaky economic model, unresponsive to change and 'unsuited' to the needs of a modern New Zealand. The cheerleaders for neoliberalism were not be found among the working class but among the political elite, within the media, academia, among well-heeled liberals who read Metro magazine and complained they couldn't find a decent latte in all of Auckland. Apparently that was also the fault of Keynesian economics.
Anderton said that he saw what was coming and I don't doubt that he did, but I don't think he ever conceived how brutal it was going to be. But even as the rollback of the post war social democratic gains gathered pace and which a gutless trade union leadership refused to fight, it still took Anderton five years to resign. It was decision to privatise the Bank of New Zealand that was the final straw.
They say that Jim Anderton led an exodus of people out of the Labour Party - although no other Labour MP had the guts or the principles to follow him - but the truth is many people had drifted away from Labour long before he resigned. Jim Anderton was just catching up.
He wanted to reinvent the Labour Party he once knew and believed in. Start afresh. NewLabour (the clue is in the name) was Anderton's blueprint for a party that was built on the social democratic principles that were now being portrayed as either heretical or antiquated - or both. Anderton wasn't trying to win the world for socialism because he wasn't a socialist- he was simply trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
He launched NewLabour at a public meeting in his Sydenham electorate. I was there with a few friends. The mood was upbeat, there was a sense that the fightback had begun. Everyone who joined up for NewLabour that night got a foundation member certificate in the mail later. I've still got mine somewhere.
I can't possibly adequately traverse the various political machinations that followed without testing everyone's patience. But I will say, for the purposes of this column, that NewLabour was a brave attempt to build a party to the left of Labour. But it was the beginning of the end of the social democratic project when Anderton led the Alliance into coalition with Labour in 1999 and 2002.
Now, in 2018, Jim Anderton is being portrayed as the man who pulled Labour back to the centre-left. So says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. And former finance minister Michael Cullen. And various Labour M.P.'s and supporters. I suppose they think if they say it often enough then people will come to believe it.
This convenient rewriting of history suggests that the Labour Party still encompasses the policies and the values that Jim Anderton believed in. There is, so the argument implies, a line of continuity from Michael Savage through to Norm Kirk to Bill Rowling and then a bit of a 'hiccup' with David Lange and then back on track again with Helen Clark and, now, Jacinda Ardern.
But this is only true if you are prepared to redefine social democracy in such a way as to render the term meaningless. This can only be true if you think social democracy now worships at the altar of the market. But this is little more than corporate managerialism. This is the politics of people who describe Labour as being 'the lesser evil' to excuse their continued allegiance to such a party.
Jim Anderton once tried to build a party to the left of the Labour Party. That remains our task today.