Published in the Dominion, 23 February 2002
By Michael Bassett
As I watch Jim Anderton scrap with yet another set of followers, I can't help recalling the comments of the late Cardinal Delargey to a group of Labour politicians in the early 1970s while we were waiting to board our plane. Noting that Anderton had rejoined Labour after a bust up in 1967, and was now standing for the Auckland mayoralty, Delargey cautioned us: when Anderton had worked for the Catholic Church he showed an uncanny knack of putting the hierarchy in the position where they had to choose between Anderton or the Pope. Anderton's Alliance followers, like all his political devotees over the years, have been forced in the end to make similar choices. "I am the way, the truth and the life" saith Jim; at roughly five-yearly intervals, his disciples have come to doubt it. This time, one senses, his final electoral ex-communication might not be long delayed. The Alliance certainly belongs in the dustbin of history.
No one should be surprised. The Alliance owed its origins to the ambitions and charisma of one man, and the outdated revolutionary zeal of a few left-wingers. Long before it was formed, a small group of Marxists had been seeking to mainstream their own religion. Peter Fraser had trouble with the early Communist Party in the 1920s, and banned them from Labour Party membership. The later Socialist Unity Party insinuated its way into Labour in the 1960s and 1970s with limited success. I well recall chairing the Auckland Council of Labour before the 1972 election. Several SUP leaders put money and union assistance our way while mounting the hustings to stand against us on their own tickets. As Labour MPs, we were expected to report regularly to the comrades at monthly Trades Hall meetings of delegates where various derogatory slogans were bandied about and we were abused for "not doing enough for the workers". The arrival of the Lange-Douglas Labour Government in 1984, the subsequent trimming of union influence, and the demise of the Soviet Union, left the comrades without a vehicle.
Fortuitously, by early 1989 Jim Anderton needed some hitch-hikers. As Labour's president in the early 1980s he'd tried to purge caucus members who resisted his ambition to lead us. Then he marginalised himself within the Lange caucus, belligerently opposing devaluation, floating the dollar, the Reserve Bank and the privatisation of the BNZ (all of which he was later obliged to accept). His standing dropped so far within Labour that just before he fled in April 1989 he was unable to get a seconder for a motion in the Labour caucus. A messiah he might be, but he wasn't ours.
Anderton's erstwhile colleagues cheered his departure, while the comrades who flocked to New Labour clapped his arrival. But it was not a marriage made in heaven. Several odd political sects in search of sunshine had to be cast back into darkness as Anderton and his new, able lieutenant, Matt McCarten, struggled to give credibility to the new religion. Some of the old communists stayed in the Alliance, as it had become by 1992; others departed. Constant doctrinal disputes over foreign and domestic policy dogged the party. One former member told me recently there were more personal agendas on the table at any Alliance gathering than there were people in the room!
The one thing that held the party together, but always became an irritation to some, was Anderton's personal lust for power. From his days as a Catholic Church worker, through his years as Auckland's Labour organiser, two mayoral campaigns, president of the Labour Party and now Alliance leader, Anderton had hoped to find a steady group of loyalists willing to follow him wherever he perceived his destiny lay. But they kept falling by the wayside. The nearer he got to power, the faster the rate of desertion. From 18.3% of the total vote in 1993, the Alliance dropped to 10.1% in 1996 and after the Greens became disaffected and stood under their own banner in 1999, to 7.74%. Right now the Alliance is polling at a little over 1%. Yet again Anderton has run out of political friends.
With the Alliance in its death throes, the comrades now have a choice between old and young messiahs. Will they go with the old time religion of Jim Anderton, who could possibly win another term as an MP under a label like New Alliance? He'd be in there, although almost certainly not as Deputy Prime Minister. Or there's a newer, more fundamentalist sect these days, led by Matt McCarten, which could continue to call itself the Alliance. The difference between them is that Anderton might be good for two or three seats in the next parliament; McCarten won't have any. Jim's Alliance is finished. And at 64 years of age, the strange eventful political journey of James Patrick Anderton may not be far behind. Both politicians and popes, after all, are mortal.