Analysis: Jim Anderton – the man who saved the left in NZ
Many followers of politics – especially those under the age of 40 – might be forgiven for thinking that Jim Anderton was “just another politician”. The media coverage and tributes to Anderton since his death on Sunday could be viewed as “a bit over the top”. After all, Anderton was one of many minor party leaders involved in the swirl of MMP, as well as the leftwing splits and dramas of history. And in recent years, what the public saw of Anderton was often rather mild and perhaps even conservative.
But the coverage of Anderton’s life and death is entirely appropriate. There is plenty to celebrate and learn from – especially for the political left. After all, Anderton did more than any other person in New Zealand to rescue the leftwing of politics from decline and distortion.
A Giant on the political left
Jim Anderton was, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said, “a towering figure in the Labour movement for several decades”. Similarly, his successor in the Wigram electorate, Labour MP Megan Woods has labelled him “a giant of New Zealand politics” – see Julian Lee and Nick Truebridge’s Former Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton dies in Christchurch.
In fact, Anderton was the most important figure on the political left in New Zealand for many decades – no other politician, media figure, or activist, came close to Anderton in terms of his importance for progressive politics.
Anderton is important both for what he represented, and what he achieved. Although he was dismissed and derided by his detractors and rivals over the years, the commentary and coverage since Sunday shows he played a pivotal role in New Zealand leftwing politics. In this regard, probably the most insightful obituary yet is from Gordon Campbell, who once worked on an authorised biography of Anderton, which if it materialises will be a very important piece of work – see: On Jim Anderton.
Here’s the key excerpt from Campbell’s piece: “For anyone born after 1975, it is hard to grasp just how important a figure Jim Anderton was, for an entire generation. During the mid to late 1980s, Anderton was the only significant public figure of resistance to the Labour government’s headlong embrace of Thatcherism… When it mattered, Anderton was the only Labour politician willing to publicly put his career on the line to oppose the Thatcherite dogmas of his colleagues. In the end, even Helen Clark famously professed that she hadn’t come this far to go down in a hail of bullets with Jim Anderton. (The likes of Clark and Michael Cullen professed to be quietly resisting from the inside. Yeah right.)”
Campbell concludes: “it was the energy and commitment he brought to his life, and to his career, that made him so incredibly inspiring. For those who came within his orbit, he will always be an unforgettable figure.”
A socialist in neoliberal times
Jim Anderton was never inclined to call himself “a socialist”, but that’s essentially what his politics were. And it was in many ways a very “old-fashioned leftwing politics” that Anderton subscribed to. As Campbell conveys, Anderton was influenced by social justice Catholicism – the type that was “traceable all the way back to Michael Joseph Savage”.
Quite correctly, many of the tributes have focused on this ideological aspect of Anderton. Former Alliance colleague Sandra Lee-Vercoe emphasised his orientation to the poor, saying on Maori TV: “It’s very sad that this great leader of New Zealand, a freedom fighter for our people and those that are the most disadvantaged in New Zealand has gone” – see Piripi Taylor’s A freedom fighter for our people - Sandra Lee-Vercoe.
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, a long-time colleague, friend, and opponent of Anderton, has had plenty to say about his socialist politics. She has described Anderton as “a champion for the voiceless and the marginalised”, saying he “hated anybody suffering any sort of injustice at all” – see the Herald’s Helen Clark's tribute to 'diligent, kind' Jim Anderton.
Of course, it was those very qualities now being celebrated which led to his fate as an outsider politician. They meant Anderton was ostracised in the Labour Party of the 1980s, and led to so many of his former colleagues – Helen Clark, included – levelling attacks on him.
It meant Anderton was largely in the political wilderness for much of his career. He was especially unpopular with much of the political establishment. Former colleague Laila Harre, writes: “In the corridors of power, he would whistle to clear a space around him in the atmosphere of dense hostility toward this champion of the most basic Labour values” – see: Jim Anderton champion of the most basic Labour values.
Similarly, former colleague Matt McCarten says: "No one could have withstood the venom and the attacks that Jim endured, from the same people who're praising him today. Oh the irony” – see John-Michael Swannix’s Jim Anderton 'saved' the Labour Party, NZ – Matt McCarten.
A Man out of time
Leftwing and socialist politics are enjoying a revival. All around the world, there’s a renewed interest in many of the ideas that Anderton stood for. Indeed, the likes of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and Bernie Sanders in the US – who are both highly popular and well-regarded amongst a new generation – serve as a reminder of what Anderton pioneered in New Zealand.
Anderton’s leftwing politics made him unfashionable in political and media circles for much of his time in politics. Since the 1970s, when Anderton became a central figure in political life in New Zealand, the tide has been going out on socialist and leftwing political policies and ideals, and Anderton was largely swimming against it for much of his political career. Anderton maintained (and polls consistently showed) that most of New Zealand shared many of his “old fashioned” values, especially when it came to asset sales, health, education, employment and poverty. This was summed up perfectly by Tom Scott’s 1989 cartoon.
The best evidence that Anderton’s whole political project has now been vindicated, comes from a surprising source. Former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger, has paid an enormous tribute to his former opponent, saying: “If you look at the underlying goal he had, which was a fair and just society, I don't think that is a lost cause… It may have gone through some bad years in the time in which people became, I guess, obsessed that the market would deliver everything. But I see no such conviction in the world of politics at the present time” – see the Herald’s Bolger: Anderton's social justice principles will endure.
Tim Watkin points out that, “the warmth shown by 2017 Labour shows how the tides have changed”, and he “has died at a time when he is on the right side of history” – see: Jim Anderton's political legacy... & his final win. He says there are numerous elements of Rogernomics still in place, “yet in many ways the Anderton legacy seems to be on the rise. The new Labour government's talk of re-thinking capitalism, its seeming willingness to wriggle its way further left and its embrace by the protectionist mindset of New Zealand First is all vindication - right or wrong, you decide - of Anderton's often lonely stand on the left. That's his victory. Here's the rub: The new Labour government looks more like an Anderton-esque version of Labour than it does a Rogernomic one.”
Perhaps it is a tragedy that Anderton could have been much more successful in his political career, but instead played the lonely role of keeping the leftwing flame alive while other ersatz leftwing politicians gave up. Accordingly, there are many “what if” scenarios being discussed at the moment.
For example, the New Zealand Herald’s editorial on Anderton makes this point strongly: “Some of our most gifted political leaders never become Prime Minister only because their thinking and their career decisions do not happen to accord with the tides of change. They are the Prime Ministers who might have been. Jim Anderton is certainly on that list” – see: Jim Anderton might have been PM but for timing.
Similarly, Gordon Campbell ponders what would have happened if David Lange and the right of the party hadn’t taken action against Bill Rowling as leader in 1981, which he thinks would have eventually led to Anderton as PM: “We’ll never know for sure. Jim Anderton will have to remain as the best Prime Minister this country never had.”
Former colleague Matt McCarten says: “Jim Anderton could have been Prime Minister had he toed the line within the Labour Party government during the asset sales and economic reforms of the 80's” – see Piripi Taylor’s Jim Anderton worked like a trojan and was tough as nails – Matt McCarten.
Saving the left and Labour Party
Many commentaries on Anderton emphasise that today’s Labour Party is ideologically different to the one Anderton split from in 1989. Labour has moved back towards the left, much closer to the politics of Anderton. Watkin provides some policy examples of the shift: “This Labour government won't have charter schools, it will spend on social services and in the regions, and it will reform the Reserve Bank Act. Kiwibank is not just safe, it's thriving... The trend is towards more government intervention and investment, not less. In that sense, he dies back in the arms of his party. But not because he changed all that much. Indeed, you might say, he didn't re-join the party; the party has re-joined him.”
Some argue this shift is directly due to Anderton himself. Former colleague Chris Trotter says Anderton’s importance was that he “carved out a position on the left of New Zealand politics which made it impossible for the Labour Party to drift any further to the right” – see James Patrick Anderton 1938 – 2018. Also see Trotter’s Jim Anderton: An unlikely left-wing hero.
Matt McCarten shares this view: “Jim's role brought Labour back to the centre and I have no doubt that if Jim hadn't been around that Labour would have stayed on the right, driven by the likes of Roger Douglas” – see John-Michael Swannix’s Jim Anderton 'saved' the Labour Party, NZ – Matt McCarten.
If McCarten’s analysis might appear coloured by his time as a former Alliance leader, then it’s worth noting that Michael Cullen concurs. The same article reports that Cullen “admits Mr Anderton was crucial in getting Labour back to the centre-left, and quotes him saying “That's a debt of gratitude I think today's Labour Party can say it owes Jim Anderton” – see the Herald’s Former deputy PM Jim Anderton dies. According to this article, “Cullen also gave Anderton credit for steering Labour back to becoming a ‘more recognisable centre-left party than it was by the late 1980s’ and clearing up ideological confusion within the party.”
Tracy Watkins also argues that Anderton’s split from the party “helped force Labour back to its roots”, and then once in coalition with Labour, Anderton’s “Alliance Party also pushed Labour to go further in other areas, like paid parental leave” – see: Anderton's lasting legacy.
One of Anderton’s most enduring legacies will be MMP – see Keith Locke’s tribute, Jim Anderton played a critical role in changing our electoral system. Anderton and the Alliance played a crucial role in showing New Zealand voters there could be options beyond National and Labour, and that coalition governments could provide stable government.
Balancing principle and pragmatism
The parliamentary system usually trains politicians to strongly value pragmatism over principle. No politician manages to succeed in politics without compromising their beliefs (if they even have any strong ideals in the first place). But occasionally there are exceptions to this, and Jim Anderton is being written about at the moment in terms of his integrity and uncompromising beliefs.
Anderton’s integrity is mostly cited in relation to his role in opposing the neoliberal reforms in the 1980s – to the point that he was willing to resign from Labour and go out into the political wilderness. This is his legacy, according to Gordon Campbell: “Ultimately though, it will be Anderton’s principled resistance in the 1980s to the damage being done to this country for which he will be most fondly remembered” – see: On Jim Anderton.
Laila Harre elaborates on this, saying Anderton would "always be a symbol of the possibility of standing up against the powers that be, of rejecting the pressure to conform, and of doing the right thing… Jim stood apart from the pressure to give in to the need to proceed with the programme that was so fundamentally against the principles of Labour” – see Dan Satherley’s Jim Anderton's legacy according to Helen Clark and Laila Harre.
Even Anderton’s political adversaries have been complimentary about his integrity. Fellow Christchurch ex-National MP, Philip Burdon, put it like this: “I regard Jim Anderton as one of the most highly-principled and idealistic people I have dealt with in public life… He's been absolutely fearless in standing for what he believed. They were never self-serving arguments that had any financial benefit or opportunity for him as he consigned himself to the outsider on principle” – see Michael Wright’s The legacy of Jim Anderton: Former Deputy Prime Minister hailed 'one of the most highly-principled and idealistic' politicians.
Of course, life is always more complicated than these simple narratives, and there was definitely a pragmatic side to Anderton. This was especially apparent in the later stages of his career, as a minister in the Helen Clark government. Clark, herself, has commented on his ability to balance both qualities: “He was principled and pragmatic, he knew how far to push, on what and where” – see RNZ’s Jim Anderton 'gave a voice to the voiceless' – Clark.
And on this, Gordon Campbell seems to agree: “Anderton’s subsequent re-entry in politics proved to be entirely constructive. Although some in the Alliance might disagree, I think the last phase of Anderton’s political life gave the lie to the 1980s charges that he couldn’t ever work constructively, as part of a team.”
But, Anderton’s pragmatic streak had been around for much longer. Thomas Coughlan has written about Anderton’s central role in the Labour Party of the 1970s in which he modernised structures and helped pave the way for the Fourth Labour Government to be elected: “There is another great irony here. For decades, he relentlessly practised the art of compromise to deliver Labour to government, yet as he got closer and closer to his goal he became more aware that government would test his principles to their core and deliver a policy platform that he was largely opposed to” – see: Anderton’s Shakespearean legacy.
Coughlan positively concludes that, “Anderton’s unique political acumen built on his unrivalled ability to balance principle with the pursuit of power.” Of course, over his long career and activism he also managed to alienate many of those people that he had worked closely with – many in his own Alliance party, for example. And some will dispute that Anderton maintained a good balance of principle and pragmatism – close comrades felt that once he was in government, he allowed his pragmatic and autocratic side to dominate. For the strongest critique of Anderton’s failings, see Philip Ferguson’s Jim Anderton 1938-2018: New Zealand’s last social democrat?
Finally, for a sense of “the man who saved the left in NZ”, see my blog post, Cartoons and photos of Jim Anderton.