Opinion: Jacinda Ardern has positioned Labour closer to social democratic values Jim Anderton espoused, than other leaders


That tears flowed in abundance during Jim Anderton's funeral will have surprised no-one. He was a very good politician. He was also a good man.

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For many grieving at the passing away of this previously granite-like pillar of the centre-left, the sadness of the occasion will have also been tinged with another emotion — guilt.

It would be fascinating to know how many members of the post-1984 Labour Party caucus bothered to turn up at Christchurch's Sacred Heart Cathedral for Thursday's requiem mass for their former brother-in-arms.

Mr Anderton died peacefully overnight in Christchurch, aged 79.
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It would be even more interesting to know how many of those former colleagues who had shared Anderton's misgivings about the direction the-then new Labour government was rapidly heading were willing to confront their guilt at failing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Anderton at the time.

Matt McCarten, Anderton's one-time, long-time lieutenant, has described the former long-serving Christchurch MP as the "toughest politician I've ever known". Anderton sure needed to be.

The former Deputy Prime Minister will be remembered for many things, says Jacinda Ardern.
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Within months of Labour winning office in 1984, Anderton was very much on the outer — literally.

He may have technically had no more status than other MPs in their first term in Parliament. But he had some influence and reach from having been Labour's president prior to his entering the House.

He first aired his unhappiness by blaming Labour's defeat in the Timaru by election in 1985 on the direction economic policy was taking.

David Lange banishes Anderton to 'Siberia'

As Labour's leader, David Lange responded by sacking Anderton from the chairmanship of one of Parliament's major select committees and banishing him to "Siberia" — the apt name given to a shabby collection of prefabricated offices then reserved for hopeless backbenchers and troublesome dissidents.

The funeral of Anderton, a towering figure in New Zealand's political landscape, was held in Christchurch.
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In the view of the senior members of the party's parliamentary wing Anderton's crime was to establish himself as the party's unelected conscience.

The chunk of Labour's caucus who shared Anderton's increasing worries about the scale and nature of the reforms tumbling out of the office of Sir Roger Douglas — Labour's single-minded, single-track finance minister — were either too scared to speak out publicly or considered it grossly disloyal to do so.

Anderton was in a minority of one. Most other politicians would have bowed meekly to the stark reality they were on a fast road to nowhere and faded into the background.

The likes of former PM Jim Bolger and current politicians were present at Anderton, a long serving politician's funeral.
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But not Anderton. He knew he was right. He knew his colleagues had got things very long. Moreover, Anderton realised Douglas was only just getting started. That Anderton had the courage to fight on his own what he considered to be the scourge of Rogernomics has been the dominant theme of the many obituaries that have appeared since his death early last Sunday morning.

Of course, it is easy in retrospect to single out those who should have weighed in behind Anderton. But is it fair to do so?

Unwavering Anderton never plagued by self-doubt

Anderton was not always an easy person to like. He was not plagued by self-doubt. Once he was convinced he was right about something, his point-blank refusal to change his mind made him sound self-righteous.

Former prime minister Helen Clark has today described Mr Anderton as a voice for the voiceless and the marginalised.
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He was a purveyor of heavy sarcasm which he applied in liberal quantities to belittle those with whom he disagreed.

He long used the tired old line about "not having to be a rocket scientist" to understand some matter or other of current import — the implication being that whomever was taking a different view from him lacked the intellectual rigour to put forward a credible argument to support what they were saying.

When confronted with being required to approve or sanction some course of action to which he was opposed, his natural inclination was to respond at some point of a continuum running the gamut from sheer stubbornness to downright intransigence.

He was a serial talk-a-holic. When he spoke, it was not just the hind legs of the donkey which were at risk. The whole animal was likely to fall victim to the monotonous tones of an Anderton monologue.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was among a host of politicians past and present who attended.
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The lecture would continue for as long as it took to browbeat those in disagreement with him into submission. He cared little how long it took.

He only needed to get to his feet once in the opening stages of a party conference to throw the timetabling of speeches by others completely out of schedule.

His verbosity was just another weapon of many at his disposal, however.

New Zealand version of the American-style 'machine politician'

In the days since his death, some have portrayed him as MMP Man.

At heart, he was anything but. Another former colleague, Laila Harré, has noted that it took him a "very long time" to be convinced of the merits of a change in the electoral system despite it being to the obvious advantage of the minor parties he led.

Having long ago been educated in the winner-takes-all school of in first-past-the-post politics, he was uncompromising.

He was a New Zealand version of the American-style "machine politician" — but with one crucial difference.

The ends often fail to justify the means in politics. But in Anderton's case the ends were the implementation of policies based on traditional Labour values.

Politicians from other parties might have had little time been for the policies he advocated. But his passing prompted plaudits from all quarters of the political spectrum because he was regarded as genuine.

Such were his positive qualities — and so deep did they run — that the obituaries have not ben filled with euphemisms that pepper most eulogies to deceased politicians.

The assessments of Anderton's contribution have accordingly been more honest — especially those of former colleagues like Harre and McCarten whose fallings out with him saw the collective of minor parties assembled by Anderton under the banner of the Alliance ultimately implode.

Toughness his biggest asset and biggest flaw

McCarten cited the toughness to which he alluded as being Anderton's biggest asset and biggest flaw.

The latter was to the fore in the above-mentioned split in the Alliance which saw rank-and-file activists refusing to comply with Anderton's wish to endorse Labour's support of the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan.

For once, Anderton got it wrong. Very wrong.

The opinion polls showed voter backing for the Alliance already crashing the floor. The Alliance was doomed.

In a strange way, it had done the job asked of it.

Since Anderton's death, McCarten and others have claimed that he turned out to be Labour's "saviour".

Such a verdict might sit snuggly with the fiction that it is all Happy Families on the left of politics.

If Anderton was such a saviour, he had a peculiar way of showing it.

He was utterly ruthless in seeking to take full advantage of Labour's self-admission to intensive care during the early 1990s to recover from the huge damage to the party's support base wreaked by permitting Douglas to hijack the party and ravage the fundamentals of Labour's ideology.

True, Anderton might have sought to save the longstanding principles which had guided the party previously through thick and thin while also giving it the validity to claim to be the voice of the labour movement.

He showed no mercy towards Labour as a political vehicle. His strategy was reminiscent of the famous statement attributed to an an officer in the United States army amidst the carnage of the Vietnam War that it had become necessary to destroy a village in order to save it.

Anderton's true legacy to Labour

Anderton was not interested in saving the Labour Party. He was not interested in destroying Labour in order to save it. He sought to destroy it and ensure it remained destroyed.

When it became clear he lacked the numbers in the Labour caucus to throw the monetarists out of the Labour temple, he quit the party and formed the NewLabour Party as a mechanism to force a clean-out from the outside rather than the inside.

By then, Anderton had been a paid-up member of Labour for more than a quarter of a century. He had served as Labour's president between 1979 and 1984 —the year in which he finally joined the party's parliamentary ranks.

That curriculum vitae cut no ice with Anderton. Such sentimentality risked weakening his resolve to weaken Labour for all time.

Somewhere within this imbroglio may reside Anderton's true legacy to Labour.

Even those currently in Labour's ranks too young to remember what happened should have felt a twinge of remorse on hearing that Anderton had died.

Jacinda Ardern is very much in that category. She was all of four years of age in 1984. Along with Andrew Little, her predecessor as leader and who was 19 at the time, she has arguably positioned Labour closer to the social democratic values that Anderton espoused than has been the case since the ructions caused by the party's swallowing of Douglas's neo-liberal medicine.

As long as she and those who follow keep feeling such remorse, Labour will never again allow itself to succumb to the beguiling voices of false economic prophets.

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