A question of perspective

Issue: 106

Daphne Lawless

A comment on the experience of the Alliance Party in New Zealand

Harman’s otherwise extremely useful article in International Socialism 104, ‘Spontaneity, Strategy and Politics’, contained references to the experience of the Alliance Party in New Zealand. Although his outline of the history of this is correct, it missed some vital elements in the Alliance experience. He writes:

‘The disaster in New Zealand was not the creation of the new party [the Alliance] under the aegis of a figure [former Labour Party president Jim Anderton] who still accepted a basically reformist perspective. It was the lack of an organised revolutionary tendency within the party, working with him in a united front so long as he offered a focus to the left to disillusioned Labour supporters, but also trying all the time to win people to a perspective that would enable them to resist any backsliding.’

But there were initially several ‘organised revolutionary tendencies’ in the Alliance— or at least the founding group which split from Labour, the NLP. Matt McCarten, its president and then a major figure in the Alliance, tells how he saw their talk of ‘revolution’ at the founding conference as an electoral liability:

‘The day before our poll rating was 17 percent; after the public saw the conference on TV our poll rating crashed to 3 percent… We naively had an open session where anyone could speak. Everyone in the press gallery couldn’t believe their good luck… Sure enough on Sunday night TV it was wall-to-wall revolution. The impression viewers got was that it looked hysterical and nutty… At future conferences I insisted there was delegated attendance and the affair was well controlled. When we had our first Alliance conference a few years later it was completely stage-managed’.1

This statement shows just how far to the right New Zealand’s political climate had swung by 1989. The country had been transformed from the most regulated advanced capitalist countries to one of the most free for capital in less than five years, by a Labour government, no less. In this atmosphere a conservative social democrat and successful small capitalist such as Jim Anderton was regularly described by the capitalist media and political opponents as a dangerous radical or even a Stalinist. Given this, the existence of open revolutionaries in the NLP was pure gold for those wishing to discredit the political project. In response to this, McCarten and Anderton drove out two ‘entrist’ groups. Most of the revolutionary socialists left in the NLP— and many other leftists—thereafter resigned, drifted away, went silent or were marginalised. There was no opportunity for any organised revolutionary current to establish itself within the NLP or, later, the Alliance.

The growing complaint of all opposition tendencies within the Alliance during the 1990s was the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the party. In part this was due to its origin as a federation of parties, of which only the NLP and the Green Party had any mass base. The three minor Alliance parties had little in common with the NLP or Greens apart from opposition to neo-liberalism. They were, for the main part, petty bourgeois and conservative, with tiny memberships. But they had a veto on the Alliance ruling council.

The defeat of the former NLP members who described themselves as socialist was finally ensured by the massive authority exercised within the party by Jim Anderton, as the party’s most articulate spokesperson and electoral ‘drawcard’. As long as Anderton continued to soar in the preferred prime minister opinion polls, he was untouchable, although personal conservatism and antipathy to the socialist left were never a secret. It was only after the Alliance support base collapsed during the 1999-2002 coalition, mainly because of Anderton’s refusal to distance his party from Labour’s ‘soft’ neo-liberalism, that the Alliance left was able to challenge his authority—and by then it was too late. As far as political programme went, the Alliance showed the correctness of John Rees’s observation that the important question about socialists participating in alliances with other political forces is not:

‘whether there was an alliance but whether it was the working class and socialist elements… that determined the political direction of the alliance… The fault of the popular front was that it subordinated the radical forces to the political priorities of the most conservative forces in the alliance’.2

The Alliance certainly recapitulated the failings of popular front politics—with, of course, the vital difference that it was an anti neo-liberal rather than an anti-fascist bloc. Harman is right that, once Labour retreated from hard neo-liberalism, ‘there was immense pressure on the Alliance Party to dilute its opposition to Labour so as to get the right out’.3 But, given the political climate and the balance of forces within the Alliance, the socialist left had no realistic chance to intervene in a manner that would have prevented this drift rightwards.

The Communist Party of New Zealand, which later formed the basis of our Internatonal Socialist Tendency organisation, had this to say about the Alliance in 1994: ‘The left wing of the NLP can think socialist thoughts and even whisper socialist words in back rooms, but they cannot act as socialists through the Alliance, which is committed to managing capitalism… And without collective action, socialist ideas are merely empty wishes.’

Harman is probably correct that the Alliance might have been saved from disaster if it had included an organised revolutionary tendency. This was, sadly, an objective impossibility. But the fate of the Alliance should show how decision- making structures which allow small cliques undue influence, and excessive internal deference to a popular leader figure, can make such political formations impossible for socialists to work within.


1: M McCarten and C Casey, Rebel in the Ranks (Random House, 2002). My personal memory of the television coverage of that conference accords with McCarten’s.

2: ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’, International Socialism 100 (autumn 2003), pp30-31.

3: An observation also made by Matt McCarten in Socialist Worker Monthly Review, December 2004

Further reading

C Harman, Spontaneity, Strategy and Politics