Saving Labour from itself
By Richard Harman (author)
Next Friday Labour Party delegates will return to the site of one of the party’s most brutal battles for their annual conference.
It is thirty years now since the party last met in Dunedin.
Perhaps what happened at that conference in 1988 was so brutal, so traumatic, that the party simply tried to forget about it by avoiding the city.
The conference came in the middle of the party's civil war over Rogernomics, but even so, there were hopes that with a new president to be elected at the conference, hostilities between the Douglas supporters and the vast bulk of the party membership might end.
However, the election ended up exposing the divisions even more starkly.
Ruth Dyson, who is now party's Chief Whip, was a 31-year-old feminist and activist who had worked her way up through the party to be Women's Vice President was one of the candidates for the Presidency.
She did not support what Douglas was doing.
But even more critical of Douglas was the former Party President and MP for Sydenham, Jim Anderton, who had decided to stand again for his old job.
"In the end, it came down to Jim and me, and though some will say this is a revision of history, from my perspective, Jim and I both wanted the same outcome which was for Labour to return to being Labour but we had different strategies for how that would happen,” she told POLITIK.
“Jim’s plan was to be elected as President and then resign and form the New Labour Party.
"Having the President resign would have a huge impact compared to a backbencher.”
Anderton was thus a threat to the continued existence of the party as well as a threat to the free neo-liberal economic policies being pursued by the Cabinet.
Once this was realised by the Prime Minister, David Lange, and the rest of the Cabinet they were left with little choice but to back Dyson.
However, it would prove to be a Faustian bargain because though Dyson welcomed their support she had no intention of abandoning her opposition to what they were doing.
“My strategy was to get elected as president and use the rules to get rid of the Backbone Club people and the Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Michael Basset lot.”
(The Backbone Club was a group of supporters including right-wing Labour MPs like Trevor deCleene who gathered around Douglas which later became the nucleus of ACT.}
Nevertheless, during the intense lobbying and often bitter debates that ran through the four days of the conference, while the unions and many branch stalwarts largely backed Anderton, most of the MPs supported Dyson.
And though there was some nervousness about the outcome, she won to the delight of the MPs and many Beehive staffers at the conference.
"I've got some photos from that time, and some of the wheelings and dealings and coalitions were really weird.
"It was great that the Cabinet supported me because you take votes from wherever you can get them, but I never did any trades or backed down on my opposition to them."
Dyson is an intense believer in the structure and process of political parties.
She believes that the rules matter.
So she supported an “accord” that came out of the conference which involved representatives from the party’s Council, Caucus and the Cabinet who were supposed to meet and negotiate tricky issues, particularly proposed privatisations which were the focus of much of the opposition from the party activists.
It didn’t really work.
Even Ministers more sympathetic to the party, like Defence Minister Bob Tizard ignored the process.
“The purchase of the frigates was a big one that went through that process, but in the end, Bob Tizard just said I can't be bothered with this anymore, we're buying them,"
Dyson roars with laughter as she recalls the futility of trying to reason against the Cabinet in 1988.
But she had another weapon up her sleeve; the candidate selections.
Her clash with outgoing Te Atatu MP, Michael Basset, over the selection of his replacement saw him emerge from the selection meeting to abuse her calling her “Commodore Dyson" – he had meant to say "Commandant" --- his anger and the late hour got the better of him.
When she got back to Wellington, Labour’s head office staff presented her with a sailor’s cap.
She now says (proudly) that by rigorously applying the rules to stop electorate stacking by Douglas and his supporters, six of Labour’s seven new MPs in 1990 opposed Rogernomics.
But Labour lost the election by a landslide.
“The party got wiped out.
“We had a caucus of 29 and people were relieved, and that is an awful way to have to describe it, but Labour people really didn't want us to win again because they knew that it would set Roger Douglas off again on another path.
“And, of course, the Michael Basset version of history is if we had only backed them we would have won, and we would have been a long-term government which is probably true.”
But Dyson’s rejection of that argument goes to the heart of her thinking about party politics.
She worries that parties are now becoming so risk averse that there may be something controversial in the media.
“Well, hello, we do stand for stuff.”
It is that politics has a purpose beyond simply gaining power which seems particularly relevant this week in Parliament as MPs across the Chamber try to process the whole Jami Lee Ross affair.
As they grapple to understand why it happened and what its implications might be, some are asking questions about their parties and whether there is a need for them to put more emphasis on policy; in other words to attract people in who want more than a seat in Parliament or proximity to Ministers.
Dyson took over as President at a time when Labour Party conferences lasted for four days and much of the time was spent debating policy remits.
“I miss that rigour and passion,” she said.
“This is an ongoing argument. It’s been an argument in the party since the minute I joined.
"I think it was stupid when he had about 300 remits, and you'd be debating for an hour each one, and the conference went on forever, and we just bundled everything off to the Policy Council.
“But actually;y people went to a conference because they had something o say on an issue they felt really strongly about.
“But I don’t think we should move to the other extreme where we have sterile debate or hardly any debate at all.
“People then don’t have an opportunity to have a bunfight about something they care about.”
She believes that young people, in particular, want to belong to a political party for a purpose.
"We had our regional conference in Blenheim this year, and I thought, oh Blenheim, gorgeous place but how are young people going to get there.
“Well, young people got there alright.
“They pooled resources, hitched did amazing things.
“We had this huge amount of young people because they had remits on the order paper and they were determined to win them at a regional conference.
“And I thought Hallelulia!
“And they were lobbying us during the eta breaks asking if we would support them.
“I thought this is just like when I joined, that is what we used to do.”
Perhaps it was because she took over a party in crisis at war with itself that makes Dyson so confident that parties can handle dissent.
She does admit though that getting Labour back on track was a long process.
“Our strategy from 1988 was pretty planned, in terms of the rules of the party, the power of the caucus and our candidate selections were quite deliberate.”
But she cautions against abusing the party selection process. She says one of the main reasons for the breakdown in Labour was that candidate selections had been taken over by people who believed in different things.
“You can’t just have your mates in the place.”
So in a week's time, she will return to Dunedin along with her photo album to share memories of that eventful weekend two weeks after her 31st birthday in 1988.
But she will also be there to celebrate where her party is now.
“It was a really stressful time.
“Parliament is a breeze compared to that.
“Parliament is really hard work but if you compare being in Labour now to being in Labour then; this is a joy.
“We are getting stuff done that we promised that we would do."
She said she knew when the Clark Government was elected that it would do what its manifesto said it would do.
“And you just can’t get better than going back to people after three years and saying, guess what, here is what we said we would do and look at all those ticks beside everything.
“It’s what I am here for.”
And that is the legacy of Dunedin in 1988 for Labour --- and for any political party really – stand for something, stick to it and if you get into Government, do it.