In November I attended a screening at Cambridge University of My Year with Helen, the documentary about former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark running unsuccessfully for Secretary-General of the United Nations. I briefly spoke to Helen after the screening. She appeared not to remember me, it was probably easier for us both.
I joined the NZ Labour Party in January 1997 at the age of 14. Within a year I had become very active in the party and spent many hours campaigning in the 1999 election when Labour came to power. New Zealand had since 1984 been a world leader at implementing a hard Neo-Liberal economic agenda. Privatisation, user-pays and free-market deregulation were all the rage. As a teenager, it became apparent that a widening gap between rich and poor was the inevitable result of this agenda. I decided the thing to do was join Labour and help change the country’s direction.
By 17 I had been elected chair of the Rimutaka Labour Electorate Committee. By 18 I was the Young Labour Wellington Representative. I was regularly attending meetings with MPs and was building a reputation as an up and coming Labour Party activist in Wellington.
But in 2001, things changed. After a year of Labour being in office, I started to become critical of the 3rd way and specifically the governments continued support for trade liberalisation. The conflict quickly ensued:
Sacked as the chair of the electorate committee and soon after from the Young Labour exec for opposing free trade deals that put 20,000 jobs at risk. Then 9/11 happened and the US led war on terror commences. I got dragged out of the 2001 Labour conference for interrupting Prime Minister Helen Clarks Speech opposing NZ troops being sent to Afghanistan.
Above: Photo on the front page of the Wellington Evening Post under the headline “Labour fires teenage rebel”
Eventually, I got expelled from the NZ Labour Party in 2002 for running against sitting Labour MP and Cabinet Minister Paul Swain in the Rimutaka Electorate. I got 376 votes, and Paul got significantly more.
Looking back, I managed quite successfully to gain the attention of the national media. Specifically, my initial media release about free trade was 14 pages long, that it still got reported is quite a feat. Amusingly when a Dominion post reporter rang my home my mother answered. The reporter explained that I’d put out a media release attacking the government’s stance on free trade and was scathing about government economic policy. Mums reply was “typical, mothers are always the last to know.”
Getting turfed out of Labour didn’t harm my prospects, in fact, my lifted profile probably helped me get elected to student politics shortly after. Further, in the short term it did help create some debate about both free trade and globalisation, and the connection between that and NZ aligning with the US to send troops to Afghanistan.
I don’t regret what I did, and on issues like sending troops to Afghanistan, I still think the west’s intervention in that country was short sighted. But tactically I would take a different approach today. NZ Labour remained in government for 6 years after my expulsion and attempts to build new political organisations in opposition to Labour on the left failed. Further, the relationship between myself and Labour members in the following years remained quite strained, and there were faults on both sides. In student politics and in other campaigns certain opportunities were missed as a result. It wasn’t until 2008 that this started to change. Even today there are those who remember the events of 2001 and remain suspicious.
I remain critical of placing any party/tribal allegiances over policy. Political parties and organisations are a tool. Parliamentary Parties like Labour can help achieve significant social change. But they are only one way. Community campaigns, unions, lobby and other pressure groups are just as important in achieving social change.
Back in 2002, I was often dismissed a nutty or far left. Policies like free tertiary education, opposing sending troops to Afghanistan and ending youth rates for young workers are all policies of the current NZ Labour led Government. In 2001 these things were considered insane. Labour MP Trevor Mallard suggested I “lay off the hallucinogens, or take them, whichever is appropriate” in response to voicing such opinions.
Did getting kicked out help make things change? Or would I have been better off staying inside? It possibly made life easier for 3rd way Blairite types not having to face dissenting views internally? But possibly making noise on the outside was effective?
Fast forward 11 years to 2013. At a Mayday function, I was asked if I would re-join Labour. My reply (after a few drinks) was that Paul Tolich who had helped drag me out of the 2001 Party Conference would have to come to sign me up. The next day Paul Tolich turns up at the Public Service Association where I worked and signed me up. Unlike my 2002 expulsion, my 2013 re-joining of Labour was a low-key affair. My aim was to quietly slip back unnoticed, and avoid picking up any roles or responsibilities.
This wasn’t to last long…
In 2014 Labour suffered one of its worst election defeats in the Party’s history. A leadership election was held after former leader David Cunliffe resigned. Former trade union and student leader Andrew Little put his hat in the ring. Labour leaders in NZ are elected by party members, trade union affiliates as well as by MPs. Andrew had only just made it back into parliament in 2014 and was far from being the front runner for the leader. I was asked to be his Campaign Manager, which I agreed to.
Above: Campaign image used during the 2014 campaign to elect Andrew Little NZ Labour Leader.
Andrew narrowly won the leadership contest becoming Labour Leader and Leader of the Opposition. One of the reasons I supported Andrew’s Campaign was having worked with him before I’d seen he was a leader unafraid of making hard decisions. I also liked that he opposed raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, whereas previously the party had supported raising the age and alienated a number of voters.
After getting Andrew elected my involvement decreased. I went back to my work at the Public Service Association and concentrated on other things like finishing my Post Graduate degree. While far from perfect under Andrew’s leadership, some important things were achieved. Labour managed to ban zero hours contracts from the opposition benches with the help of a strong campaign by unions and social justice groups. In 2017 Andrew stepped down as leader and was replaced by Jacinda Ardern who shortly afterwards became NZ Prime Minister. The work Andrew and his team did from 2014 to 2017 helped Labour get into government, even if he wasn’t leader during the election. Andrew is now Minister of Justice. He also is doing good work supporting the families of the Pike River Mining Disaster as the minister with responsibility for this.
So from young up and coming Labour member, to kicked out and expelled, then returning and running a successful campaign for the Party leadership, my history with the NZ Labour Party has been eventful. Over the last 20 years, I have certainly grown and changed, as too has NZ Labour. Now back in government, Labour has an opportunity to make a real difference both at home and internationally. I now watch with interest from London.