Pity the proletariat, the teeming masses with nothing to lose but their chains. They are losing their champions.
However the drama plays out in the Alliance now, the party’s hard-left council ideologues holding aloft the revolutionary standard are in real danger of oblivion.
It is now close to irrevocable that Jim Anderton will head a different group, perhaps constituted around the disgruntled Democrats, into the election and into the next Parliament. This move may come by end-April and may end “staunch” Laila Harr�’s cabinet career.
Disunity is a killer in our electoral politics. And a party can’t get much more disunited than to deselect its No 3 candidate.
Disunity feeds on itself. Fights at the top demoralise the envelope-stuffers, the people who do the unremarkable work without bothering much about ideology.
As the envelope-stuffers retreat, the fighters become more prominent in a smaller pool. They become the “activists” to whom presidents are bound to pay attention because they have the numbers. And so disunity spirals.
How did this come about?
Anderton took many of Labour’s most ardent leftwing ideologues with him out of that party in May 1989. It was, and has now proved, an unlikely alliance.
The far left come out of a tradition which believed in radical, even revolutionary, change to liberate the “masses”, the “proletariat” of workers, into a socialist society. However much this line has been modernised, it is not the politics of incremental social democratic change.
Only by sharply distinguishing the Alliance from Labour and holding true to radical principles, they believe, can the Alliance survive long-term and build a constituency for its principles.
Anderton’s strategy for building long-term support is to prove capable of working within a stable government, steadily pushing a set of policies with which over time a segment of voters comes to identify.
Anderton was never a left-wing revolutionary. He was traditional Labour objecting to market economics who, instead of knuckling down as his fellow-feeling Labour MPs did, chose the loner’s course in 1989.
Now that Labour has modestly softened its 1980s line, not least by Anderton’s actions in economic development, he is comfortably back with Labour. And, if necessary, he will be the loner again, bucking the council.
Anderton is also — though he denies this, hand on heart — autocratic and hard. He has left a trail of bruised idealism and broken hearts in the Alliance, among them the 1996 “star” candidate, Pam Corkery. Two parties left in the 1996-99 term.
He is in no mood to concede — even to the left’s proposal to formalise the rift into two factions, each with half the list. And why should he? He has Wigram and so the passport to seats.
Before things get to such a pass, it is a president’s role to balance two tasks: to represent party concerns to the leadership and MPs with vigour; but also to hold party tub-thumpers back from splits and rebellion — and in the crunch to back the leadership.
Sue Wood, National’s president in the twilight years of the rogue-elephant Muldoon prime ministership, managed this balancing act with skill. So did Margaret Wilson, Labour’s president in the early years of the Douglas-Prebble rampage.
But Matt McCarten has allowed himself to be painted as in cahoots with the “activists”. Now every conciliatory move he makes — and the list is long — is one too few for Anderton.
There are still plenty of struggling low-income people whose cause the Alliance has championed with more vigour and focus than Labour. But they are not a homogeneous mass, waiting to be mobilised by a revolutionary vanguard.
First, the revolution has already been held — in the late 1980s. It was, of course, the wrong revolution, but you can have revolutions only every so often.
Second, the “proletariat” at no time in this country’s history has voted in large numbers for the “activists'” nirvana. The “masses” have mostly chosen the suburbs instead.
So Anderton holds all the cards in this tawdry contest. Only a complete council backdown can restore unity and even that may not.
Not that the masses will be much bothered either way. The Alliance has long been marginal and after last week is even more so.