A loner strikes out yet again

“He’s doing not a bad job,” said a merchant banker a couple of weeks back about Jim Anderton. Therein lies both his triumph and his troubles.

Mr Anderton, the onetime outcast, has glowed in government. Within months of the formation of the coalition senior Labour ministers were heaping praise on him.

Not only was he channelling the Alliance into a constructive role within the government, dampening the revolutionary ardour of some of his team. He was even, Labour ministers said, sorting out disputes between them. He has mellowed into a figure even his hated finance gnomes can get along with.

This year Prime Minister Helen Clark has been firmly telling inquirers that she wants him back as Deputy Prime Minister after the election — this from someone who has gone full circle from close friend to bitterest enemy and back again.

But by playing ball with her free-trade economics and softly, softly social reforms, Mr Anderton also demonstrated to the hard left that he was not one of them.

In fact, he never has been. He is — and was — a Labour traditionalist. He broke with the Labour over its break with tradition in its 1980s economic dash for freedom, not over its failure to progress a far left agenda.

And many of his supporters are traditionalists too. Not all of the self-styled “broad left” (later the economic policy network) who crammed with him into the Hotel Workers Union headquarters on 28 August 1986 to plot a challenge to Rogernomics at the Labour party conference that weekend were leftists of the sort now siding with Women’s Affairs Minister Laila Harre and Alliance president Matt McCarten.

One, Peter Harris, then Council of Trade Unions economist, now works for Finance Minister Michael Cullen as economic adviser. Many others have since made their peace. Now more will do so as Mr Anderton pursues his “constructive, cooperative and commonsense” alliance with moderate Labour.

That crowded meeting in 1986 was therefore a marriage of convenience and despair, not the harbinger of an electoral earthquake.

Nevertheless, they nearly propelled Mr Anderton back into the Labour party presidency in 1988 and crossed the political Rubicon with him into the NewLabour party in 1989, then in 1992 into the Alliance, which outpolled Labour at times in 1994 and 1995.

Ironically, if Mr Anderton had kept his head down in the late 1980s he might have been Labour leader instead of Ms Clark. Instead, he revived his 1970s reputation as a loner. No other MP went with him in 1989. In the late 1980s in the Alliance the Greens and the Liberals’ Frank Grover smarted under his “hard”, “autocratic” leadership. Both left before the 1999 election.

This sort of hubris didn’t augur well for a smooth coalition. Nor did his depressive reaction to his daughter’s suicide in 1994, which took him out of the leadership for a year.

But the obverse of “hard” and “autocratic” is “determined” and a depressive can turn hyperactive. The kilometres Mr Anderton has covered as Economic Development Minister, not to mention the crushing detail of managing the detail of constant intra-coalition bargaining, mark him as the most active in a vigorous cabinet.

Now the council leftists have felt his determination. When they overplayed their hand in November on Afghanistan and again in February by deselecting Corrections Minister Matt Robson, Anderton simply overtrumped them. The loner has shown no compunction about going it alone yet again.

Except that he will not be alone. Like others of his ilk, Mr Anderton also attracts fierce loyalty, even devotion. He may well have been exaggerating his support yesterday — as Labour president in the early 1980s he habitually doubled the membership — but you can bet it is greater than that of the Alliance rump.