The big question the Democrats faced at their conference was not whether they should pass a motion of no-confidence in Alliance president Matt McCarten but whether they "no longer" had confidence in him.

Those two words in the motion implied that the party once had confidence in him, one delegate suggested.

The point was taken and the motion corrected. Unequivocally it stated: "That this conference has no confidence in the Alliance president, Matt McCarten." It was passed unanimously.


Matt McCarten is enemy No 1.

But if Alliance leader Jim Anderton had attended the Christchurch conference, which he didn't, he might just have walked Cook Strait to get there.

Feelings against outspoken Alliance leftists are running deep. They have been simmering for years between Mr McCarten's militant faction and the monetary reformist Democrats.

The Democrats tolerated Mr McCarten because he was close to Mr Anderton. But many felt they were valued only for their fundraising efforts, not their politics. They have been sneered at for years.

Mr Anderton has unleashed years of pent-up resentment against Mr McCarten and now it's payback time.

"Laila Harre, Matt McCarten and Willie Jackson do not fit into my sphere of comfort," Karapiro delegate John Kilbride said mildly. The tone intensified.

Awarding life membership to an elderly Stan Fitchett, who has run fundraising housie for years in Christchurch, former leader John Wright said the recipient knew more about being an "activist" than Mr McCarten ever would.

The new Democrat leader and Alliance whip, Grant Gillon, resorted to Muldoonist language. He derided the leftists as "the gulag squad", "refugees from the SUP [Socialist Unity Party]", "the loony left" and "agitators, not activists", who needed a good "flushing".

Mr McCarten's unsurprising response was to call the Democrats a pack of parasites who should get out of the Alliance

Northern divisional chairman David Wilson responded yesterday: "This is the typical reaction of a trapped rat - they squeal."

Any hope of effecting a real truce ahead of tomorrow's Alliance caucus has gone up in flames. Mr Gillon, once a firefighter, turned political arsonist on the Alliance crisis.

The Democrats are Mr Anderton's spurs in the power struggle. They want to jettison the Alliance leftists - the rump of Mr Anderton's now-defunct NewLabour Party - and lay claim to a large chunk of the Alliance personality.

That is a deviation from the NewLabour activists' theory of evolution, a major irritant in cross-party relations. The Alliance was meant to cannibalise or absorb the four member parties that coalesced in 1991 into a single unitary party.

It was not a goal shared by the Greens, who left in 1997, by the well-established Democratic Party, which contested its first election as Social Credit 47 years ago, or by Mana Motuhake.

NewLabour voted to dissolve last year in a move towards its one-party ambition. Members became Alliance-only members, though MP Phillida Bunkle calls them "not-the-NewLabour Party" because they operate as an organised faction.

The distinction between the parties that make up the Alliance has largely been irrelevant to the public. It is now a vital factor in the power struggle between Mr Anderton and Mr McCarten.

The Democrats, who say they make up 40 per cent of the Alliance, are Mr Anderton's most solid loyalists, his backstay. The ex-NewLabour members are split. Mana Motuhake won't be forced to choose.

The Democrats are grateful for the credibility Mr Anderton in Government has brought to the Alliance and their party.

The once-derided crimplene suit and Skoda brigade now has two MPs, including one - Mr Wright, Under-Secretary for Economic Development, Revenue and Racing - in the Clark ministry. They needed Mr Anderton.

Mr Anderton now needs them - for moral authority and possibly their voting numbers on the ruling Alliance council.

If the Alliance miraculously survives this civil war, the Democrats will expect some reward for their loyalty.