Many words were written about Jim Anderton after his death earlier this month but just about everyone missed the man's real importance to New Zealand by focusing on his many years in Parliament and largely ignoring the five years he spent as president of the Labour Party.

I got to know Jim when he employed me as the Party's first education officer in late 1979.
The job description for this appointment was "the recruitment and education of party members" and though I produced what became a much-used introductory booklet, Jim had overlooked the fact that the party could not afford the three appointments he and his mates had deemed essential, so I became a fundraiser.

The Labour Party had traditionally financed its central organisation through levies on electorate organisations and union affiliation fees. These were insufficient to fund election campaigns as many electorates simply didn't pay and affiliation fees had been fixed for years and were seemingly immovable.

I wrote a party fundraising plan and I recall presenting this document to Jim at his Onehunga factory one hot Friday in 1980.

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The three ideas I promoted in this paper were mail appeals to party members, a corporate fundraising push and a revived and redesigned pledge system.

Jim enthusiastically embraced all of these ideas and he dictated, on the spot, a list of industry heavyweights who he wanted to canvass for money.

One of the first corporate fundraising meetings proved to be a revelation for me.
I witnessed an incident which underlined the mettle of the man who was then not a year into his presidency.

After Jim had completed his spiel, we were asked a few questions and Jim was handed an envelope.

He extracted a cheque, had a quick look and handed it back, saying that if this was all a company of this size could afford to "support democracy", then it must be in trouble and he'd prefer not to add to those difficulties.

This particular captain of industry was obviously surprised, but gracious and undertook to "do better".

A week later I was called in to collect the revised cheque. The amount had gone up from $500 to $5000.

Corporate fundraising became, from that time, a feature of the Labour Party's budget but the big money came from a pledge system which was to deliver millions to the party and functions to this day.

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The Labour Party had a history of pledge systems going back to the 1930s but all these schemes carried with them a large administrative overhead and all had fizzled out.

With the computerisation of the banks in the 1970s, automatic bank transfers had been introduced and I had the bright idea of getting members and supporters to sign up to these transfers at meetings for sums like a dollar a week or $10 a month.

Jim thought the idea was a bit weird, but was game to give it a go, named it the "Victory for Labour (VFL) scheme, and when I'd finally developed a form that was acceptable to all of the banks, Jim and I hit the road.

We quickly discovered that this approach worked amazingly well and over the next three years we addressed more than a hundred meetings and built the kind of cash flow the party executive had previously only dreamed about.

Two of the characteristics which were to mark his political career were on display and I learnt from them. Jim was always willing to try something new and innovative and he was utterly indefatigable in pursuing his goals.

But his real importance to New Zealand politics came in another way.

Labour Party presidents are uniquely powerful in the New Zealand political landscape in that they have a very strong voice in selecting the MPs of the future.

Jim regarded selection meetings as personal challenges, and he exercised his right to chair every selection meeting in any electorate where a win for Labour was even remotely possible. He would always have his preferred candidate worked out well in advance. I attended nearly all of these meetings and on every occasion Jim's candidate won.

He didn't need to resort to underhand tactics; he chose excellent candidates to support and was formidably well organised over two selection cycles.

Jim's selections included Helen Clark, Sir Michael Cullen, Dame Annette King, Jim Sutton and Trevor Mallard.

Jim became an MP himself in 1984, fell out badly with David Lange's "Rogernomics" Fourth Labour Government, left the Labour Party and spent years in the political wilderness.
By this time, however Jim had already made an indelible mark.

Helen Clark's 1999-2008 Fifth Labour Government, elected 15 years after he'd left the presidency, and of which he was to become a part, was very much his proud creation.

Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.