Some of our most gifted political leaders never become Prime Minister only because their thinking and their career decisions do not happen to accord with the tides of change. They are the Prime Ministers who might have been. Jim Anderton is certainly on that list.

He was named as a future leader by Time magazine when few New Zealanders outside the ranks of the Labour Party in Auckland had heard of him. That was 1974, the year Norman Kirk died. Anderton, 36, was on Labour's ticket for the Auckland City Council elections that year and pluckily standing for mayor against Sir Dove-Myer Robinson.

He and sitting member Cath Tizard were the only Labour candidates elected to the council and Anderton quickly made his name as a thorn in the side of the comfortable conservative majority. He was a challenging, powerful, persuasive speaker but uncompromising. Unlike the later mayor, Dame Cath, who worked effectively within the council establishment, Anderton had his eye on national politics.

He was working effectively inside the Labour organisation and became its young, energetic president when the party's parliamentary leadership was struggling to stand up against the politics of Robert Muldoon. Anderton looked like the natural successor to Opposition Leader Bill Rowling but he was not in Parliament and seemed content to bide his time, successfully building up the party's fund-raising and recruiting a new generation of candidates.

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By the time he decided to enter Parliament, taking a vacant safe Labour seat in Christchurch at the 1984 election, it was too late. Labour had replaced Rowling with David Lange the previous year and the country was ready for a change.

The rollercoaster of change that followed the 1984 election was a shock to Anderton and most of the Labour Party including many of its MPs. But while most of the caucus came to terms with the need for economic liberalisation, Anderton never did. He was a lone uncompromising voice, distant from his party before he left it in 1989 to form one of his own.

It is a matter of conjecture how different New Zealand's recent history might have been if Anderton had entered Parliament five or six years earlier as he could have done. He might well have had more support than Lange when Rowling stepped down, especially since Lange was already in league with Roger Douglas and the reformers, but it was not to be.

Always friendly, cheerful and decent in person as well as being a compelling public speaker, Anderton had no difficulty holding his seat as the parliamentary anchor of his parties, NewLabour, the Alliance and eventually Progressive. He was reconciled to Labour under Helen Clark, led the Alliance into coalition with it in 1999 but split the Alliance when some of its MPs were rocking the coalition's boat. He maintained a separate party to maximise the centre-left's vote but remained a loyal minister for the life of the Clark Government.

He held to firm social principles through a time of change and deserves to be remembered well.