Labour politicians Michael Bassett and Roger Douglas ran into Catholic supremo, Cardinal Delargey at Wellington airport in 1974 around the time their one-time mate and ally, Jim Anderton, declared his candidacy for the Auckland mayoralty.

"Delargey told us about the Catholic Church's difficulties with him when he was an organiser for the youth movement," wrote Bassett later in his memoir of the Lange Government.

"With a wry smile," said Bassett, Delargey told them "We terminated our relationship with our organiser when he put us in a position when we had to make a choice between him or the Pope."

Bassett and Douglas no doubt felt a certain déjà vu with the cardinal. Back in the mid-60s, they'd tried to harness the organising skills and crusading zeal of Anderton to mastermind their drive to drag the Labour Party organisation out of the dark ages into a modern vote-winning machine.


What they hadn't realised was there was a streak of the martyr in their champion, a certain willingness to die for the cause rather than back off when defeat was obvious, and regroup for another day.

The trio had produced the notorious "Red Book" of constitutional reforms proposing to do away with the block voting by union bosses in party decision making, whereby union secretaries were entitled to a proxy vote based on total union membership.

It meant the rank and file activists who turned up to branch meetings and door-knocked during elections, were permanently out-numbered, second class citizens.

The Red Book proposed that individual unionists would have to join a local branch to have their vote counted. Anderton and Douglas, as secretary and president of the Auckland Regional Advisory Council sent copies to every branch and union in the country and invited them to a pre-conference study weekend to discuss the proposals.

Ironically, in light of future events, left wing economist Dr W.B Sutch was promoted as "a bonus" speaking on "The future (if any) of the New Zealand Economy."

The outraged union-dominated party hierarchy quickly cancelled the meeting as unconstitutional and demanded that all copies of the heretical book be returned for destruction.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Douglas was ordered to send a contrite note of apology to all recipients. The instructions came from his father, Norman, Auckland Central MP and party president.

There was no stopping Anderton though. He latched on to the political activism sweeping the universities as a result of the Vietnam War and signed up "branch" delegates from the student ranks.

As a student of politics and history, and anti-war protester, I was one of many who jumped at the chance to actually take part in the political action rather than just read about it. I think I represented Remuera!

Talking to former Labour Party President Mike Williams on Sunday after Anderton's death was announced, he says he was signed up by Redbookers at the Victoria University campus. As a delegate for Paeroa, a place he never set foot in.

Anderton knew he was in for a thrashing, but as in future fights, his attitude was, at least he'd force his enemies – and the media - to listen to his case first. Underestimating their opponent, the party bosses cleared off to Parliament for a drink or two, leaving incompetent union boss, Jim Collins to preside.

He rapidly lost control of proceedings and was reduced to shouting "shut your gates" to anyone he disagreed with.

Eventually Fred Gerbic, who later become MP for Onehunga, representing both a union and a branch, moved an unlimited extension of speaking time for Anderton.

The hall erupted in unanimous applause. The hierarchy had to rush back from their socialising to restore order. Anderton then performed his theatrical storming from the hall.

Years later, on the eve of entering parliament for the first time, Anderton told me he received some advice that night he never forgot. He was staying with Wellington surgeon and political activist Dr Rolland O'Regan. "That night he told me, Jim, never go into politics unless you're prepared to lose."

Anderton said: "That's been my philosophy all along. That's why I'm able to go into political debate without any fear personally. Without any need to compromise myself personally. I will fight for what I think is right. If I don't get it, that's not the end for me."