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Monday, September 17, 2007

Was Larry Sutherland a Secret SUP Member?

Larry Walter Sutherland was elected to the ultra-safe Christchurch Labour seat of Avon in 1987. A trade unionist hinmself, it is not surprising that local unionists worked hard to secure him the Labour nomination.

After a harsh upbringing in Christchurch, Sutherland settled in the Nelson region. where he was active in the union movement and the Labour Party.

By 1982 Sutherland was President of the Nelson Combined Trades Council, a National Councillor of the Federation of Labour, and chairman of former Prime Minister Bill Rowling's Labour Party Tasman Electorate Committee.

According to a formerly prominent trade unionist, Sutherland was at this time, also a covert member of the pro-Soviet, Socialist Unity Party.

The trade unionist in question, told me that a colleague of his had found a wallet in the toilets at the Wellington FOL headquarters. Rummaging through the wallet to identify the owner, the man found a Socialist Unity Party card made out to one Larry Sutherland. I was told that Sutherland happily accepted the lost wallet, with no mention being made of the party card inside.

I know from interviews with a former SUP member that secret party membership was quite common and that many secret SUP members held prominent positions in the Labour Party at that time and later.

Open members usually carried party cards initialled "GJ"-presumably then party president George Jackson.

Secret members cards were initialled by "KD"-possibly then SUP leader, Ken Douglas.

That the SUP, in common with most communist parties, had secret members is beyond doubt. This fact confirmed by prominent party member Jackson Smith in an interview with student paper Salient (issue number 25)in 1983. Smith claimed he "hated every minute" of his own secret party membership, but didn't tell how he was severely chastised after inexplicably letting the "cat out of the bag" during a radio interview.

What evidence is there that Sutherland was a covert SUP member, besides a bit of hearsay?

There is certainly no doubt that Sutherland was a socialist sympathiser.

In early 1982 Sutherland was part of a four man FOL delegation, with Paul Piesse, Gus Ricketts and leader Ken Douglas. The delegation spent a few days in Moscow and Leningrad before heading on to the 10th Congress of the Soviet front World Federation of Trade Unions in Havana, Cuba in February.

On his return to NZ, Sutherland gave an interesting interview to the Nelson Evening Mail, of 13th March 1982

"What I believe in is a form of socialism for every country and that it be determined by the people of that country in accordance with its culture and needs of the people. . . What the capitalist world represents at the moment is exploitation, racism, segregation of people and division of working class people to set them against one another..."

Sutherland "considered the Soviet Union and Cuba to be socialist democracies although he was more impressed with the Government of Cuba ("after New Zealand I'd be quite happy to live there") than the USSR... "Cubans who have left the country for America have only been the criminal element or the bourgeoisie who cannot live in Cuba's new society"

On the "class struggle" in NZ, Sutherland explained "it is adopting these kind of policies (curbing trade union rights, restricting wage levels of workers) and trying to put them into action to fall in line with the wishes of the international monopolies and conglomerates, which are very much at the forefront and backed by the likes of the United Sates Government, exploiting the world and working people and destroying them..."

When Sutherland campaigned for the Avon nomination in 1987, local unionists rallied to his cause. prominent among them was his "Cuba comrade", Paul Piesse.

Sutherland was particularly unspectacular in Parliament, but did become a close ally of Sydenham MP Jim Anderton. The two maintained a hard left line on most issues and both were keen anti-nuclear campaigners

Anderton was very highly regarded by the SUP and also had links to Australian Marxist-Leninists.

When Anderton broke with Labour to form the New Labour Party in 1989, the SUP was livid. Party General Secretary Marilyn Tucker called the breakaway party a "threat to democracy". The SUP feared that the NLP, though more leftist than Labour, would destroy the work the SUP had put into Labour over the past decade and help deliver the 1990 election to National.

Larry Sutherland talked the talk with Anderton and was widely picked to leave Labour for the NLP.

When it came to crunch however, Sutherland stayed true.

In May 1990 Sutherland gave speech at St James Hall, Fendalton, in part justifying his decision to stay with the "right wing" Labour Party. "Some of you will know I am on the left of the party, and will remain there... "I have not shifted my political position. I remain where I have always been but the inside picture is different, the responsibilities profound, the options not easy.

I remember as a trade union official being involved in some negotiations that very occasionally appeared to be sell-outs. The problem was, that the purity of my political position was never as important as union members being able to put food on the table and shoes on the kid's feet. It is because of that, that I believe we should work for the return of the Labour Government...and despite my not infrequent criticism of this government, I believe in its future..."

"In 1984, this government, amoungst all the governments in the world, stood and said "we will not have nuclear armed ships in New Zealand waters. We did it not to win votes, not to be re-elected, but because it was right. And because we were right the public supported us. There can be no greater issue - there is no greater issue, and the Labour government has proven against the odds, that it can be trusted not to flip-flop..."

My suspicion is that Larry Sutherland stayed with Labour, not out of love for Labour, but because his real party, the SUP, told him to.

Sutherland became Labour's junior Whip in 1993 and retired from Parliament in 1999-about the same time the Socialist Unity Party finally folded.

He ran a video store in Christchurch for a few years, until he died in 2005, aged only 54.

A bit of an anti-climax really.


Blogger Oliver Woods said...

Indeed, Sutherland's career decline perhaps emblematic of a similar anti-climax perhaps to the quick yet painful death of the ACT Party in 2005, no?

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

death of the ACT Party in 2005?


Still have more elected members than Ram :)

3:14 PM  
Blogger Trevor Loudon said...

Bit ironic eh Oliver?

Larry S was probably a communist inside the Labour Party-you're a Labourite inside a communist party.

How sad is that?

5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trevor, it was normal practice for the branch secretary to sign the party cards. Either that or a high ranked cadre in the branch. I suspect you will find find that anyone with KD came from the Wellington region and GJ from the Auckland region. Larry was never a member of the SUP, although like a few in the Labour Party he was sympathetic.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Trevor Loudon said...

Anon. Thanks for that info, though I do know of wellington comrades with cards signed GJ.

Re Larry S.

How do you know that for sure? The SUP was run on a "need to know" basis.

One former party member I interviewed worked closely with others in the union movement for years before finding out they were fellow party members.

I have identified several prominent Labour Party people who were SUP card-carriers or who attended Party/non Party fractions.

How could you possibly know that larry S was not in this category, unless perhaps you were on the SUP control commission?

3:08 PM  

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