Does the Security Intelligence Service, I wonder, still bother to monitor the activities of Marxist union militants?
Sigh. Probably not. For a start, there don’t seem to be many left. In any case, the SIS is probably pre-occupied with Islamic terrorists.
What set me thinking about this was the brief outbreak of industrial skirmishing on the Wellington buses last month. For a few days it was just like old times. I came all over nostalgic for the seventies, when hardly a week went by without a key industry being paralysed by strike action.
Back then, communist union agitators were a source of intense interest to the SIS. The thought occurred to me that the men leading the striking Wellington bus drivers were exactly the sort to have attracted the attention of SIS founder Brigadier Sir William Gilbert and his successor, Paul Molineaux.
Take Nick Kelly, for example. If the SIS still bothered tracking left-wing stirrers, young Master Kelly would have a bulging file by now.
Kelly first came to public attention in the late 1990s, as a youthful and fervently idealistic member of the Labour Party. In 2000, aged only 17, he became the party chairman in Paul Swain’s electorate, Rimutaka. But the Labour Party was no place for an earnest young champion of the working class, as he soon discovered. In 2001 he and the party spectacularly parted company over Labour’s support for globalisation.
Kelly’s entertaining account of this falling-out can be found on Scoop. In it, he mercilessly (and wittily) exposes the party’s inner machinations and confirms that backroom party politics are every bit as seedy and brutal as you always imagined. He went out in a blaze of glory, physically ejected from the annual party conference for committing the unpardonable sin of interrupting Helen Clark’s keynote speech with interjections about Labour’s support for the war in Afghanistan.
Undeterred – in fact probably hugely invigorated – by this setback, Kelly hurled himself back into politics with a campaign for the mayoralty of Upper Hutt in 2004. I also have a vague recollection of him having a tilt at local government office earlier than this, perhaps in 2001, and greatly amusing audiences with his visions of a Marxist workers’ paradise.
He served a term as president of the Victoria University Students’ Association, blaming a “dirty” Labour campaign when the students voted him out, and in 2007, clearly never one to be discouraged by failure or rejection, he stood for the Wellington mayoralty as a candidate for the far-left Workers Party. And now, lo and behold, he pops up as president of the quaintly named Wellington Tramways Union, which represents the city’s bus drivers.
It’s hard not to feel a certain fondness for people like Kelly. They just keep bashing away, buoyed by the same sort of unshakeable conviction that devout Christians display. You can’t help but admire them for their dogged consistency, even if it all seems a bit futile in a country that shows no inclination whatsoever to join the class struggle.
Then there’s Graeme Clarke. I’d completely lost track of the former secretary of the now-defunct Coachworkers’ Union (there’s another anachronistic name for you), but there he was speaking on TV as a representative of the Manufacturing and Construction Workers Union, which also got drawn into – or perhaps made a point of getting drawn into – the bus dispute.
Back in the 1970s Clarke was a key figure in the industrial unrest that frequently afflicted car assembly plants in the Hutt Valley and Porirua. He was associated with the Workers Communist League, one of several splinter factions to emerge from the endless internecine squabbling that convulsed the Marxist left.
The union movement has been through such painful upheaval since then that it was almost heartwarming to see Clarke has survived intact, albeit looking a little greyer.
One hopes that somewhere in the SIS there’s a low-grade clerk who’s paid to keep tabs on people like Clarke and Kelly, just for old time’s sake. Maybe a few fuzzy photos for the files, clandestinely shot from the back of a fake plumber's van as the Bruvvers emerge from Trades Hall? It’s the least they deserve for a lifetime spent in the service of the revolution.