Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on the failure to create a Labour/Greens alliance

April 10th, 2014

David Cunliffe won his current job by indicating he would be a Labour leader proud of his party’s left wing traditions. Since then, a question mark has been hanging over how Cunliffe would handle Labour’s relationship with the Greens during the run-up to the 2014 election. After all, some senior members of his caucus (e.g. Shane Jones) oppose the Greens as much as they do National. Would Cunliffe be willing to front foot it and own the implications of (a) the obvious overlap in policy positions between Labour and the Greens and (b) Labour’s reliance on the Greens to make up the numbers to get within catching distance of National? Or would he fudge the issue, lest the formation of a Labour/Greens alliance should scare off some voters – and alienate Winston Peters, whose concerns, it now seems clear, are to be treated as paramount. Everyone knows Peters could be the king-maker after this year’s election. It was less clear that his tender sensibilities would be allowed to determine how Labour dares to position itself pre-election as well.

Last night we got the clearest sign yet of how Labour will operate in 2014. Cunliffe and his caucus generals have turned down an invitation from the Greens to co-operate with them during the run-up to this year’s election. What in fact, did the invitation propose? The two parties would have agreed (a) to campaign together and (b) to brand themselves as a future Labour/Greens government. The proposal also (c) sought agreement that Cabinet posts would proportionately reflect the number of seats won by each of the partners. (Presumably, this arithmetic would have applied to any other coalition partners as well.) Lastly, the invitation (d) sought a common strategy on how to work together with New Zealand First. None of this would have impinged on the ability of Labour or the Greens to promote their policies to their constituencies. In rejecting the invitation, Cunliffe said that Labour wanted be open to all prospective partners joining a Labour-led government, and cited Labour’s 100 year history of independence.

None of that history of independence, as TVNZ pointed out with footage last night, prevented Labour and the Alliance from campaigning together and presenting themselves as a government-in-waiting before the 1999 election. (Matt McCarten at least, would have remembered that.) Has Cunliffe’s decision yesterday been a missed opportunity? It would seem so. Such an alliance might have galvanised Cunliffe’s campaign, currently dead in the water. The tactical timidity involved is breathtaking. If Labour is concerned that any formal alliance with the Greens would expose it to scare tactics by the centre-right, well…guess what? It is being tarred with the brush already. Whether Labour likes it or not, its proximity on policy issues to the Greens is going to be used against it, night and day, by the centre right. It can’t afford to run scared of its core ideas, and expect the electorate to respect it, much less vote for it.

The reality is that these two parties share a good deal of common policy ground and the activists in both parties recognise that fact. That’s one reason why 70% of Labour supporters want Labour to treat the Greens as its most favoured coalition option, and not New Zealand First. These supporters include the same activists whose support was crucial to Cunliffe being voted into the leadership. They have just been given every incentive not to bother working for Cunliffe in this campaign. After all, the original idea was to elect a left wing government, not one that was striving to earn the Winston Peters Seal of Approval.

If there is a tactical fear of being tarred as “extreme left” – which should be a joke, when applied to Russel Norman and Metiria Turei – the only way to disarm that smear is to take control of the situation, own what the two parties share in common, and defend the relevant policies. Fear tactics will only work if you run scared of them, and the formation of the Labour/Greens alliance would have presented a golden opportunity to confront the “extremist” bogey and dispel it before the campaign proper begins. It would have seen Labour in charge of its destiny, and demonstrating before the election why there is no need to fear what such a partnership might entail after the election. Instead, Labour has chosen to keep its options open and wait plaintively by the phone for a call from Peters that is never likely to come. What does Labour believe in? Apparently, whatever it takes to get itself pushed across the line by its partners.

All in vain, of course. Do Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Co. seriously think that Labour has a hope in Hades of convincing New Zealand First to add to Labour’s power to govern, either inside or outside a formal coalition? What Peters wants is to be seen to be being wooed by Labour and treated as its most-desired partner, and first cab off the rank. That’s a bluff that Labour would be wise to call before the election, rather than thinking it can woo Peters with an array of baubles after the election – in a situation where National will always be able to outbid Labour, and where National has no equivalent of the Greens looming in the wings. Best of all, the formation of a Labour/Greens bloc would have forced Peters to show his true colours now, rather than later.

Yes, it would have been a high stakes gamble, and one that the Greens probably never seriously expected the current Labour Party to embrace. For the Greens, the invitation itself was a win/win: if Labour accepted, the centre-left would gain momentum, lifting both boats. By turning it down, Labour has given the Greens every opportunity to scoop up disappointed Labour supporters, for whom the Greens and Mana are now the only genuine left alternatives.

In the worst case scenario, would a Labour/Greens alliance really have opened up a large centre ground for the likes of Peters and Peter Dunne to populate? Hardly. If Cunliffe cannot back himself to get on the front foot and beat off the likes of Peters and Dunne for the centre ground, he plainly has no hope at all of winning the same centrist voters in any contest with John Key. Would a united Greens/Labour front have polarised the electorate? You bet. On that score, the electorate is way ahead of Labour. Much of it is already polarised, and in opposition to the policies and personalities of the Key government. What it lacks is a leader of that opposition – but yesterday, Cunliffe decided not to turn up to work.


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    1. 19 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on the failure to create a Labour/Greens alliance”

    2. By donna on Apr 10, 2014 | Reply

      I’ve tried to avoid politics this year so may well be misreading what is happening. But it strikes me not that Labour is unpopular but that they are increasingly viewed as irrelevant. No clear statement of principles that would distinguish them from National, prevaricating on issues that could gain them traction, and now Cunliffe telling a disinterested electorate he will lead a Labour-led government after the election.
      Good luck with that, guys.
      I don’t know a single person who wants the current government re-elected but haven’t met many people who trust Labour, either. That’s a big hurdle to get over in 5 months. All the best.

    3. By bernard on Apr 10, 2014 | Reply

      it would simply force nz first into nationals hands so i feel labor have got it about right . if labour want to ever be the biggest party again working two close to the greens would heart that badly .party s need to campaign to the the most votes they can to strengthen their hand for coalition talks after the election .

    4. By Wendy on Apr 10, 2014 | Reply

      I strongly agree with both Gordon and Donna. Labour has made itself a boat with no oars – what a mind-boggling disappointment.

    5. By Lan on Apr 10, 2014 | Reply

      Labour-Green partnership ..why not? It is indeed a “mind-boggling disappointment”!

    6. By Davo Stevens on Apr 10, 2014 | Reply

      Labour have to convince people that they are different from the Gnatlite that Helen’s party was. I am not sure that Cunliffe wants to do that.

      With the destruction of the Unions and their support, Labour has to go to the same financiers as National and so they don’t want to frighten the horses. The party desperately needs to get back to it’s roots and support the battling ordinary Kiwi workers that were it’s grassroots. Not supporting the rich.

    7. By John Wellington on Apr 10, 2014 | Reply

      I’m not so sure about all this. David Cunliffe is unfortunately showing a worrying amour of political timidity but but I suspect a lot of that is the result of what happens behind the scenes in the Labour party. But I have always felt that it would be the Greens that ultimately would lose out by too close a tie with Labour. I think Russel Norman needs to be rather more careful, and less obviously opportune. For instance, that he would think he’d ever be allowed to be finance minister in a Labour administration was pie in the sky, and revealed I thought a worrying political naivety. Cunliffe’s refusal to run a common campaign is to the Green’s advantage, I believe – the Greens are much freer to run their own campaign on their own principles. They should stick to them. The only problem is will National somehow squeak back in with Winston?

    8. By Steven Peters on Apr 11, 2014 | Reply

      You seem to be Labouring under a false assumption, Gordon. While you are comfortable with Labour allying with the Greens pre-election, and think it is in their best interests to do so, there are a very large number of stalwart labour voters (and MP’s for that matter), who have never had a Green thought in their head, except perhaps on St Patricks day. There are also those swingers who will swing away from Labour to a more centrist party, rather than the left progressive Greens, because they are basically traditionalists. Labour is not Green, something the Green’s are starting to ‘twig’ to, and have broadened there pre-election options to include National. A Greens/National arrangement is more likely than a Labour Greens coalition. Where would that leave your own view about a relationship with the Greens?

    9. By Malcolm on Apr 11, 2014 | Reply

      I thought that the Greens had explicitly ruled out a coalition with National this time around?

    10. By Steven Peters on Apr 11, 2014 | Reply

      There is not a chance of a National Greens coalition. There is a possibility, however, of some form of ‘arrangement’ whereby Green policies are supported by a National led coalition in exchange for support against no confidence motions by Labour /NZ First/ Mana and perhaps Maori parties, if they should this ever arise. The advantage for the Green policies would be their policies get implemented (rather than not), and traditionalist NZ First are excluded from government, as they would not be needed by a National coalition. If the Greens still rule this out (and I hope and suspect they are now ruling it in) after Labour has spurned them once again, only luck will save them from being a convenient doormat. Cruel, but true.

    11. By Sue on Apr 11, 2014 | Reply

      very disappointing

    12. By Jim on Apr 11, 2014 | Reply

      I’m of the opinion that a united Greens Labour bloc would have been a show of strength- something the electorate generally admires. Cunliffe as leader hasn’t shown a lot of that. This Green party has de-hemped a bit and put on a suit ready to do some business. Sod the caucus, ally with the Greens and tell the country you are ready to govern. Then hope they respect that. Mickey mouse with Winny the Poo was what sent Helen down the tubes, or at least partly.

    13. By Jim on Apr 11, 2014 | Reply

      If not playing at National-lite is really your game- stake out your turf and ask the country to respect that and come to you- a la the Nats and asset sales.

    14. By Steven Peters on Apr 11, 2014 | Reply

      Wishful Jim, Labour has opted not to cosy-up to the Greens pre election, probably for reasons that serve their interests. Making its leader the scapegoat doesn’t wash.
      Labour knows that NZ First will not support asset sales too, so they do not need the Greens in coalition or at the Cab table to keep that.
      If the Greens do not make some sort of arrangement with National, they will have no substantive initiatives to show for 3 years. The Greens are not responsible if the NZ electorate puts National in the position to form a coalition government, with or without some sort of arrangement with the Greens. The Greens left wing ideology has nothing to do such things as environmental sustainability, animal rights and welfare, and improved public health policies, for example, areas which could be implemented

    15. By Alma Rae on Apr 11, 2014 | Reply

      I’m a disappointed ex-Labour member. Timidity will not get my vote. Labour supporters want clear left-wing policies, evidence that Labour actually lives in the real world and realises it is in danger of disappearing altogether, and a gutsy return to the left along with an appreciation that the planet is not infinite. So far, a fail on all counts.

    16. By MeanNGreen on Apr 12, 2014 | Reply

      Many swing centrist voters are probably still a bit scared of the Greens. Why would Labour cosy up to them so overtly this far out from the election?

      As Winston kept crowing this was nothing but a stunt by the Greens seeking a bit of limelight. One that has possibly helped to cannibalise the overall share of a leftwing coalition just that little bit more.

      The Greens are seeking centrist votes when perhaps they should be aiming to mobilise non-voters (for them, young people), just as Labour needs to mobilise non-voters in South Auckland with one or two radical policies etc. The Greens have little to gain from cannibalising Labour’s vote only to have more opposition MPs – in order to govern, both parties will need a greater share of votes for the left.

    17. By Dave McArthur on Apr 12, 2014 | Reply

      There is an argument that the Rt Hon Michael Cullen is the worst Finance Minister since the 1935 or earlier. Unlike his predecessors he was informed clearly that our combustion of fossil fuels is unsustainable, especially our wasteful destruction of mineral oil in private cars. He was also informed of how credit systems based on a severe undervaluation of this precious mineral must implode –as they are doing! He jeered at his informants and promoted the destruction and associated implosion by increasing the already huge hidden subsidies to cars, trucks and jet users.
      A trained historian, he knew the Stock Market is totally rigged and destroys real wealth on scale. (Michael Lewis’s new book Flash Boys reveals yet another of its corrupt machinations.) Yet Michael implemented the Cullen Fund, the ETS and KiwiSaver. He thus hugely exposed New Zealanders to the predatory activity of the Stock Market oligarchy while undermining National Super and providing a very powerful rationale for the privatization of our remaining community assets.
      Rt Hon David Parker did much of this destructive work for Michael. Indeed David says Michael is his prime role model and David Cunliffe has chosen him both as his Deputy Leader and Finance spokesperson. It is wrong to dismiss Labour as irrelevant. Labour is a recipe for misery.
      The Green Party became pretty unsustainable too when it rejected pollution taxes and allied itself with Michael and David on issues such as the ETS and KiwiSaver.
      Some Green Party members have temporarily ceased voting for it – instead voting for NZ First in strategic moves to slow asset sales and because Winston speaks the truth when he says the ETS cannot and will not achieve its purpose of reducing pollution.
      At the same time this loss of votes is more than balanced by the votes for the Green Party from non-Green “liberal” people who support the ETS as it is a convenient sop to their conscience about their wasteful, polluting lifestyles.
      Labour directly and the Greens indirectly support the TPPA and the privatization of the Internet. So both parties could well bleed vital votes to a party that articulates its clear support for a democratic Internet, particularly if people suddenly realize how much a completely privatized Internet will put their lives at serious risk. So far there is little sign that NZ First is that party.

    18. By Danyl Strype on Apr 13, 2014 | Reply

      I agree with most of what you say Dave, but this bit is a filthy smear.:
      “the Greens indirectly support the TPPA and the privatization of the Internet”

      The Greens have consistently *both* opposed the back-room negotiation style and – unlike Labour – exposed and opposed the true purpose of the TPPA; further control of our resources and our lives by Pax Americana. The Greens also have ICT policies which support a free and open internet, free code/ open source software etc. Gareth Hughes was one of the few MPs who understood and challenged the strengthening of the Copyright Act for the benefit of the corporate media oligopoly.

      It sounds to me like you are unfairly bagging the Greens in a way that is intended to create support for the Internet Party. I actually support the IP and I’m thrilled to see the possible alliance with Mana, but nothing would turn me off quicker than unfounded attacks on other left parties.

    19. By Dave McArthur on Apr 14, 2014 | Reply

      Human beings have a great capacity to be their own worst enemy, Danyl, and my comments about the Green Party are made in kindness. I admire and value the passion and well-meaning of many of its members. However I have learned from myself that these qualities are not sufficient. The Party does sterling work in a wide range of areas but it is probable all this is undermined by greater subliminal actions.

      For instance, the Green Party has been incapable of articulating the fatal flaws of the Electricity Industry Reforms while Labour imbedded them into the fabric of our national technology. The prime purpose and design of the Reforms is to privatise the intelligence of our electrical grids and turn them into debt generating devices.

      Similarly I can recall no serious critical comment by the Green Party about the menace, which is KiwiSaver. It is the stuff of war, being a device designed to convert our most sustaining national capital into forms that benefit a rich, wasteful oligarchy. Already KiwiSaver has proven to be the perfect socio-political vehicle for privatising the wealth of, for instance, our electrical potential.

      When the Green Party belatedly proposed a referendum on the privatisation of Meridian Energy, Genesis Energy and Mighty River Power, the Labour Party destroyed both the education potential and the intelligibility of the wording. Winston Peters said at the end of the Green-Labour-CTU negotiation: your referendum can’t work because the horses will have bolted by the time any referendum can shut the stable door. He was correct. Basically Green Party members bust their guts promoting further confusion.

      The privatisation of this vital electrical capital was also enabled by the Green Party sponsored Enviroschools programme. Over the last fifteen years this has worked to destroy both the state of science in our schools and the civics necessary for people to understand the immense value of intelligence systems like Meridian etc and how our use of carbon impacts atmospheric balances.

      Finally the Green Party played a pivotal role imbedding the ETS into our national ethos and promoting our abuse of our carbon potential. It would take a book to explain the history of the ETS (Enron – Al Gore), the psychology of the ETS (the ego’s ingenious capacity for denial of stewardship) and its impact on our education system (the destruction of civics).
      In brief: pollution trading schemes are designed to destroy sovereignty, equity and stewardship. They reward polluters and punish non-polluters. The ETS is the antithesis of pollution taxes and is the essence of the proposed TPPA. Probably the most innovative sustainable Government action of the last decade re climate and mineral care is the Gold Card.

      National Party people would be unwise to take any comfort from my comments. In general they have the most to lose from all this. Re. Mr Dotcom. His unsustainable lifestyle will beggar all his good work promoting the democratic use of information. The Left…Right continuum is meaningless. The ultimate measure is if you are a Conservative…Nonconservative of vital resources and minerals.
      I hope my attempts at brevity do not make my response seem too cryptic and dogmatic.

    20. By Steven Peters on Apr 16, 2014 | Reply

      what makes you say ‘Left wing policies are real world policies’?. What do you mean by ‘real’, and whose world are you talking about, your own and fellow travelers?

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