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

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.