Gordon Campbell on the rise of Laila Harré

So much for those – me included – who had viewed the Internet Party as the chaotic, chronically disorganised plaything of Kim Dotcom, and unlikely to last the distance until Election Day. The partnership with the Mana Party (the two parties will share a combined list) and the selection of Laila Harré as Internet Party leader have now made the new Internet Mana Party into a force to be reckoned with, on several fronts.

Firstly, the merger with Mana and the selection of Harré are steps that re-inforce each other, and they needed to occur in unison. (A puppet leader from the Internet geekzone could have been disastrous for the entire project.) For all the talk about Dotcom’s money – and of course, it will be useful – there are more important factors driving this arrangement. To his credit, Hone Harawira saw from early on that Mana needed to transcend the virtuous niche to which it had consigned itself at birth. (The left is very good at railing, and failing, self-righteously.) It needed a circuit breaker if it was ever going to replace the Maori Party and put its own priorities onto the Cabinet agenda of the next government. The engagement with Dotcom now lends Harawira (a) the resources and (b) the national profile necessary to transform Mana from being merely a regional player on the sidelines of parliamentary politics.

In turn, the union with Mana – and this is where Harré’s selection is such a genius move – also gives the Internet Party much broader appeal. Mana will supply a good deal of the social policy agenda, and Harré is someone able to project it very credibly, alongside Harawira. The fine details of party policy on health, job creation and other social issues will come later. Yet Harré’s prior experience with trade unions, with Auckland local body politics, with parliamentary coalition politics, with a feminism that saw her pass the original paid parental leave legislation etc etc will ensure that a social justice agenda compatible with Mana will exist, and it will have real teeth. What we are seeing is the evolution of the Internet Party from a Net-based oasis with a few social justice trimmings on the side, into a social justice party with a defining focus on Internet freedoms and delivery. (Dotcom’s extradition hinges on the government’s abuse of laws on copyright by which it is treating a civil offence at best, as a criminal one.) Offhand, to hard to think of who else on the New Zealand political left could have brought about this level of brand change, almost overnight. Matt McCarten?

Early days yet, but voters on the centre left now seem likely to have a third option on polling day. Women voters in particular, will have the potent motivation to vote Internet/Mana and thereby get two strong women – Laila Harré and Annette Sykes – into Parliament. This situation is virgin territory for the Greens, and it throws a spanner into their election planning. Until now, the Greens were the ONLY centre left alternative to Labour. Such that when Labour looked like a lost cause – as in 2011 – the Greens vote increased as centre-left voters consoled themselves by voting with the hearts for the party that felt closer to their core values.

Indeed, the centre-left has become so used to Labour looking like a lost cause – hello and goodbye to Phil Goff, David Shearer and now it seems David Cunliffe as well – that the Greens may have become complacent about their natural level of support. Internet Mana will need to get only a small amount of traction to put Greens high fliers such as current MP Holly Walker and talented aspirant James Shaw in real danger of missing the cut. So…instead of a Labour down/Greens up (and vice versa) dualism, the centre-left vote now looks like a three-dimensional hologram.

National can hardly bitch and moan about this outcome either. For nearly 15 years, it campaigned loud and long against the evils of MMP and railed for a review of its shortcomings. Yet then Justice Minister Judith Collins promptly and cynically shelved the MMP review findings, once National realised that the review’s main recommendation – that the electorate seat coat-tails now being used by Harawira and Dotcom should be abolished – would hurt its own chances of getting Colin Craig and his Conservatives and the Act Party’s latest minion in Epsom onside, and into Parliament. If the Mana/Dotcom arrangement looks like cynical pragmatism, it is merely par for the course.

The real key player in all of the above is the Labour Party and its Te Tai Tokerau candidate Kelvin Davis. If Harawira loses in Te Tai Tokerau, as much as 4% of the centre left vote nationwide could be lost, and go in the wasted vote dustbin. It will be National’s interest to urge the 1,814 Te Tai Tokerau voters who voted National in 2011 to vote for Kelvin Davis this time, in order to erase Harawira’s 1,165 majority and thereby sink a large chunk of the centre-left vote, nationwide. It is in Labour’s self interest NOT to make that happen. Logic and political nous in an MMP environment demand that Labour should now quietly decide to run a fairly token effort in Te Tai Tokerau, and put a good recruit like Davis into a safe position on the Labour list.

That may not happen. Labour may just be mule-headed enough – and tribally fixated on the FPP-era of politicking – to try and get rid of Harawira at all costs, and thereby torpedo one of its main chances of forming the next government. The centre-left can only do so by growing the vote. On top of all the above considerations, Internet Mana offers a very, very good mechanism for growing the centre-left vote (especially among young voters) rather than merely cannibalising it. The centre-left could expend a lot of effort attracting young voters – only to render those efforts meaningless by a dog-in the-manger FPP response. Ironically, one of the bigger threats to Dotcom’s efforts to topple the National-led government, could well be the Labour-led Opposition.

Message From (Another) One-Man Band
I don’t know if the centre-left has a campaign song in mind for the election, but Wilbert Harrison’s wonky epic should be considered as an option….c’mon people, get on the ball and work together. Harrison had an even bigger hit with “ Kansas City” over a decade before he recorded this version of a lyric that originally went “Let’s Stick Together” but ended up as “ Lets Work Together” (i.e. if sticking together via an externally enforced unity is no longer possible, co-operation still should be.) Hard to tell whether it’s a good sign or not – politically speaking – that Harrison played as a one man band, playing guitar, drums and hi-hat, harmonica and singing via various devices, all at once.