Friday 8 June 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

Only A Superficial Likeness: With the electoral logic of the 2014 General Election driving Labour and the Greens in opposite ideological directions, the prospect of David Shearer and Russel Norman negotiating a viable (let alone a durable) coalition agreement grows steadily more remote.

THE BURDENS OF SUCCESS are often as heavy, or heavier, than the dead weight of failure. Contemplating the latest poll results, the Greens could be forgiven for thinking that their party’s rising level of public support contains as many risks as it does rewards.

As Labour’s more adventurous supporters abandon David Shearer’s sprawling centrist encampment, their places are being taken by refugees from National’s suddenly inhospitable political territory. If this process continues, the ability of both the Greens and Labour to negotiate a workable coalition agreement in 2014 will steadily diminish.

The Greens’ planning up until now has been based on the assumption that Labour will remain a distinct political destination: a party whose foundations are sufficiently solid to carry the weight of a joint, red/green, policy platform. But what will happen to Labour’s foundations if Mr Shearer decides to make his erstwhile National supporters feel more comfortable?

Was the closed strategy session at last weekend’s Green Party AGM called to address the worrying possibility that, by 2014, Labour may have ceased to be a genuine ideological terminus and become, instead, a place where voters pause, temporarily, on their way to somewhere else?

If Labour does indeed become an electoral transit station, then the political calculus of the 2014 election becomes extremely problematic. The Greens intend to grow their support by offering voters a clear and uncompromising alternative to both Labour and National. But Labour can only replace the voters it loses to the Greens by luring supporters across from National’s ranks.

The two parties that, together, constitute the most likely electoral alternative to the incumbent regime, will, thus, end up working at cross-purposes to one another. To enlarge their electoral base the Greens must appeal to Labour’s left-wing supporters. To make itself more acceptable to National moderates, Labour must move to the right. Instead of drawing closer together, ideologically, these two putative coalition partners will end up moving farther apart.

This ideological disjunction will not be improved by the obvious need for Labour and the Greens to share out the twenty-or-so Cabinet seats between them. If, for example, the Greens attract 15 percent of the Party Vote and Labour 35 percent, Russel Norman will have every right to demand 6 or 7 seats at the cabinet table for his party. Who will Mr Shearer sacrifice? Are the disappointed prospective cabinet ministers more likely to come from the left of his caucus, or the right?

Given that Mr Norman’s choices are all likely to be more left-wing than anyone Labour puts forward, Mr Shearer’s most sensible choice – unless he wants a Cabinet top-heavy with leftist ministers – would be to choose his ministers from Labour’s centre and right-wing factions. Where will this leave David Cunliffe, I wonder? Or Phil Twyford?

Long before the first vote of the 2014 general election is cast, a significant number of Labour politicians will be casting a jealous eye in the direction of their caucus colleagues and asking themselves: “How can I make sure that it’s s/he who misses out and not me?” This is not a question calculated to lift a political party’s morale, or help it come together as a match-fit electoral team.

The Greens, too, will be asking themselves some daunting questions. Most obviously: “How can a party committed to clear and uncompromising economic, environmental and social policies possibly cohere with a party whose policies have been carefully fudged so as not to offend the right-wing prejudices of middle-class suburbia?” And, equally importantly: “How can we prevent six ideologically isolated Green Party cabinet ministers from been drawn into the vortex of collective cabinet responsibility, without (quite impractically) dissenting from virtually every decision the right-wing Labour majority makes?”

How long will it be before the Greens’ cabinet ministers start seeing themselves as half-a-dozen virgins in a brothel?

 “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.” For the Green Party, that time-worn cliché could hardly be more apposite.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 June 2012.


jabba said...

the question is .. what Green MP's will be made Ministers .. Norman and Turei will want the power but who else and what jobs .. how scary

Paulus said...

It is incresingly likely that in 2014 National will have the largest number of seats (and no current coalition parties), which leaves Labour the lead position in forming the Government coalition.
But at what cost ?
Russel Norman has already made his position clear in that he wants Finance, with Turei at MSD.
I am unsure how Labour can not agree to such a proposal.
Am unhappy at the Greens unswerving proposals about the economy. At least Labour are realistic, the Greens are not. They are living in a dream world that only they can sort out.

Unknown said...

Interesting post Chris and I am sure that it will spark some soul searching amongst current MPs.

One aspect that I disagree with is that Labour does not need to glance rightward and persuade those of shifting allegiances to change again. Instead it has to appeal to its core and make sure that more of them vote. Turnout and not swings will win the next election.

If Shearer does move rightward then this will create for any new coalition a period of instability. It would be likely that the cabinet positions are handed out to the right wing and the Greens find they have more in common with Labour backbenchers than it does with the front bench.

And the effect on Labour's rank and file will be disastrous. We are not looking for a slightly paler version of National. We want a progressive alternative that will stand up and face our world's problems head on, not one that will adopt a position that has been focussed grouped to this side of acceptability.

Anonymous said...

Labour and the Greens in power-god is that scary or what! Seems inevitable as the only way the country can see what absolute idiots the Greens are.....

peterpeasant said...

What makes anyone so sure that National will not be the nucleus of the next mmp coalescing?

Anonymous said...

The Greens are very good at appearing to be both right and left at the same time. With a couple of exceptions, the Green MPs would have no problem working with a centre right Labour cabinet. In fact some (like Norman who is not what he seems to be) would quickly start driving Labour even further to the right.

Andrew R said...

The logical coalition for Labour given its current and past behaviour is with National.

Chris Trotter said...

If you're right, Anonymous@8:28 AM, then the Greens are engaged in a massive confidence trick.

The fate of the German Greens awaits them if they pretend to be a party of radical change but, upon attaining office, turn out to be just another bunch of orthodox politicians.

Victor said...

As a Keynesian Social Democrat, my values are not wholly the same as Green values.

But nor are they the same as the those of the ever more mushy Blairite Labour Party.

Nor do they have anything in common with Mana's leftism.

So for whom do I vote?

I have some respect for the Greens' leaders and particularly for Mereteria.

But respecting a party's leaders is not the same as voting for them.

So many parties and so little choice.

Let's hope the situation clarifies before 2014.

Anonymous said...

The fundamental fault line between the Greens and Labour is the issue of economic (ie GDP) growth.

Despite all the trimming of recent times, the Greens still appear to be committed in their opposition to GDP growth as a central economic policy goal.

If the Greens go into coalition with Labour, what happens to this key Green position? (one that goes right back to the Values Party.) However one might try to finesse policy with wordplay, the parties have utterly different economic philosophies.

On this basis, I can only conclude that someone is going to get hurt in a red-green coalition. I suspect that, as in Germany, as Chris noted, it will be the Greens. For the price of a few years at the cabinet table, the Green Party will be blown apart.

The alternative is to play a long game by forcing Labour and National into a grand coalition to expose the bankruptcy of both their pro-growth economic policy platforms.

Olwyn said...

I agree with you mickeysavage, with regard to the dangers of Labour moving too far right. Going by the tone of the leadership change after the election, the right have hung onto the control of the parliamentary party by the skin of their teeth, against the wishes of the members and with just enough support, some of it inveigled, to get their way. If they find themselves in coalition with the Greens, we would end up with a situation where a small number of of right wingers would seek to stamp their authority on a much larger number of left wingers,claiming that they were elected on that basis. The result would be volatile, since even if Norman were to decide to be "responsible" in the right wing sense of the term, many of the MPs he brought in with him would not readily support such a move.

Anonymous said...

Good arguments and it is very confusing as to who will win the next election. I support Winston Peters because I am not impressed with National or the Greens and am watching what Labour will do. Winston is a good opposition leader and hopefully will gain support.

Andy C said...

"Labour may have ceased to be a genuine ideological terminus and become, instead, a place where voters pause, temporarily, on their way to somewhere else?"

Like Australia. Labours core are going west, literaly. Very soon all that will be left are the middle managment. This is why Shearer is leaning right, there may be no one left to appeal to.