Sharp Focus: An alarming lack of spin-control by Labour and the Greens meant that for several days the story of their "understanding" went flapping-off in all directions – many of them extremely negative. It was only after Andrew Little had delivered his rip-roaring speech to the Greens’ AGM, and been eloquently seconded by the Green co-leader, James Shaw, that the virtues of the new relationship finally came into focus.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT LAST WEEK of an “understanding” between Labour and the Greens demonstrated the critical importance of spin-control. Given less than an hour’s notice that something big was in the offing, most – perhaps all – of the Parliamentary Press Gallery was left guessing.
Given that journalists, no less than Cabinet Ministers, hate surprises, this was remarkable. Worse still, it was the sort of behaviour that makes journalists wonder why they expend so much energy building relationships of trust and confidence with senior politicians and their spin-doctors.
If something big is looming, the expectation of the fourth estate is that it will be given slightly more than an hour’s warning. A little help in answering those five all-important questions – What? Who? When? Where? Why? – while not mandatory, is also appreciated.
The major consequence this curious deficiency in spin-control from Labour and the Greens is that for several days the story went flapping-off in all directions – many of them extremely negative. It was only on Saturday, after Andrew Little had delivered his rip-roaring speech to the Greens’ AGM, and been eloquently seconded by the Green co-leader, James Shaw, that the virtues of the Red-Green “understanding” finally came into focus.
Whatever the reason for Labour’s and the Greens’ initial failures in communication (and there are some intriguing explanations currently doing the rounds) the clear priority, now, is for the news media to continue debating the political meaning of this new Red-Green entente.
The most important question arising out of this debate is: Will the new relationship grow or shrink the combined Labour-Green Party Vote?
The current journalistic consensus holds that it will shrink.
Under the new relationship, runs this argument, the Greens can only increase their support at Labour’s expense; leaving Labour to grow its vote at the expense of National and NZ First. This strategy is unlikely to bear the required electoral fruit, however, because neither National nor NZ First voters will embrace a government-in-waiting which includes the ‘weird and wacky’, ‘Far Left’, Greens.
Those advancing this argument go further: insisting that not only will Labour be unable to attract the 5-10 percentage points it needs from National and NZ First if it and the Greens are to win a plurality of the Party Vote, but also that Labour’s more conservative supporters – alarmed by their party’s new relationship with the ‘weird and wacky’, ‘Far Left’, Greens – will desert Labour for the altogether more familiar fleshpots of Winston Peters and the Tories.
The alternative – much more optimistic – argument in favour of the new relationship takes as its starting-point an alleged majority of voters’ disquiet with the way New Zealand society is developing. This disquiet, it is claimed, extends right across the traditional political spectrum. It is fuelled by a deep concern that the nation has lost its way: that far too many New Zealanders are turning their faces from the demonstrable distress of their fellow citizens; and that unless there is an immediate and radical change of direction, then the country they grew up in, the country they love, will become unrecognisable.
For a change in voting behaviour on this scale to have the slightest hope of occurring, Labour and the Greens will have to convince the electorate that the 2017 election is not going to be a battle between Left and Right, but between simple human decency and self-centred social indifference.
The choice Labour-Green needs to be offering voters is: to start moving forward again as a nation; or, to continue the present downward slide into more inequality, more poverty.
Crucial to the success of this strategy will be the degree to which the Labour-Green alliance can convince the nation that it’s the Right – not the Left – who have become slaves to an ideology. Labour and the Greens must persuade voters that theirs are the policies offering practical, common-sense solutions; and that if New Zealanders want to be part of a progressive future, then they must reject the regressive policies of a ruthless, market-driven dogma that is demonstrably failing.
The great virtue of this argument is that it reserves for Winston Peters and his voters an honourable and influential role in the destruction of the present government, as well as in constructing the next.
John Key’s reign will not be ended by one party, or two. It’s going to take the whole Opposition.
UPDATE: Following the announcement of the Red-Green "understanding", Colmar-Brunton's pollsters registered a statistically significant shift towards Labour of approximately 5 percentage points. This additional support had, however, come at the expense of NZ First and the Greens. National's support hardly budged. It is, of course, early days, but this result suggests that the anti-Government vote is beginning to consolidate around the Labour Party, as those who had more-or-less given up on Labour ever getting its act together thankfully return to the fold. - C.T.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 June 2016.