To borrow Neil Armstrong’s never-to-be-forgotten dictum: it is one small step for the Greens; it is one giant leap for the Labour Party.
No doubt some activists in both parties will question whether their respective leaders have made the correct call in signing a ground-breaking co-operation agreement, which initially seemed more sizzle than sausage.
In Labour”s case in particular, there will have been much pondering already within party ranks as to whether that leap is forwards — or backwards.
However, the beaming smiles on the faces of delegates and their sustained applause which greeted Andrew Little’s speech to last weekend’s Green Party AGM spoke for both parties.
The agreement has sent a lightning bolt through the centre-left which has lifted morale to levels not seen since Helen Clark’s heyday. The announcement of the new accord may also have been well-timed.
The centre-left finally seems to be getting its act together just as the third-term National-led Government is showing an increasing inclination to imbibe from the cup containing the fatal cocktail of arrogance,expediency and more than a little incompetence.
The co-operation agreement includes a memorandum of understanding detailing how the agreement will work. It is a pretty innocuous document. It contains the standard “no surprises” and “agree to disagree” clauses; the former to ensure the smooth running of what has at times been a pretty cantankerous relationship, the latter in order for each party to preserve its independence.
The significance of the document resides in its very existence, it took just one week for its tentative and timid contents to be displaced by confirmation that Labour will defintely go into coalition with the Greens if the numbers fall their way on election night next year.
Winston Peters has dismissed the co-operation agreement as “worthless”. But then he would. He stands to be the big loser from the reconciliation occurring to the left of New Zealand First.
Labour and the Greens are sending an unambiguous message to Peters that they will function as coalition partners during any negotiations on government formation following the election.
Peters might not like being in any governing arrangement which includes the Greens. Well, too bad. Peters can take it or leave it. But should there be a swing to the left which is large enough to change the government with the assistance of New Zealand First, then Peters will have to have a darned good reason to block such a change.
What would be the value for him helping to keep an increasingly tired-looking fourth-term National government in power — a government furthermore which would be deprived of John Key’s political magic earlier rather than later in the next parliamentary term as the current Prime Minister more than likely quits domestic politics for challenges afresh.
If Peters was still refusing to be in formal coalition with the Greens, he could reach an agreement with Labour which resulted in New Zealand First being part of an overall governing arrangement which meant Labour alone handled relations with Peters.
That model was first used by Clark in 2005 when she set up a minority government which had Peters’ backing on confidence motions, but which still allowed New Zealand First to hold ministerial portfolios despite not being a component party in that minority government.
That model has not been tested in circumstances where the major party has to satisfy two other parties holding a respectable number of seats. That might be far trickier. There would only be a set number of portfolios to distribute. Labour would have to give priority to the Greens. While Labour would ensure Peters’ personal wishes were accommodated, his party colleagues might find jobs for them being scarce in number and desirability.
Alternatively, New Zealand First could sit on Parliament’s cross-benches to preserve a high degree of independence or even abstain on confidence motions and Budget matters in order to appear even more non-aligned. Assuming the next election will be Peters’ swan song, confining himself to the cross-benches would be a less than satisfying way to complete his long career in politics.
What is not in doubt — as political scientist Jon Johansson aptly put it — is that Labour and the Greens have walked through a door together. That door has slammed shut behind them. There is no turning back. But there is no danger of that happening. Instead, there has been seemingly unstoppable rush forward, as if the two parties feel a need to make up for the wasted years of Opposition.
In the week or so since the agreement was signed in Parliament’s old Legislative Council chamber, Little’s public stance on the co-operation agreement has shifted markedly. Initially, the Labour leader declared his party’s new relationship would not necessarily be “monogamous” — an implied reference to the likely need for Labour to reach some kind of accommodation with New Zealand First to be able to govern.
Little was also non-committal about what status and role the Greens would have in post-election negotiations.
However, hIs speech to the Greens’ AGM removed any doubts that the two parties would be coalition partners. By this week, he was going as far as confirming there will be Green ministers in any Cabinet he forms.
All of that is predicated on Labour’s and the Greens’ combined share of the vote matching or coming close to National’s. With National still riding high on 48 per cent against Labour on 29 per cent and the Greens on 12 per cent, Tuesday’s One News-Colmar Brunton poll suggested it was very much business as usual despite the Labour-Greens pact.
But closing that gap is not insurmountable. Interestingly, the polling period straddled the announcement of the agreement. When those polled after the announcement are taken in isolation from the overall result, support for Labour jumped by 5 percentage points from the pre-announcement level of 26 per cent to 31per cent. New Zealand First slid from 11 per cent to just 7 percent. National rose slightly, while the Greens slipped slightly. But only the Labour and New Zealand changes were deemed as being statistically significant.
It is easy to read too much into this poll. But it might ease the fears of those Labour MPs who consider the co-operation accord to be an open invitation to the Greens to pillage Labour’s core support.
The likelihood of that happening is overstated. The Greens failed to lift their share of the overall vote at the last election despite the plunge in support for Labour. With the polls showing backing for the Greens remaining static, the party’s always fanciful dream of supplanting Labour as the major party on the centre-left is no longer even on the back-burner.
Likewise the oft talked about notion of moving far closer to the centre so that the party could partner National instead of always being hostage to Labour’s fortunes. The Greens’ adherence to principles of social justice are as strong as its environmental ethic. Propping up a minority National administration would have torn the Greens asunder.
But absolute adherence to principle has come at an increasing practical cost.
Despite having been in Parliament for close to two decades, the party has little to show for it in terms of concrete achievements. Having been in Opposition throughout that time, the Greens are now hungry for power — very, very hungry. But before they could even dare to hope of getting their feet under the Cabinet table alongside Labour’s, the latter party has had to be taught a couple of expensive lessons.
The first is that regardless of what kind of deal that the two parties might or might not strike with Peters after the coming election, Labour and the Greens need to project themselves as a viable “government in waiting”.
Voters need to have some idea of what a Labour-Greens administration would resemble and what its priorities would be.
The second lesson is that allowing Peters to continue to play divide-and-rule with the parties on the centre-left through his refusal to have any truck with the Greens is a fast route to nowhere.
Labour now realizes that the party’s tactics prior to the 2014 election were counter-productive to say the least.
David Cunliffe, the then Labour leader, engaged in the ultimate exercise in futility —trying to woo Peters ahead of election day in the vain hope the New Zealand First leader would smile more kindly on Labour should he become the kingmaker in post-election coalition talks.
Knowing Peters would have no truck with the Greens, Cunlffe believed he could shut them out of a governing arrangement which included New Zealand First.
And with good reason. The Greens would have had little choice but to support a Labour-New Zealand First minority government, at least on confidence motions. Not to do so would have resulted in that government collapsing and likely replaced by something much worse in the Greens’ world view — a resurrected National-led administration.
To avert such a scenario, the Greens offered their supposed ally a similar non-aggression pact to the one in place now. But Cunliffe rebuffed the approach. That was a major strategic gaffe. He had the good grace to later admit he had made a mistake in rejecting the Greens’ offer.
It also may have been wiser had the Greens kept the lid on the whole deal until it was signed and sealed. Both parties desperately needed to convince voters they could work together.They instead did the opposite.
The centre-right parties, meanwhile, had been providing ample evidence of their capacity to provide stable government.
The awful atmospherics generated by Labour’s offhand treatment of the Greens and the latter party’s tendency to play holier than thou games of one-upmanship to taunt Labour for making compromises over some policy matters are gone.
They have been replaced over the past week or so by the intoxicating power of something unique to the political left. That something is solidarity.
The memorandum of understanding is accordingly being widely hailed as “historic”. The two parties have previously worked together in a piecemeal fashion on matters of mutual interest, such as opposing privatisation and holding an inquiry into the future of domestic manufacturing in a global economy.
Back in 2006 when Labour was in power, a very different and constitutionally questionable co-operation agreement allowed Jeanette Fitzsimmons and Sue Bradford to be in charge of a couple of minor government programmes despite the two Green MPs strictly being in Opposition.
In return, Labour received assurances from the Greens that if necessary, they would back Helen Clark’s minority government on confidence and supply motions.
It was Clark’s insurance to cover any walk out by New Zealand First from the governing arrangement she had cobbled together with Peters
The latest agreement will be historic if it works for both parties. The initial flush of enthusiasm must be followed up with some adroit positioning on some matters so that their combined impact is far more than the simple sum of their parts.
That is currently the case with the Opposition blitzkrieg on National which is being slowly throttled by the multi-headed hydra that is the Auckland housing crisis.
The shortage of affordable homes to rent or buy has exposed chronic levels of social deprivation. The centre-left parties are discerning a shift in the public mood which will increasingly put Labour and the Greens much more in sync with middle New Zealand on an issue which may well be at the heart of next next year’s election — whether forecast Budget surpluses should be used to fund tax cuts or be shoveled into addressing the deficits in the country’s social and economic infrastructure.
There will be matters where either party will still be able to speak its mind — the Greens, for example, on climate change.
But it is also contingent on the Greens to illustrate the policy areas where they are willing to make significant compromises. The level of defence spending and the type of military hardware purchased is an obvious example.
It is of major significance that the Greens have acknowledged that the two most powerful positions in any government — that of prime minister and finance minister — will be in Labour’s hands.
But the big question remains: what exactly will Labour get out of its new agreement with the Greens? To provide an answer may require asking what will happen if the two parties failed to co-operate. Labour will be acutely conscious that they risk catching — or may have already caught — the same crippling disease which is afflicting other like-minded social democratic parties elsewhere, especially in Europe.
Those parties’ problems have a familiar ring. They are finding environmental lobbies being turned into political movements on their left while parties led by populist figures are similarly squeezing them on their right.
They are struggling to find ways of making themselves relevant when more traditional parties have adopted more middle-of-the-road policies —just as John Key has — and rebranded themselves under the banner of ” caring conservatism”.
Like Labour in New Zealand, the share of the vote enjoyed by those social democratic has plummeted. The question is whether that drop in support is cyclical or permanent.
Labour cannot afford to hang around to find out. Little and his Labour colleagues are punting that the size of the Green vote has reached its zenith. But that is a big punt.
Some voters may well opt for the Greens if that only affects the shape of the coalition rather than stopping it from happening.
If Labour and the Greens look like they could change the government,then middle-ground voters who previously backed National might switch to Labour in order to reduce the leverage that the Greens would have in a centre-left coalition.
Or so Labour would hope. The imponderables are many. But nothing will stop National from endlessly repeating that accommodating the Greens will inevitably pull Labour to the left.
In that regard, there is a risk that MPs on the left of the Labour caucus try to exploit the presence of similarly-minded Green MPs to try to get the Labour leadership to adopt radical policies.
That would only provide more sustenance to those who argue that Labour has yet to offer compelling reasons why centre-ground voters who have yet to be given a should be bothered to get back in touch with Labour.
Little needs to make far greater endeavour to trump Key in that centre-ground and, if possible, surprise National’s leadèr by taking positions on issues which outflank Key on his right.
Little has done that on immigration. That has drawn criticism. He should ignore it. He may not feel comfortable in doing so. But Labour lost the 2008 election for the perceived crime of exhibiting too much political correctness. Little should leave the market for namby-pambyism to the Greens.
His task is to pull votes away from New Zealand First and National. That means — as Key has shown in abundance — walking the talk of what is by and largely conservative-minded middle New Zealand. But can he?