Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards. The illusionary Labour-Green alliance
Is it a step forward or backwards? The newly announced Labour-Green alliance is being sold as an important milestone on the way towards the 2017 general election. But rather than creating certainty and clarity about voting options at the next election, the Memorandum of Understanding is rather deceptive.
Do we really know anything more about what we are voting for if we choose Labour or Greens at the next election? The Memorandum of Understanding has been sold as a big new deal, and a major change in how Labour and the Greens will operate. But because it is actually incredibly limited in scope, with few real commitments for either party, it actually raises more questions than it answers. It could make the electoral landscape more confusing and misleading.
A deceptive MoU
Many commentators have pointed out that the new MoU doesn’t tell us anything new, and lacks any real substance. For instance, Patrick Gower says it’s “purely cosmetic. It is all about image” – see: The Labour-Green fuzzy-waffle alliance. He points out the limited nature of the agreement, saying that “It means the Labour-Greens can’t say how a Cabinet would work”, and that in reality “the Memorandum of Understanding is designed to be torn up”, especially when Labour comes to negotiate with Winston Peters.
Similarly, Tim Watkin characterises the agreement as “mostly window-dressing” – see: The Opposition dating game.
The extremely limited nature of the MoU is also emphasised by Vernon Small: “But the big contradiction inherent in the MOU is the agreement to change the Government and present a real alternative. Trouble is, the MOU expires at the election – not even a few weeks after, as the Mana-Internet party one did in 2014. So at the very point an alternative government is being formed, all bets are off. The certainty of that ‘real alternative’ expires as the votes are counted” – see: Labour-Green deal a tricky juggling act, but on balance a boost for Opposition chances.
The New Zealand Herald is quite sceptical about the MoU achieving anything, with its editorial saying, “So what has been agreed, besides the decision to hold a joint press conference and photo opportunity? In the absence of anything more substantial from them, it can only be concluded the occasion was designed to show the two parties are getting along very well these days” – see: Agreement serves dose of reality.
The editorial makes the point that in 20 years of MMP the public has only seen one election that “presented the voters with a pre-conceived coalition”. And that’s a good point – surely voters are better served by political parties being clear about who they would work with after the election. But this agreement is quite the opposite. Labour is still saying that the Green might be cut out of their government, and the Greens are still saying that they might choose National over Labour. This is farcical stuff for voters who want more certainty about what a vote for Labour, the Greens or New Zealand First might mean. People won’t know what they are getting if they vote Labour or the Greens. Do they get a Labour-Green Government? Not necessarily.
Arguments against pre-election coalitions
In arguing against a commitment to a full pre-election coalition, Labour and the Greens have essentially asserted the need to “let the people speak first”, arguing that it’s not the role of leaders to tell voters what they will do after the election results are in. This has always been Winston Peters’ line, too.
It’s deeply anti-democratic. It allows voters to be misled and confused about what they are voting for. Democratic principles dictate that parties should be crystal clear about what they would do after an election. And to make matters worse, the parties – and Peters especially – dress up their anti-democratic position in a populist and nonsensical line about letting the “voters speak”.
Such notions are propounded by Labour’s spin-doctor Rob Salmond, who says “Ultimately the voters deal the cards when they vote, and it’s tricky for a party to play its hand when there’s so much uncertainty over who’ll get which cards” – see his blog post explaining why his party has chosen against a full pre-electoral coalition – see: Labour and the Greens in a tree….
But without a clear pre-election coalition there is public confusion about what personnel and policies are likely to eventuate after election day. On the left, blogger No Right Turn is therefore frustrated that the two parties won’t be clear about spokespeople for the prospective new government: “The other problem is that it is difficult to present as a credible government-in-waiting when you are steadfastly unwilling to talk about who will be filling which Ministerial chair” – see: That alliance.
He elaborates on why this is a problem: “We all know that Jonathan Coleman speaks for the government on health, and Hekia Parata on education, but who speaks for Labour-Greens on these issues? Annette King or Kevin Hague? Chris Hipkins or Catherine Delahunty? Who gets what jobs is the sort of thing people judge a potential government on.”
A bolder agreement?
So should Labour and the Greens come up with a bolder commitment to being in government together? Both parties could have gone for a more honest and useful coalition agreement whereby they promise to work in government together after the election. They could say that they are a “left bloc”, and will work to form a government together, along with any other parties that want to participate, including New Zealand First.
Labour and the Greens are obviously wary of the Winston Peters factor. He will want to negotiate without pre-existing agreements, and Labour and the Greens appear to have given into this type of electoral blackmail.
The left parties would be smarter to establish their commitment to working together after the election, and invite Peters to join them. And he could like it or lump it. For their own sake, Labour and the Greens need to start this narrative at this early stage, saying that they won’t negotiate any notions of cutting the Greens out of government.
The Dominion Post’s verdict on the agreement stresses that the Labour-Greens MoU allows Peters to get his way: “He brags that he won’t be party to any backroom-deals before the election. What this means is that the voters who back him are buying a pig in a poke. Peters will decide the government after the election, presumably on the basis of sheer party-political self-interest, egotism and ambition and all the other unknowable preoccupations of this most exasperating politician” – see the editorial, A Labour-Greens deal is worth trying, but what about Winston?
Likewise, the Greens need to be unequivocal that they would not support or allow a National Government to continue after the next election. At the moment they won’t rule it out – a point made on RNZ by co-leader James Shaw. In fact the Greens co-leaders are reportedly at odds on whether the party might still align with National – see Dan Satherley’s news report and eight-minute video: Greens’ cracks exposed under Paul Henry onslaught.
In lieu of Labour and the Greens being more specific and clear about possible post-election arrangements, there will be others who are willing to speculate. Patrick Gower has come up with a very interesting mock-up of the 20-person Labour-NZF-Greens Cabinet that could eventuate – see: The 2017 Labour-Green-NZ First Cabinet.
Enthusiasm for the “Grabour” MoU
Despite the very limited nature of the Labour-Green MoU, there’s been plenty of positivity about the logic of such a deal. Toby Manhire points out its goal of making the opposition less vulnerable to National’s accusations of being a wobbly and unstable vessel – see his column, All aboard the Laboureen. Manhire had, after all, been an original advocate of such an agreement, writing about it in his April column, Time to huddle for next election.
He also covers some of the (amusing) social media reactions, and even includes a colourful mock-up logo of the new “Grabour” brand in his Spin-off column, Labour and the Greens get into bed, Winston prepares his pyjamas, and other bad metaphors.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Also, Toby Manhire, Selwyn Manning, and Kevin Milne took a favourable view on Radio New Zealand’s Panel with Jim Mora.
ALSO: on EveningReport.nz Selwyn Manning argued in his Across the Ditch bulletin on Australia radio FiveAA: “If at the 2017 General Election the Labour-Green bloc attracted a higher percentage of support than the National Party, then, Winston Peters may just consider the merits of a black-red-green government.”]
Martyn Bradbury has had some criticisms – suggesting, for example that the more colourful title of “The People’s Revolutionary Grand Alliance” should have been used – but mostly celebrates the major impact the MoU could have on how the media and public understand the electoral race. He also argues that the new alliance could have a vital impact in electorates such as Ohariu, Auckland Central, and Waiariki – see: How the Labour Green MoU wins the 2017 election.
You can also watch Bradbury’s 27-minute discussion about the deal from last night with Laila Harre, Robert Reid, Wayne Hope, Keith Locke and myself – see his Waatea 5th Estate TV programme, Left Wing Jedi Council debate the Labour-Green MoU.
Who wins from the new alliance?
There are plenty of different verdicts on which politicians and parties benefit or lose from the new MoU. Claire Trevett suggests that “Labour may also effectively have handed the 2017 election to National on a platter” – see: Labour-Green Party deal a historic agreement, but who wins?
The Greens – and the environment – are the losers according to Rachel Smalley, who argues that New Zealand needs a green party in the centre of the political spectrum – see: The Greens should be prepared to work with both the left and the right.
Others say that Labour loses from the agreement, and it represents Andrew Little’s desperation. For example, Chris Trotter lists his problems with the deal: “the Labour and Green parties have announced their new “Understanding” far too soon; without preparing the electorate or priming the news media; without securing real and valuable gains for both partners; without carefully gauging the reaction of both their members and their voters; and without having straightforward answers to journalists’ straightforward (and entirely predictable) questions” – see his blog post, Unconvinced: Why Chris Trotter Is So Sceptical About The Labour-Green “Understanding”.
And Matthew Hooton, writing in the NBR today, says the MoU represents a major loss for Labour, with a boost for the Greens. In his paywalled column, Peters biggest winner from red-green pact, Hooton says that in making the deal, “Little was publicly acknowledging that there will never again be a Labour-dominated government in the mould of the Clark, Lange, Fraser or Savage regimes.”
Hooton lays out the problems for Labour in the deal: “the pact has at least five likely electoral effects, all of them disadvantageous to Labour. It licenses left-wing Labour voters to tick Green, drives centrist Labour voters to National, prevents centrist National voters from crossing over to Labour, sends a few Green-voting Remuera doctors’ wives back to National, yet solidifies the vast bulk of the Greens’ existing support by eliminating fears the Greens could coalesce with National. Labour is also now at risk of losing MPs from what could be called its Shane Jones faction to NZ First. The Greens can anticipate a net increase in their polling, as can National, but the pact is all downside for Labour.”
There’s been a lot of speculation about how the MoU could lead to electoral deals that change the political landscape in key marginal seats, especially the Ohariu seat – see, for example, Dan Satherley’s Does the Labour-Greens alliance spell doom for Peter Dunne? But such a scenario seems unlikely, as David Farrar points out in his blog post, Will Labour not stand in Ohariu?
Finally, for satire on the strange agreement that didn’t really change anything, see Andrew Gunn’s The leaked Labour/Greens pre-nup.