There’s a lot of talk at the moment about whether Labour is too close to the Greens. National’s ridiculous spin is the Greens are leading Labour. Lately, we’ve seen spin coming out (presumably from Labour) that Labour might be able to govern without the Greens, favouring NZF instead. Meanwhile, the Greens seem happy to talk about a future Greens-Labour government. National’s leaking to Peters. And Peters is playing the race card. What’s going on?
In substantive terms, not a hell of a lot. No one’s moving their policies left or right. This is about shaping the public’s notion of the options for the next government.
Key has no mates and, after 5 years of promising a brighter future and not delivering, no credible vision. National’s support is falling into the mid-40s; he can’t hope to govern alone. ACT’s dead. Dunne may be gone too now – he has no party and no credibility. At best, Key can hope that New Zealand First will get back in and go his way.
So, Key desperately needs to wedge NZF from Labour and he needs to scare soft-National voters from going Labour.
The answer to that is go negative and portray Labour as tied to the Greens, and the Greens as wacky. National’s spin could easily backfire. Lets look a scenario where Labour is on 38% ish, National is, say 42%, and the Greens are on 13%. It’s clear that the election is going to go to Labour and that they’ll need the Greens. Meanwhile, National’s screaming ‘vote Shearer, get Norman’. What do you do if you’re a soft Nat in that scenario? Well, maybe, you vote Labour to moderate the Greens’ influence on them. That kind of strategic voting has happened before.
At the same time, Key needs to cuddle up to NZF, that’s why National gave Peters the inside word on Dunne’s leaking of the GSCB report – Dunne was going down anyway, this way it gave Peters the satisfaction of claiming his scalp. National will be hoping he remembers the favour. I wouldn’t bank on it. And it’s risky, right? Will Peters even get back in? Last time it was only lefties desperate to avoid a large wasted vote that got him over the line – Key would have to give a similar signal to his (diminishing) support base to send some votes Peters’ way. All of this means Key having to tie himself closer and closer to a man he has said is unsuitable for government.
Now, Labour’s not actually going to swing Right. They can’t. The caucus wouldn’t sign off on anything rightwing, the spokespeople wouldn’t be able to make the case for anything rightwing, and if they lose any more faith with the activists they’ll have no party machine left. Look at the facts. Yes, Shearer has made rhetorical overtures to the Right but Labour’s big policies – KiwiBuild, NZ Power, universal child payment – are distinctly of the Left.
But Labour doesn’t want to be seen as stuck with the Greens if the Right is going to concentrate on branding the Greens as nutty. Also, Labour wants to show Peters that he can get a better deal with them. To that end, they’re signalling that they could refuse to offer the Greens ministerial portfolios in favour of giving Peters real power in a Labour-led government.
Of course, that assumes that Peters gets back and, even more unlikely, assumes that Labour + NZF will make a majority or that the Greens will happily offer supply and confidence despite the Beehive doors being closed to them…. how likely are the Greens to accept that kind of outcome and would Labour really risk not being able to govern on some crazy scheme to get the much less reliable and less politically compatible NZF instead? Of course not, but this isn’t about reality, it’s about voters’ perceptions. Labour wants to make people think that they might govern without necessarily having the Greens in government with them, but they would.
Well, any faint belief that the Greens could make a deal with National after the next election is gone now, eh? Russel Norman didn’t go and make that big attack on John Key’s fitness to be a Prime Minister of New Zealand by accident. It was a strategic move that says: we’re the real opposition to National.
It’s a clear positioning move on the Greens’ part. They know that they’re in a weak bargaining position – to Labour’s Left with no real possibility of working with National even before Norman’s speech. So, they’re going to bill themselves as the real alternative to National and attempt to suck up as much of the Left vote as possible from a weak and ambivalent Labour. That will, then, give them more bargaining power when it comes to dealing with Labour. Do they have the nasty bargaining power to cut a hard deal with Labour after the election? Maybe not, but they’re sending the signal that they’re going to make sure that Labour needs them.
The tricky part for the Greens is that they want credibility and they want to be the muscular opposition – but when they’re too muscular they get branded wacky by the forces of conservatism (the newspaper editorials etc) and National. If they play it smart, they’ll play safe in the run up to the election. They’ve laid out that they’re the alternative, so there’s no need for more QEs, no more ‘Key is Muldoon’, it’ll just be about building the cred.
On the face of it, New Zealand First is in a great position, the kingmakers. They’re working with Labour and the Greens on the manufacturing inquiry (when’s that wrapping up?) and Peters is strongly critical of the government. Yet there’s clearly a wink and nod from Peters that he could work with National. In fact, he’s clearly working with National – he got the leak about Dunne’s leaking of the GCSB inquiry. Where from? From National, of course. And he got to get rid of a competitor for the centre vote – he and National now get to jointly feast on the carcass of United Future, albeit slim pickings.
But it’s not so easy. Peters has got to leave both options open while still providing a robust opposition. So, out comes the race-card. Both sides were going to reject Peters’ anti-China speech. It took the economic nationalism of the Left to a dark place that they will not go. And the modern Right is above overt racism, especially towards a huge trade partner. Peters skillful showed the racists that neither Left nor Right really represent them, he does.
However, if Peters goes too extreme in areas that neither National or Labour will touch, he makes it very hard for them to say that they can work with him post-election. If it gets too bad, then one of them will take the first mover advantage and rule out working with him – especially if it looks like he might not get over the 5% mark. And he’s more likely to not look like getting over the 5% mark if a) people considering voting for him don’t know who he would put into government and b) the media keeps on writing him off or treating him with disdain as they did after the China speech. You won’t have liberals voting for him to prevent National getting a majority as they did in 2011.
So, complex machinations. National trying to buddy up with the man Key has said is unfit for government. Labour trying to show that they prefer NZF too, while actually being closer to the Greens and knowing that they would have to work with them. The Greens trying to make themselves the first call for people looking for ‘a real opposition’ while trying not to give ammo for the Right to label to them wacky. The important thing (especially for Lefties who get worried when they see Labour trying to distance itself from the Greens) is that this is all about appearances to set up options post-election, there’s not actual policy moves going on here.