Having turned its caucus room in Parliament Buildings into a
war room staffed almost around the clock by policy wonks,
political strategists, experts in both mass communication and
social media, plus assorted press secretaries - and all in
readiness for the coming general election - the Labour Party
might find itself with another war on its hands before then.
It might be fate has decreed the power struggle between
Labour and the Greens takes centre stage at the worst
possible time for the centre-left.
David Cunliffe's almost contemptuous attitude towards a
supposed ally is bound to have repercussions of some sort.
The question is whether the Greens wait until after the
election, when Mr Cunliffe will need them on board in some
form should he be in a position to cobble a government
The Greens might put the stress on peace, love and
understanding in the resolution of disputes. Their image
might be more flower power than firepower. But the closer the
party gets to seats around the Cabinet table - and thus the
exercising of real power and influence - the more it is
toughening itself up. This week showed why.
Too many small parties have been destroyed while part of
MMP-derived governing arrangements for the Greens to be able
to fool themselves into thinking the worthiness of their
cause makes them exempt from extinction.
Russel Norman, in particular, has shifted into a higher gear
in terms of tenacity in both promoting and defending his
party. He is now de facto leader rather than just co-leader.
He grabs people's attention. And they listen. The same cannot
be said for Labour's leader.
The Greens have been exceptionally patient with Labour in
expectation that a centre-left victory in September will
finally bring long-delayed reward.
They are acutely conscious, however, that time is running out
and Labour has done precious little to fill the empty canvas
on the centre-left from its failure to paint a picture in
voters' minds as to how a Labour-Greens government would
function and what its priorities would be.
Such information is crucial in building voters' confidence
that they will get what they think they are getting, as well
as being an antidote to John Key scaring voters off Labour by
reminding them of the Greens' supposed wackiness.
The Greens' solution was to try to turn the tables on Mr Key
by approaching Labour with a proposal for both parties to
co-operate to a much greater extent in the run-up to the
election and ''brand'' themselves as the
government-in-waiting,The Greens were also testing the extent
of Labour's commitment to working with them in government,
following signs that David Cunliffe was wavering on that
The Greens got their answer from Mr Cunliffe soon enough. It
was not what they wanted to hear. They got a lecture in
semantics - that the next Government would be a
''Labour-led'' one, not a ''Labour-Greens'' coalition - and a
lesson in history - that Labour had been the dominant party
on the centre-left for the past 100 years and thus called the
shots as of right.
Mr Cunliffe made it patently clear in word - and more so by
his tone - that Labour was decoupling itself from the Greens
and would be seeking to ''maximise its share of the vote'' -
a clear coded way of saying it was now open season on
political territory occupied by the Greens.
Neither could Mr Cunliffe muster much enthusiasm when asked
to digress on how Labour would treat the Greens in any
Of course, Mr Cunliffe's remarks were targeted at an audience
of one - Winston Peters. Mr Cunliffe knows he will likely
need both New Zealand First and the Greens to make it to the
swearing-in of a new government .
Mr Peters has choices. The Greens do not.
The quickest way to have Mr Peters running towards National's
camp would be for Labour to get tied down in some
pre-election arrangement with the Greens.
Again, some of this pre-election jostling by Labour can be
explained by Labour not wanting to make itself an easy target
for Mr Key.
But it cuts much deeper than that. Labour does not trust the
Greens and believes that party is seeking to supplant it.
Labour desperately needs to lift its poll ratings, otherwise
Mr Cunliffe's claims of Labour's superiority will sound
And he is personally under huge pressure to increase Labour's
share of the vote which (embarrassingly for him) has fallen
below the levels achieved by David Shearer during his tenure.
The centre-left parties need to expand their share of the
overall vote to worry Mr Key - rather than cannibalising one
The net result of this week's wrangling is to reduce the
centre-left's share even more. Voters hate disunity. The
message most voters would have picked up is that Labour no
longer wanted to work with the Greens.
The Greens deserved better. Mr Cunliffe could have sounded
less dismissive and more accommodating.
He could have accepted a much more limited pre-election
understanding. Something symbolic, like Jim Anderton's
invitation to Helen Clark to speak at the Alliance's
conference a year before the 1999 election.
Labour's pursuit of power dictates what happens. It dictates
that Labour be hostage to Mr Peters for the next five months
- but with no guarantee that such obedience will make even
the tiniest bit of difference as to whether he ultimately
favours the centre-right or centre-left.
How that squares with Labour's proud history is something Mr
Cunliffe may be loath to explain.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political