Opinion: Labour's war room could face a stormin' Dr Norman

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 together.

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 question .

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 post-election negotiations.

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 increasingly hollow.

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 another's holdings.

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 correspondent.

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