On the M.O.U.

I’m a bit late to the party on the Labour/Greens M.O.U. but letting the dust clear a little before passing judgement is perhaps not such a bad thing.

The M.O.U. had to happen. And the sooner the better. Not because it means a lot in terms of the Green and Labour working more closely – they already were – but because that relationship is now publicly codified and it’s now very clear that there’s a forty-percent-plus block that balances out National’s vote.

Some in the commentariat have made a big deal about how this is Labour giving in.

It isn’t.

If anything it’s Labour getting stronger. It’s a given now that not only will Labour’s machine work to make Andrew Little the next Prime Minister, but the Greens’ machine will as well.

Effectively Little is now leading a voting block that is within striking distance of becoming Government.

And that’s something Winston Peters is now going to have to deal with.

Because despite the pundits claiming this makes Peters stronger, what it actually does is put him into a corner. When, for example, he dogwhistles against a minority such as Muslims, he’s whistling in the wind – because whatever argument he’s making goes nowhere if it’s not backed by either Labour/Greens or John Key’s National party.

A Labour party at 29% could feasibly kowtow to Peter’s cynicism (I don’t think they would, but desperation makes anything possible). But a Labour/Greens block at 43% doesn’t have the same pressure. When you represent nearly half of all New Zealanders it’s much easier to say no. And it carries a lot more weight.

That creates an uncomfortable situation for Key. The numbers are most likely going to mean a fourth term National Government will be a National/NZ First coalition – that’s received wisdom.

That means that if the Green/Labour block – particularly Andrew Little – knock back Peters’ headline grabbing, there’s going to be more and more pressure on Key to engage with it. That’s pressure Key doesn’t want or need – he’s busy enough trying to put some shine back on his ailing liberal brand without getting caught up in debates about Muslims, or Asians, or Māori or whatever drum Peters is banging for attention this week or next.

Now I know there’ll be some within Labour who are afraid of upsetting Peters by pushing back on him occasionally, but they need to get over themselves and start thinking like price makers instead of price takers. Headline-grabbing cynicism aside, New Zealand First’s policy platform aligns a lot more closely with Labour and the Greens’ platform than it does with National. And Peters is a professional – he’s been around and he’ll make the decision on who he goes with based on the numbers post 2017 and what leverage they give him to get what he wants.

Anyone who doubts that should remember that it was only a few years ago that John Key’s dirty politics team ran a rabid and personal attack campaign on Peters that saw him exit politics for a term. A campaign that presumably had the Nats’ sign off. Key’s people humiliated Peters yet Winston can’t and won’t rule out going with them – if he did he’d lose the illusory power he has.

Things have changed with the M.O.U. They’ve changed because Andrew Little has re-staked his claim as leader of the opposition and has brought together a power base that rivals the Prime Minister’s in terms of the number of New Zealanders it represents. Having watched Little throughout his time in the union movement and in politics, I’m expecting he’ll use that power well to create change – it’s something he’s always done.

What that all adds up to, despite what some pundits have claimed, is a harder time for Winston and bad news for Key.

Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.

The Labour/Greens deal

Well, that all seems straightforward enough.

There are varied opinions on the value of a formal Labour/Greens arrangement. Like: it’s superfluous because it’s so obvious they’ll work together post-any winnable election, and they’ve already done things like announce joint policy before. Or: it’s absolutely necessary to send a clear signal to voters before the next election, and frankly they’re all a pack of dunces for not doing it sooner, or in 2014, or 2011, or the minute the result was announced on the second MMP referendum in 1993.

It’s either: exactly like the Epsom cup of tea deal because you want to attack the Opposition for being undemocratic and conniving, or: it’s nothing like the Epsom cup of tea deal because you want to attack the Government for being undemocratic and conniving.

It’s either: a terrible idea for Labour because they’ll lose votes aligning themselves with those wacky pot-smoking weirdos, or: it’s a great idea for Labour because it sends a strong signal to the left base. And it’s: a terrible idea for the Greens because they’re selling out to the mainstream, or: strategic genius to show they’re ready to sit at the grown-ups table.

And judging by the way the press conference yesterday went, whether the cat is alive or dead depends entirely on What Winston Will Do.

I just wonder how much of the handwringing is really relevant to anyone who isn’t a political nerd. I really don’t mean that in an ivory tower/Thorndon Bubble/”wake up sleepy hobbits” way – the simple fact is the vast majority of people don’t have the time nor inclination to watch historic political Memorandum of Understanding announcement livestreams on a Tuesday afternoon.

Most people would already assume the Greens would naturally work with Labour to form a government. Anyone whose primary political concern is keeping the Greens away from the levers of power probably haven’t voted Labour since 1999 and aren’t going to start now. And most people really don’t give a toss about the daily shenanigans of Parliament – certainly not about anything involving the phrase “Memorandum of Understanding”.

Most people have checked out of politics. It’s just not relevant to their lives.

So some will say this agreement is a killing blow to National’s chances in 2017, and others will declare it hands National the 2017 election on a platter. But the important thing isn’t whether Labour and the Greens have a silly handshake, an MoU, a concrete coalition deal, or a blood oath sworn on Grabthar’s Hammer. It’s whether they look like a credible alternative. It’s how they get a clear message to the nation: this is what’s wrong and this is how we fix it.

That’s how you cut through the spin and busyness and apathy. Give people a reason to believe things don’t have to be this way – people don’t have to live in cars, social support doesn’t have to be a pittance, the rich don’t have to get richer by screwing workers over, healthcare doesn’t have to be measured in waiting lists, education isn’t a business, jobs don’t have to be sent overseas, we don’t have to fight each other for the scraps after the bankers and speculators and CEOs have had their fill. The market isn’t our master. The economy isn’t our god.

If Labour and the Greens can work together to show New Zealanders there is a real, credible, caring alternative – that’s what will make the difference.

Labour’s reshuffle announced today

Andrew Little is set to announce a new Shadow Cabinet today  -I know, I know, the phrase Shadow Cabinet is so #ukpol but it’s also too cool not to use:

Tracy Watkins has some reckons:

Some big movers are tipped in Labour leader Andrew Little’s first big reshuffle.

“We’ve got to think not only about the portfolio allocations, we’ve got to think about chief whip and junior whip in a new government, and positions outside Cabinet, positions available for potential coalition partners.


The reshuffle is an important positioning move for Labour as the year rolls to a close. While the party’s poll ratings are up on the election result, Labour continues to trail National by a large margin.

Little said next year would be about “knuckling down” and refining policies that were “definitive enough and bold enough” to give voters the “measure of who we are in 2017”.

The long and short of it – according to Watkins – is:

  • King to remain deputy but gain an “understudy” in health, with her eyes on a diplomatic posting early in the term
  • Ardern and Davis to get some good meaty roles – no surprise given their respective profiles and some damn fine campaign work on Serco and Christmas Island
  • Twyford vs Shearer for trade – which could influence Labour’s position on the TPP
  • Good things for Sue Moroney who’s done great work on paid parental leave
  • Possible bad news for Mahuta and Cunliffe
  • Nothing for Goff for obvious mayoralty-related reasons

Little also confirmed this is the “last reshuffle” he’s planning before the election and

I have no inside information on the new rankings myself but if this is going to be the team to take us into 2017 – including some indication of what portfolios might be up for grabs for the Greens (and/or NZ First) – I’m looking forward to it being an exciting one.

UPDATE: Radio Live are Periscoping the announcement.

New rankings and portfolios are now up on the Labour website. Scoop has a PDF of the caucus rankings here.

Labour’s media release:

Labour line-up to take the 2017 election
 
Opposition Leader Andrew Little has today announced a strong and talented shadow Cabinet to take Labour into the 2017 election.
 
“Labour had an impressive intake of fresh faces after last year’s election and newest MPs have now had a year to show what they’re made of.
 
“This reshuffle rewards hard work and continues my drive to renew our Caucus line up.
 
“Kelvin Davis moves up after he shone the spotlight on Serco scandals and the treatment of detainees in Australia. He will now take on Māori Development.
 
“Megan Woods joins the front bench in recognition of the important work she is leading in Canterbury and on climate change.
 
“Newer faces Jenny Salesa and Peeni Henare move into the Shadow Cabinet, along with Meka Whaitiri who takes on local government.
“High profile MP Jacinda Ardern moves up along with Phil Twyford who adds Auckland Issues to his bow.
 
Stuart Nash moves into the Shadow Cabinet and picks up Police. Her tireless campaigning on paid parental leave sees Sue Moroney promoted.
 
“Today’s reshuffle is a strong mix of new talent and experience – and builds a solid team to win in 2017,” Andrew Little says.

What kind of government would National lead?

The choice for NZ voters is becoming clearer in the last days of the 2014 election. The irony is that after John Key’s persistent scaremongering about the “five-headed monster” of the centre-left, the two most likely options we have are a three-headed coalition of natural allies versus a five-or-six headed hydra of extremists and sworn enemies.

David Cunliffe has signalled today that he only sees three parties around the Cabinet table in his government: Labour, the Greens, and NZ First. All three parties have a good number of policies set out, with obvious overlaps – there are clear differences of opinion, but coming to a mature compromise is a key part of how MMP is meant to work.

Meanwhile, John Key has been forced into opening the door to Colin Craig’s Conservative Party thanks to the abysmal polling of his preferred ally, ACT.

Colin Craig is talking a softer game as he sees his poll results edge closer and closer to the magical 5% threshold. But neither he nor Jamie Whyte are men built to compromise their passionately-held extremist beliefs. So what will each of them demand?

Is Colin going to get binding referenda? Or the abolition of parole? Or a curfew for the “most promiscuous” young women in the world?

Is Jamie going to get his wish of scrapping the RMA and OIO so overseas investors can buy up our land and poison our rivers, or abolishing all school zones except the one around Auckland Boys’ Grammar (and all building regulations except the ones that keep Epsom leafy)?

And how can any of this possibly be workable with middle-of-the-road Peter Dunne (if he wins Ōhāriu, and that’s not guaranteed), with “not crazy”-conservative Winston Peters (who can’t stand Whyte or Craig) and with the Māori Party (who may have a thing or two to say about ACT and Craig’s anti-Treaty ways)?

If NZ First and the Conservatives both get over 5%, it’s going to be impossible for National to get its long-dreamed-of governing-alone 50%. They’d have to pull together four or five coalition partners who hate each other, and their closest ideological friends are frankly bizarre.

As that becomes clearer it’s got to be a huge turn-off for the moderate voters who have bulked out National’s support for the past six years – and a Labour-Green-Winston coalition is looking rock-solid-stable in comparison.

The bottomless Labour-Green divide

Mea culpa. It’s a bit of a Buzzfeed-style clickbait headline, but it’s also a political meme which I really wish we could put out to pasture.

It seems like every time Labour (or the Greens) announce a policy the first question (after “what does John Key think about this?”) is “But the Greens (or Labour) have a different policy to the one you just announced! How can you possibly work together in government?

Anything even vaguely associated with Internet-MANA gets it even worse.

It’s not a question you often see posed to National, and it’s tempting to make this a moan about media bias. But the simple facts are National isn’t in the same position as Labour or the Greens. The most extremist party on their side – Colin Craig’s Conservative Party – are very unlikely to get into Parliament unless there’s some fundamental[ist] shift in the polls which means National throws them a Hail Mary seat.

The two parties guaranteed to support National – ACT and United Future – have good steady records of rolling over and voting for whatever National tells them too.

And Winston, well. He doesn’t agree with anyone on anything if he can help it, but also has form for signing up to whichever side gives him a prestigious title and a single big policy which he can point to as a major concession (the Gold card being the canonical example.)

So let’s put aside the idea of media bias and consider ourselves lucky that on the left we have three genuine options to vote for, four if you want to ignore the Māori Party’s stated priority of doing what it takes to get “a seat at the table” and think they’ll get more than one seat.

The problem for the left is that, especially with the aforementioned total-lack-of-real-disagreement on the right, disagreement is being treated as antagonism*, and reconciling those disagreements is being treated as a problem for MMP.

Having parties with different views forming a government is not a weakness of MMP. It is the strength of MMP.

The whole point of proportional representation is that each party has exactly as much power as the voters of New Zealand have given it. Instead of a winner-takes-all system where a party can do whatever it likes on the back of only 35% support, enough parties have to find common ground that you could reasonably assume the outcome is the best possible representation of the will of the people.

So it makes no sense at all for this constant pearl-clutching over the Greens and Labour having different policies. If they had identical policies they wouldn’t exist as two separate political parties. It makes no sense at all to keep demanding bottom lines and non-negotiables because we simply don’t know how the chips are going to fall. Where will Labour’s party vote end up? Will the Greens build on 12% or stay steady? How will Winston or IMP do?

It’s easy to be cynical and wonder if the constant highlighting of Labour/Green/IMP differences is part of a narrative to pre-judge any leftwing coalition as unstable and risky. But I think a lot of people are still stuck in a First Past the Post mode of thinking, where we have two major parties, they rule the roost, and the “minor” parties are mere annoyances who will fall in line with National or Labour as appropriate.

But the left’s diversity is a strength. We have more ideas to consider, more viewpoints in the mix, and our votes don’t just get a leftwing government elected, they determine what that leftwing government looks like – a strong Labour with several support options; a strong Green presence at the table; an IMP spoiler; even, if you want to take a risk on Winston’s whims and the randoms he’ll bring in with him, a New Zealand First to pull to the centre.

Labour and the Greens having different policies before an election is a good thing. After the election, when we’ve had our say, they can work out where there’s room to move and what mix of policies they can/want to implement.

It’s not like they’re going to sit back and say “Nup, not going to negotiate with you, going to give the Tories confidence and supply instead.”

… I mean, I can only hope!

 

*There is also actual antagonism between Labour and Green and IMP folk, no denying.