Blinded By The Light: Ignited by the fiery exhaust of the Green’s policy rocket, Labour’s Big Plan has burst into flame and crashed. Weary National supporters are unlikely to cross all the way over to Labour if it means endorsing, even tacitly, the behaviour of “welfare cheats”. For these cautious Kiwis, NZ First will be “quite far enough, thank you”.
WHERE DOES LABOUR GO from here? Because their Big Plan is fluttering down to earth in flaming tatters – burned out of the sky by Metiria Turei and the Greens.
Labour’s Big Plan? What’s that?
Simple. Labour’s Big Plan was an election strategy based entirely on luring the National voters of 2008, 2011 and 2014 back into Labour’s column. Tactically, that required Labour to be seen, by the people that matter – i.e. Chambers of Commerce and senior political journalists – as the “responsible” providers of “strong and stable” government. It also required the side-lining and/or removal of all those Labour MPs, party workers and ordinary members who see Labour as something more than National’s occasional substitute. At the same time, the Greens had to be persuaded to soften their public image and become Labour’s equally “responsible” helpers.
If these objectives are achieved, Andrew Little’s campaign strategists assure him, Labour will win and you will be Prime Minister.
To give the people behind Labour’s Big Plan their due, they came bloody close to pulling it off. Matt McCarten was exiled to Auckland, leaving the Leader of the Opposition’s Office in the hands of political operatives who looked for guidance and inspiration to the campaign “professionalism” of the Blairite Labour Party and the US Democratic Party. (It was McCarten’s determination to re-energise Labour’s electoral effort that led to the “Campaign For Change” fiasco.)
Even more successful were the Big Planners’ efforts to empty the Green brand of its “scary” radicalism. The infamous North & South cover shoot was only the most cheesy example of this re-branding exercise. Of considerably more importance was the Labour leadership’s success in persuading the Greens to sign-up to Grant Robertson’s extraordinary “Budget Responsibility Rules”. The latter were the clearest possible signal to the business community that it had nothing to fear from a change of government.
It’s possible that the Greens’ “rejuvenated” Party List is another side-effect of Labour’s “taming” of the Greens. The party’s new faces: Chloe Swarbrick, Golriz Ghahraman, Jack McDonald and Haley Holt; will have their chance to prove or disprove the charge in the weeks and months that lie ahead. In the words of Matthew’s gospel: “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”
That Labour’s Big Plan might be at risk was first revealed by NZ First’s gathering political momentum. Clearly, there was a hunger out there in the electorate for something gruntier than the Little/Shaw Business Breakfast Travelling Roadshow. Winston Peters’ angry denunciation of Neoliberalism (something Labour has yet to do unequivocally) struck a nerve in those voters weary of National but wary of Labour. The shift was on – Peters felt it in his bones – and his ambitions for the 2017 contest expanded accordingly.
The realisation that Labour’s Big Plan might result in the Greens being hopelessly compromised as a political force came very late. Labour’s strategists have for long been convinced that electoral success can only be achieved by substantially increasing Labour’s support, and that that, in turn, will only happen by decreasing the electoral heft of the Greens. That decrease can be absolute or relative – it hardly matters. What counts is that the public be reassured that in any future Labour-Green Government, Labour will be calling the shots.
Fortunately for the Greens, there were enough ex-Alliance activists in their ranks to warn them of the consequences of Labour’s Big Plan. First, your Party Vote drops precipitately. Second, your MPs are co-opted by their Labour “comrades” – to the point where they start looking upon their own members as “the enemy”. Third, the party descends into acrimonious arguments and recriminations, splits into factions, and falls below the 5 percent MMP threshold at the next election. Even those Greens disinclined to be believe the old Alliance fighters, could hardly deny that this is precisely what happened to the German Greens.
If the Greens were to be treated as anything other than Labour’s hapless footstool, then they had to do something. The party’s unease was heightened by the obvious success of Winston Peters’ angry populism. Speculation was growing that, once again, the Greens were going to be jilted at the altar. The much bally-hooed Labour-Green “Memorandum of Understanding” notwithstanding, it was generally agreed that NZ First was winking at Labour in the most provocative fashion.
If the Greens failed to pick up the banner of left-wing populism – which Labour steadfastly refused to touch – then the 2017 General Election was going to leave them politically stranded. Their best option: junior partners in a cautiously centrist Labour-led administration. Their worst: to sit in helpless frustration on the cross-benches as Andrew Little and Winston Peters governed the country over their heads.
Only by striking out boldly in the direction of the radicalism that Labour had worked so hard to extract from the Greens’ manifesto, could their supposed “partner’s” Big Plan be stymied. The launch of the party’s welfare policies at its AGM provided an opportunity for this departure. There was nothing cold-blooded about this. It represented, rather, the whole party’s growing awareness that it was on the wrong road. Six months earlier, they might have pulled their punches on welfare; now they saw the policy launch as possibly their last chance to reassert the Green Party’s core commitment to transformative politics. Metiria Turei’s decision to add the booster-rocket of her personal testimony as a former beneficiary to the launch – even at the cost of her political future – allowed her party to achieve escape velocity.
Ignited by the fiery exhaust of the Green’s policy rocket, Labour’s Big Plan burst into flame and crashed. Weary National supporters are unlikely to cross all the way over to Labour if it means endorsing, even tacitly, the behaviour of “welfare cheats”. For these cautious Kiwis, NZ First will be “quite far enough, thank you”. Meanwhile, Labour’s increasingly disillusioned progressive supporters will listen to their party’s deafening silence on the heart-and-soul issues paraded front-and-centre by Metiria and the Greens – and draw the inescapable conclusion. That to keep faith with the legacy of Mickey Savage, Norman Kirk – and Rod Donald – there is only one way to cast their Party Vote.
For the Greens.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 29 July 2017.