I recall a meeting in the Leader of the Opposition’s office some time in. Present were Helen Clark, Heather Simpson, Mike Munro, Michael Hirschfeld (then President of the Labour Party), Judy Callingham, Brian Edwards and possibly some others. Among the topics for debate was whether Labour should enter into a coalition agreement with Jim Anderton’s Alliance Party. The view of those in favour prevailed. Under MMP, Labour won the election taking 49 seats in parliament, while the Alliance took ten. Fears that the Alliance’s more left-wing policies would damage Labour were proved to be unfounded. In 2014, Labour Leader David Cunliffe has declined Russel Norman’s invitation to enter into a pre-election coalition agreement with the Green Party, while conceding that, should Labour win the election, an unspecified number of senior Green Party MPs could expect to be part of his Cabinet.
Though it can be defended – a la Winston – as an appropriate reluctance to enter into coalition agreements before the votes have been counted, it’s hard to see Cunliffe’s rejection of the Green’s marriage, or at least ‘engagement’ proposal, as anything other than a snub. At the very least, the Labour leader is making it perfectly clear to Norman Turei just who will be running the show, should National lose the election. The thinking behind this is probably that too close an association with the Greens is as likely to damage Labour’s chances of winning the election as it is of enhancing those chances. Too many people see the Greens as flakes. This is essentially a rerun of the arguments against too close an association between Labour and the Alliance in 1999. But Labour won that election in a landslide. And there’s a major difference between the Alliance then and the Greens today.
The Alliance would survive for only three years in Parliament. The Greens are today a major political force, currently with 14 seats in Parliament. And, under the Norman/Turei leadership, they have largely lost their image as environmental flakes. In my submission, far from weakening Labour’s electoral chances, a formal pre-election coalition agreement with the Greens would have created a strong centre-left force, a blend of pragmatism and idealism, clearly differentiated from National and with wide electoral appeal. And strength in numbers. Cunliffe’s rejection of the Greens’ pre-election engagement proposal has merely served to bolster the public view of a divided left, incapable of getting its act together, let alone running the country.
I’m not sure if he consulted Helen on this, but I very much doubt that she would have recommended snubbing your future coalition partner five months out from an election when the latest political poll has you on 9% as preferred Prime Minister against John Key on 42.6% and your party on 31.2% against National’s 45.9%. Were I David Cunliffe’s chief political strategist, which I am not, I might have recommended Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes: “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.” It’s not a particularly good analogy. In the play, Hamlet stabs Polonius who is hiding behind the arras. Political strategists rarely get their just deserts.