Huddled around one computer in our office, my colleagues and I clapped and cheered as we watched via livestream the leadership of Labour and the Greens announce that finally, the two biggest Opposition parties will be formally working together to change the Government.
Some of us are members of the parties, and such a group could easily disagree on political strategy. But today we were united in believing that this was a good step, and an important step. It’s what we have been waiting for.
A few commentators have already said that it doesn’t mean much, that it’s not a coalition agreement so it doesn’t change what might happen on election night. But for me and plenty of lefties it’s very important symbolically.
There was at least a perception of some serious tensions between Labour and the Greens in the lead up to the last election. Early in 2014 we learnt that Labour rejected a Green Party proposal to campaign together. One of the last big news items about the Greens before Election Day was a reminder of their position to not rule out working with National in some capacity. Both parties were ripping on Internet Mana. The left was divided.
But yesterday the renewed leadership of both Labour and the Greens gave a clear message that their relationship is in better shape than ever and they don’t want to make the same mistakes again. I will never forget National’s diabolically effective ad from the last election campaign – the one with the Opposition depicted in an old dinghy, rowing in different directions. Yesterday’s announcement tells Aotearoa that Labour and the Greens are now officially on the same course.
This also strengthens the Opposition’s ability to change the current Government’s agenda. We know that National crafts not just messaging but sometimes actual policy by popular opinion. With a year and a half of a united Labour Green voice holding the Government to account, we can hope for more small but important victories, like the temporary rise in the refugee quota and the Government’s back-down on entrenching zero-hour contracts into employment legislation.
It was disappointing to watch the Q&A after the announcement, as many journalists chose to focus on Winston Peters, instead of the Memorandum of Understanding at hand. Sure, current polls show that NZ First would be needed to change the Government.
But none of that changed yesterday. Peters’ position remains exactly the same – we have no idea what he will do. It might be an important element in the wider conversation about what an alternative Government looks like. But it is not the key factor in yesterday’s news. The key factor is that the only two parties in parliament that are actually committed to a change of Government have now also committed to each other.
And let’s not forget that Peters has massively toned down his anti-Greens rhetoric. It’s not surprising – the Greens have become slick, and looking after the environment is absolutely a mainstream issue now. While NZ First voters still might not like hippies, they do want their country to have clean rivers and to play our part in solving climate change.
That’s why it’s annoying that so much of the political analysis yesterday was focused on a ‘what if’ based both on a hypothetical election result and what the most unpredictable MP we have did ten years ago, in a completely different political environment.
When the livestream finished I had to do a reality-check. As much as this feels like real progress, the move alone might not win Labour or the Greens a single vote. But what it does do is pave the way for the sort of cooperation and coherence that will be vital in presenting an alternative Government in 2017. It shows that the past is the past, and that a Labour Green Government can be the future. To me, that’s a pretty big deal.
Sam Gribben is a Wellington based political activist