AS SO OFTEN HAPPENS when I appear on Paul Henry’s morning show, a host of lefties have devoted the rest of the day to disowning me. Underpinning their criticism is a strongly held belief that anyone billed as “left-wing” has a duty to stick up for Team Red – no matter what. Independent critical analysis is not considered helpful. Whenever someone like Paul Henry asks someone from the Left for their opinion, the only acceptable response, apparently, is: “Hooray for our side!”
But whatever else I may be, I am not a cheerleader. If I believe the Labour and Green parties have announced their new “Understanding” far too soon; without preparing the electorate or priming the news media; without securing real and valuable gains for both partners; without carefully gauging the reaction of both their members and their voters; and without having straightforward answers to journalists’ straightforward (and entirely predictable) questions; then I reserve the right to speak bluntly and critically about these deficiencies.
I further think that it is especially important to give voice to my misgivings if the deficiencies I’ve observed suggest a host of even bigger problems behind the scenes.
For months now there has been much discussion “inside the beltway” of Labour’s deep-seated financial difficulties. The slightest suggestion that a person might harbour left-wing sympathies has been enough to earn them a deluge of begging e-mails from Andrew Little and other Labour politicians. People make a joke of it, but those who know something about political fundraising are only too aware that these are the tactics of desperation.
It gets worse. Just last week the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, writing on his “Politik” blog, suggested that Labour’s membership might now be less than the Greens. If true (and Richard is no slouch when it comes to acquiring “usually reliable” sources) that would indicate a total of, at most, 5,000. Some have gone so far as to say that if the number of affiliated trade union members is subtracted from that total, then there may actually be fewer than 2,000 paid-up ordinary members in the whole party.
This is the kind of information that a political analyst draws upon when confronted with an event like yesterday’s announcement. And so, because I cannot pretend to be unaware of Labour’s difficulties, I will not characterise Labour’s decision to strengthen its relationship with the Greens as anything other than a desperate concession of organisational and electoral weakness. Indeed, were I a member of the Labour Caucus, I would be demanding to read the fine print of this new “Red-Green Alliance”.
Even were Labour coming at this from a position of strength, I would be doubtful of its efficacy. The historian in me reacts badly when people cite the example of 1998 – when Labour and the Alliance finally decided to end their civil war. The punishment meted out to both parties by the voters in 1996 had transformed the theoretical arguments in favour of reconciliation into objective psephological fact. Both Jim Anderton and Helen Clark knew they had to respond to the wishes of their core constituencies, and they did so with tremendous theatricality. In their superbly choreographed television embrace, centre-left voters saw the beginning of the end of Jenny Shipley’s turncoat government. Clark, quoting Dickens’ A Tale of two Cities, called it “The Spring of Hope”.
The skill with which the coming together of Labour and the Alliance was communicated to the electorate spoke volumes about the readiness of both parties for the rigors of office. The gimcrack quality of yesterday’s (31/5/16) announcement: a hastily cobbled together presser in the old Legislative Chamber; likewise had a story to tell.
It is the story of an exhausted and impecunious political organisation. A party stumbling towards its 100th anniversary in desperate need of support – any support. It is also the story of a younger and much more vital party desperate for its chance to exercise real power, and absolutely determined that it will not, once again, be robbed of its chance at the eleventh hour.
Such is my understanding of the Labour-Green “Understanding”.
Those who think they’ve witnessed a marriage made in electoral heaven – should think again.