National has cause to worry but not panic

Grant Duncan

The Labour and Green Parties have signed an agreement to cooperate and to offer the electorate ‘the basis of a stable, credible and progressive alternative government at the 2017 General Election.’

What does this mean, and should the National Party be worried about it?

First, let us recall some facts. Labour’s victory in 1999 was achieved on the back of an agreement between Helen Clark and the Alliance Party leader Jim Anderton. This led to a minority coalition government. In contrast, the Green Party proposed to Labour a similar agreement prior to the 2014 election, but Labour declined.

Earlier attempt

To be a credible, government-in-waiting under MMP requires having a convincing ‘story’ to tell the voters about the parties that will support it. The pre-electoral messages that inform us ‘who will work with whom’ are critical to success.

In 2014, Labour’s pre-electoral position created uncertainty about which parties it would need to approach, if forming a government, and how well they could work together. As it turned out, the voters didn’t give them the chance.

The new Labour/Green agreement goes some way to addressing that problem, relatively early in the electoral cycle. It only commits the two parties, at this stage, to cooperate and communicate leading up to the election, with the common goal of changing the government. No commitments have been made about any post-electoral arrangements, or even about negotiations. But both parties are effectively saying ‘we don’t want another National-led government’.

Left alternative

In the present political landscape, a Labour/Green coalition is the most obvious left alternative for a future government. Given the opinion polls, it does not, for the time being, look like such a change of government is very likely, however. So success will depend on how effectively these two parties can undermine confidence in John Key’s leadership and administration, and how well they can boost confidence in their ability to work together.

Both parties will have calculated that they may lose some support due to the closer relationship that the new agreement signifies. On the other hand, a solid shared platform is necessary if they are to win the confidence of swing voters and to build their combined party vote up to a point that rivals the platform of National.

So should National be worried? A sitting government would much rather be facing a divided opposition than a united one. The Labour/Green accord is not good news for National, then, but neither is it reason for National to panic.

The Key government is still doing well in the polls – surprisingly well for a third-term government.

The interventionist

Although business-friendly, National is quite ‘leftish’ and interventionist.

They have adopted pragmatic policies that fight off attacks from the opposition to neutralise issues such as superannuation, paid parental leave and ‘zero-hours’ employment agreements. They are even trying to persuade us that they are super busy building homes for the poor. And they ran fiscal deficits up until 2015, avoiding strict austerity policies. National understands that ‘the state’ matters in this country. Their political success is partly due to being mildly ‘social democratic’ – but passing it off as responsible and conservative.

This leaves the left-wing opposition parties with less room to manoeuvre, unless they are prepared to be bold. Hence Labour’s big pitch to middle-class families, offering fees-free tertiary education for their kids. Labour and the Greens may not win an election by having popular policies, however.

They may have to wait until swing-voters get sick of Key and decide that it’s time to give the other team a fair go.

NZ First Party

And what about NZ First? Predictably, Winston Peters poured scorn on the Labour/Green agreement. He won’t have a bar of pre-electoral ‘jack-ups’ done ‘behind the people’s back’. What he really means is that he wants to keep his options open. After the election, he would like to be in a position to negotiate his way into office with either side. But his options seem to be narrowing. National was happy to be able to ignore him after the last election, and Labour has now given first preference to the Greens. Nonetheless, the numbers after the next election could put NZ First into a ‘balance of power’ position. The present Labour/Green agreement does not prevent Labour from negotiating with NZ First over forming a government after the election. The price for that could include denying the Greens a role in that government, given Mr Peters’ past record of refusing to work with the Green Party. It will all depend on how the numbers add up after the votes are counted.

Grant Duncan is Associate Professor of Massey University and an expert in political and public policy.

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