Labour seeks middle ground on policies

'We can't afford the luxury of uncompromising dogma." The Green Party should write that down. It's a direct quote from Labour's deputy leader and environment spokesman, Grant Robertson.

He was speaking alongside - and keeping an eye on, a cynic might suggest - David Cunliffe at a Labour and the Environment forum at the Titirangi Public Library on Saturday, June 23.

I took down Robertson's words because they were so obviously intended to alert all Left-leaning political activists, including Cunliffe, that Labour will offer no hostages to fortune when it formulates environmental policies for the 2014 general election.

It's worth spending a little time unpicking Robertson's statement. Obviously, his "uncompromising dogma" barb was directed at the environmental policies of other parties, but which ones? Was he alluding to the National Party? Certainly, John Key's Government has a reputation for dogmatism when it comes to deep-sea drilling, the evils of trade unionism and the virtues of educational standards, but "uncompromising"?

Key's many critics on the Right would strongly disagree. Indeed, it is precisely his willingness to back-track and compromise that so infuriates his detractors.

No, I do not think Robertson's rhetorical harpoon was intended for the National Party. His target wasn't a blue whale, it was green.

Labour's attitude to the Greens gyrates wildly between aggrieved toleration and rank hostility.

Fundamentally, it regards the Greens as poachers: impudent trespassers on the Left's ancestral lands and wilful perpetrators of electoral larceny.

It's what the hapless Clare Curran, Labour MP for Dunedin South, meant when she blogged, in August last year, about "attempts by the Greens to encroach on Labour territory".

Labour looks at the polls and sees its own numbers rising, National's falling and the Greens' tracking up.

Clearly, some of National's soft Right-wing vote is drifting back to Labour, but, equally clearly, Labour's Left-wing support is shifting to the Greens.

The policy implications of this Right-wingers-in-the-front-door, Left-wingers-out-the-back political movement presents the Labour leadership with all kinds of headaches.

Reading the full text of his speech to the Titirangi meeting, it is clear that rather than see Labour go fly-fishing in the rivers of the Right, Cunliffe would prefer the party to lower a net into the ocean of the 800,000 electors who declined to participate in the 2011 election.

In his speech, The Dolphin and the Dole Queue, Cunliffe declares: "Getting the best long-term outcomes will not always mean maximising short-term profits. It can't.

"Anyone who tells you it can is either stupid or lying. Do people understand the costs of not adjusting and not planning for a better future? Do they understand that business as usual simply cannot continue?"

The strategic thinking here is bold: align Labour's policies closely with those of the Greens and let the two parties go fishing together for the disillusioned, the disengaged and, most especially, the young.

Unfortunately, Robertson's more cautious political instincts adjudge this sort of thinking to be not bold but reckless. Cunliffe's recitation of the well-documented global hazards threatening the human species' long-term survival and his radical conclusion that "business as usual simply cannot continue" all rings in Robertson's ears as "uncompromising dogma".

Such policies are all very well for minor parties like the Greens, but they simply will not do for parties that aspire to the status of New Zealand's "alternative government".

Such parties "can't afford the luxury" of a radicalism that might energise this country's increasingly inert electorate.

An alternative government committed to the notion that "business as usual simply cannot continue" would instantly attract the enmity of every entrenched industrial, commercial and financial interest in the land.

It's leaders would be pilloried, denounced and demonised, and, honestly, Robertson has never struck me as a politician who would voluntarily risk any of those experiences.

That's the message he's conveying to his rival for the Labour leadership and, more importantly, it's what he's saying to the Greens' co-leaders, Russel Norman and Metiria Turei.

It's a simple and brutal warning: there's a Cabinet seat for you in the next Labour-led Government, but only if you're willing to leave your radical ideas ("uncompromising dogma") at the door, only if you accept that it will be business as close to usual as Labour can make it.

Taranaki Daily News