Harre move lays down Greens' test for Labour

The appointment of Laila Harre as the Green Party's Auckland-based issues director should be sending shivers down David Shearer's spine.

Henceforth, former Alliance Party voters will no longer have to hum-and-haw about which Left- wing party to support.

Harre, a former Alliance leader, is one of the Left's most intelligent and articulate spokespeople.

The clarity and radicalism of Harre's thinking has been evident since her maiden speech to Parliament: "A government cannot both embrace the full force of globalisation and retain sovereignty over key economic decisions. A government cannot deliver a first-class health and education service accessible to all regardless of wealth without a substantially more progressive income tax system. A government cannot deal with fundamental issues of biosecurity and ecological diversity by adopting a market model which will by definition subsume these needs to the perceived interests of foreign investors . . . These fundamental issues of difference between the Alliance and Labour must be resolved, and not simply disguised by clever packaging."

That the issues identified by Harre 16 years ago remain at the heart of contemporary political debate on the Left is proof of her analytical perspicacity.

They certainly constitute the "fundamental issues" to be resolved between Labour and the Greens. Which brings us back to the shivers that should be running up Shearer's spine. Because in every particular of Harre's 1997 challenge to Labour, the gap between Labour's position and the Greens' isn't narrowing, it's growing wider.

Rather than increasing the progressivity of our income tax system, Shearer intends to decrease it. And, far from attempting to free himself from the "embrace" of globalisation, Shearer remains as committed as his predecessors to "free-trade" and "productive foreign investment".

Shearer's principal policy advisers: his chief-of-staff, Stuart Nash; his policy consultant, John Pagani; and the Right-wing faction leader, Trevor Mallard; would appear to have no intention of permitting either the caucus, or the wider Labour Party organisation, to address the fundamental policy differences that still stand between themselves and any kind of meaningful co- operation with the Greens.

Which can only mean they intend to mask the ideological gulf separating Labour's present (and future) policy settings from the long- standing policy commitments of the Greens with "clever packaging". The Greens are having none of this. Harre's appointment makes that clear.

If Shearer and his minions are signalling their intention to take Labour to the Right; the Greens, by appointing a radical social- democrat as their issues director, have communicated their party's strong disinclination to follow suit.

More than this, the Greens are warning Labour that if it is no longer interested in the votes of the Auckland working-class, then they will gladly take them off their hands. Harre is not only a former Alliance leader and MP, but also a highly successful trade-union leader. She masterminded the "Nurses Are Worth More" campaign of 2003-04, and was for four years the general secretary of the National Distribution Union.

In Auckland, where Labour's organisation is weak (and where Shearer and his allies have thrown their support behind organisational "reforms" which threaten to keep it that way), the Greens have installed a woman of proven organisational and motivational talent.

What we are witnessing is a fascinating historical reversal.

Labour conquered power by first organising the working-class vote, and only then extending its reach into the educated middle- class and small proprietors.

The Greens are expanding in the opposite direction: from their core base of support among the educated middle-class; to the small proprietor; to the working-class; and potentially to the much- despised "underclass" of beneficiaries and alienated youth.

Shearer and his allies are, therefore, pursuing a potentially fatal strategy. By leading the party to the Right they risk losing their working-class base, which, following the last election, is all that remains with them.

The Labour leadership do not seem to appreciate the Greens have already made off with the educated middle-class vote, and have won over a significant number of small proprietors.

To leave their Auckland working-class flank exposed to Harre's organisational skills risks replicating here what has already occurred in Germany: the Greens supplanting Labour as the dominant Left-wing party.

Labour members who would rather not see their party pushed into second place need to act swiftly and decisively. Not simply on the question of: "Who should be leading the party?" But on the more important question of: "How should the party be led?"

A crucial aspect of the Greens' success as a political movement has been the open and transparent nature of its decision-making processes. In short, it's commitment to democracy.

If Labour's membership wishes to make progress on those "fundamental issues of difference" between their party and the Greens, then they must demonstrate an equally vigorous commitment to democracy.

The Press