With little fanfare, and at times with more heat than light thanks to Shane Jones’ soaring and stooping rhetoric, Labour in the last few weeks has tweaked its relationship with the Greens.
OPINION: Normally such subtle calibrations would only be of interest to political tragics. Guilty.
But as the key relationship in any alternative government it is more significant than that. It has been painted as a fight between two opposing notions.
The first is the Jones doctrine. Build the Labour brand, get your vote above 40 per cent, squeeze the Greens up if necessary and tip your hat towards NZ First – because it is a better fit and commands the centre ground that could determine who governs. The Greens may get their noses out of joint but after all, they have no other government to support.
The alternative view is that unity will be rewarded by the voters. Overt indications you can work together – compete but with respect – should be the order of the day.
The evidence cited is the pivotal reconciliation between Helen Clark and Jim Anderton that was key to Labour and the Alliance romping into office.
There is also the small matter of electoral arithmetic. With Labour so far adrift of National in the polls it needs the Green ballast to present itself as a viable alternative.
Jones has been running his attack lines on the Greens for some time and they reached a new intensity over the past few weeks as he accused them of being too activist for government. (It was his most serious criticism, though his colourful comments about Gareth Hughes being a mollymawk hogged the airwaves.)
Despite being ticked off by leader David Cunliffe, he went on to take a swipe at Green co-leader Russel Norman for being too Australian to lecture him on conservation.
The upshot has been a blunt message to Jones and others in the caucus from Labour president Moira Coatsworth.
The activist base clearly expects a coalition of the broad Left and that MPs in caucus should reflect that. There is no room for disparaging the Greens and any comments on that relationship should be left to Cunliffe.
Whether it will silence Jones is a moot point, because his strong belief in the need for Labour to assert itself is matched by his friendship and regard for NZ First leader Winston Peters.
All that aside, Labour has shifted its stance towards the Greens as became semi-apparent last week as Cunliffe rambled through some mixed messages about the relationship.
In the space of a few minutes he saw "a strong and deep relationship with the Greens as we do with other potential coalition partners", that Labour would play whatever cards were dealt, that a deal "may indeed quite likely be with the Greens, it may well be with Winston first . . . NZ First," and that the Greens and NZ First were "both wonderful parties".
He went on to say that the Greens would not necessarily be his first choice, and there was "no preordained order". However, his first call after the election would probably be "to the next biggest Left of centre party" . . . and NZ First was centrist.
What that all adds up to is a nuanced approach to the Greens and NZ First. Labour knows that it will need the Greens. But the Greens give National a ready-made attack point against Labour, to present it as a radicalised government-in-waiting. That has the dual purpose of spooking National’s floating voters back into the fold while putting the frighteners on Labour’s wavering centre voters.
Too much talk of a united Labour-Green front also promotes Cunliffe as merely the first among equals with Norman and Metiria Turei, and that somehow Labour and the Greens are somehow on an equal footing.
There are advantages for Cunliffe if he can reassert himself as the one and only Leader of the Opposition.
Moreover, a Labour-Green happy families deal gets up Winston Peters’ nose. And Labour wants to keep him inside the Opposition tent, even if he is not the preferred choice of the membership. Playing third fiddle in any government would not be his idea of fun.
The upshot is that Cunliffe’s new stance is that a deal with the Greens is a "soft presumption" rather than a dead set certainty.
That begs the question whether that will be enough for Coatsworth and her activist base.
And it should never be forgotten it takes two to dance a political tango.
There are no current scenarios where Labour can govern without Green support. One dead set certainty is the Greens will not go quietly into the back benches as they did in 1999 – even though Labour needed them – and again in 2002 and 2005 when Labour had a majority elsewhere.