Labour does not need to promise a coalition with the Greens

The Greens were getting ahead of themselves with their offer to Labour to campaign as a coalition government in waiting, and Labour was right to reject the offer.

Winston’s right. When a party publicly offers to collaborate with another party and there’s no agreement behind the scenes, that’s not a friendly gesture - that’s an attack.

Anyway, with Labour's strategy of attempting to win by coming second, rather than first, it is hard to see a reason why the Greens would be included in a coalition at all.

The alternative would be a relationship agreement, in which the Greens offer support on confidence and supply to a Labour-NZ First government, and some banner policy initiatives in exchange for some headline policy wins and an agreement to consult.

A Labour-Green coalition only really makes sense if between them they can get to 50 per cent. 

With Labour in the low thirties, and the Greens at around 11 and falling, 50 per cent seems a long way off. 

There is a chance that everything will change, that tens of thousands of voters will suddenly realise they have been wrong and rush to the polling booths to vote Labour -  but there is also a chance that things will turn out pretty much in the proportions polls are indicating today.

And on current polling there appears to be no way to government for Labour without New Zealand First. If NZ First doesn't get to 5 per cent, National wins. If NZ First gets over 5 per cent, its marginal votes appear to be coming more from the left, meaning there is even less likelihood of Labour and the Greens getting there without NZ First.

NZ First has options. The Greens don't. Imagine trying to ignore Mr Peters, which would hand him a pistol and the opportunity to bring down the government at a moment of his choosing.

Without Greens in a post-election negotiation, Labour has more to offer NZ First - more portfolios, more senior positions, more policy wiggle room. And what are the Greens going to do about it? Bring down a Labour-led government rather than support it on confidence and supply simply out of pique at being excluded from the Cabinet? They would have to take a support agreement.

All Labour gets from a commitment to form a government with the Greens is less flexibility to get Labour into government.

By leaving open the prospect that Labour might not include the Greens in Cabinet, Labour indicates to left voters that they will have to vote Green if they want the Greens to be able to demand a place; Labour voters moving to the Greens do not reduce the prospects of a centre left government; and it gives Labour more room to appeal to voters who are not Greens supporters - at least some of whom are needed for the left to form a government. 

One example that has been trotted to shoe the benefits of two parties campaigning together, is the experience of Labour and the Alliance in 1999. Having been closely involved in that campaign and worked for both parties I can tell you that memories of them campaigning together are vastly overstated. 

Labour never referred to a Labour-Alliance government; it campaigned only for a Labour-led one. Only the Alliance specifically mentioned a coalition. 

In 1999 there were no joint campaign events. Helen Clark spoke at the Alliance conference in 1998, a  year before the election, indicating that the two parties could work together, but that is not the same as a joint campaign. There was planning for government going on between the two parties but campaign planning was specifically excluded.

Further, the context of the relationship was that Labour and the Alliance were demonstrating they could work together after a decade of bitter civil war. The priority was not to present an alternative government but to demonstrate the days of division and bickering were over. 

On a couple of campaign days Labour deliberately opened fire on the Alliance to reduce its support - It was the Alliance that opted not to publicly slap Labour back. (Ironically, the strategic voice at the time that was advocating for attacks on Labour was Matt McCarten, now the  Labour leader's chief of staff, while those advocating for peace are all now cast into the Labour wilderness.)

The New Zealand First context was very different. New Zealand First had split and Winston Peters pushed out of the Shipley government, so while Labour would have worked with them there was little prospect of NZ First in 1999 having much bargaining power.

And finally, in 1999 the Alliance agreed to allow Labour to conclude negotiations with each party to lead the government - that the Alliance wouldn't attempt its own horizontal negotiation with other parties independently of Labour. To have done so might have strengthened the Alliance's negotiating power, but it would have broken trust and as  NZ First's involvement with National after 1996 had proved, a government in which the leaders can't trust each other is a one which can't succeed.

The context today is quite different.

If Labour gets into a position where it can lead a government, the Greens will have no option but to offer support; there is no reason for Labour to go further and campaign for a coalition that turns off some of the voters Labour needs.

And the remote possibility exists that Labour might not quite make it to government this year, in which case it will want to ensure it is as strong as possibly even in Opposition. That may well require the flexibility in election season to compete openly with the Greens.