Party must make own way and get its house in order.
It is conceivable that, if only for a brief moment, David Cunliffe gave some consideration to the Green Party's proposal for a formal coalition to contest the general election. He might have wondered if campaigning as a Labour-Greens government in waiting would deliver his party some badly needed impetus. But whatever the temptation, the Labour leader has made the right call. His party must forge its own path, starting by putting its house in order so that it appeals as a genuine alternative to National. It should also keep its options open.
To a degree, Labour and the Greens started along this path when they released a joint proposal on power pricing. But the reaction to that indicated the perils of a formal coalition.
The Government, with some justification, portrayed the policy as a radical departure. One of its constant messages since has been that Labour had succumbed to the Greens' agenda. A formal coalition and further such proposals would provide the ammunition to hammer that line even more forcibly.
One of the main arguments for such an alliance is that it presents voters with a clearer idea of what they can expect after the election. The Greens' proposed tie would have included an agreement to match Cabinet posts proportionally with the number of seats won and a strategy on working with New Zealand First. The latter element is of considerable importance, not least because of Winston Peters' vetoing of the Greens from government after the 2005 election. If relations between the Greens and NZ First have subsequently improved, the Greens' proposal contrasts sharply with Mr Peters' campaigning technique.
He takes the view that no calls on preferred coalition partners should be made before an election. Parties should simply put their policies to the voters, leaving them to make their choice. There is strong logic to this, and it may have persuaded Mr Peters to make some strong comments about the Greens' proposal. They were, he said, "an attempt by one party to destabilise another party by seeming to offer friendship and collaboration in a deal before the election campaign has even started, knowing full well that the other party has not invited that and does not want that".
Given that statement, a formal coalition between Labour and the Greens would hardly have boosted the prospect of working with Mr Peters after the election. As it is, National may have more reason to cater to him. Unlike Labour, it does not have a party boasting the probable electoral appeal of the Greens ready to enter a coalition agreement. Labour needs nothing else that may persuade Mr Peters he should look elsewhere.
It has been in a formal arrangement once before when it forged a pre-election agreement with Jim Anderton's Alliance for the successful 1999 campaign. There are sharp differences, however, between the situation then, with a National-led government in disarray after the desertion of NZ First, and that of today. Indeed, if anything, that arrangement represents a cautionary tale for the Greens. The Alliance won 10 seats in 1999 but its MPs became divided over how close they should be to Labour. Mr Anderton left to form the Progressive Party, and the Alliance won no seats in 2002.
The 1999 agreement was seen as a means for Labour and the Alliance to present themselves as a credible alternative to National. But it was not necessary and nor did it work out well for the smaller party. Mr Cunliffe has acted correctly in the interests of his own party's prospects and, very likely, those of the Greens.