The news this week is that the Greens have an MP named Gareth Hughes. And that Labour's Shane Jones has been calling him names. And that Hughes has complained.

Say what?

Calling each other names is what politicians do. Besides, Jones' name-calling was rather good. I had to look it up. He called Hughes a "mollymawk". He then swapped to "mollyhawk". That's better.

A mollymawk is a type of albatross. A mollyhawk a young black-backed gull. Perfect. In one obscure word Jones captured the image of juvenile squawking. He summed up the Greens rather well.


It's ironic that Hughes is complaining. Green co-leader Russel Norman is doing well standing tough against Conservative leader Colin Craig's attempt to silence him through defamation proceedings. Norman takes the high ground, declaring that politicians must state their positions robustly and that those entering the political fray must accept the criticisms that come their way. He has made it an issue of political free speech.

Hughes completely undercuts Norman. It looks like the Greens can dish it out but can't take it. Hughes' complaint is proceeding through some official mechanism that the Greens and Labour have for the airing of disputes between them. It sounds very United Nations.

The name-calling and complaint are excellent political theatre and the stuff of headlines. But behind the theatre, deeper political machinations are in play.

Jones came a distant third in Labour's race to be leader but you would think he had won it with the headlines he has been generating. He launched into Countdown, then foreign students, and now the Greens. He's been on the front foot, with his hapless leader David Cunliffe on the back.

The contrasting performance is stark and it's clear that Jones is emboldened. He hasn't given up his leadership ambitions. He is clearly positioning for leader should Labour fall short this election.

It's not a good look for Labour. The guy who came third is expected to play second fiddle. But Jones can't help himself. He's putting in the boot in the nicest possible way: by succeeding where his leader is failing.

There's also the political calculation at play of what Labour is to do with the Greens. Jones is knocking them about. Cunliffe is appeasing them.

The problem is a vote for Labour is a vote to put the Greens in power. The Greens may prove just too nutty and extreme for the voters Labour needs. It may well be the Greens make Labour unelectable. They certainly make it tougher for Labour to win.

Besides, the Greens have no option but Labour. There's no need for Labour to be pandering to them as Cunliffe is doing.

The Jones approach is to knock the Greens about and win votes for Labour. It's not like the Greens can take umbrage and shift their support to National. And without options the Greens face the danger of being again stood up. Helen Clark chose Winston Peters over the Greens in 2005. It's a tough choice: Winston or the Greens. But that may well be the choice Labour again confronts.

In the meantime, there is a compelling electoral logic for Labour putting a distance between themselves and the Greens. That's what Jones grasps. And Cunliffe disciplining him doesn't trouble him. The day after Cunliffe ticked him off he again put the boot into Norman saying he wouldn't be lectured on the environment by an Australian.

Leaders who are succeeding stamp their authority on their party. They put down the contenders. They declare the party's strategic direction. They are in command. Cunliffe isn't there yet.