Once there was the Alliance. Now there are the Tortured Soul, the Troubled Soul, the Bin-liners and the Nearly Labour Party.

Any voters Pollyanna-ish enough to believe the chasm may yet close between Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton and his erstwhile mate Matt McCarten should scratch the surface of mock consultation and hoped-for reconciliation.

Just below the veneer is a soup of distrust, name-calling and blame - and some serious thinking about how the "parties" position themselves for the election.


Not since the days of the 1988 feud between David Lange and Roger Douglas has Parliament seen a party so polarised into armed camps.

But first some explanation of the name-calling, because it gives a handy insight into the reasons for the impending split and the road ahead.

The "Nearly Labour Party", a.k.a. "Helen's Little Helpers", is the group of MPs surrounding Jim Anderton - Matt Robson, Sandra Lee and the two Democrat MPs, John Wright and Grant Gillon.

This tight five met at Vogel House on March 3 to plot a strategy to split from what they see as the destructive radicals. They won their name from their opponents by insisting on limiting the public airing of differences with Labour.

The joke goes that calling them the Nearly Labour Party would save on stationery, because they could re-use old NewLabour Party letterhead.

"The Bin-liners" has a more obscure heritage. Comprising McCarten, the Alliance president, and MPs Laila Harre, Liz Gordon and Willie Jackson, their name comes from a cartoon showing Anderton in a sleek bobsled called Wigram about to hit the luge. Alongside him was McCarten perched atop a plastic rubbish bag. The echo of Osama Bin Laden adds a delicious touch, too.

The Anderton faction thinks it neatly sums up the relative difficulty of getting back into Parliament - Anderton sliding smoothly in on his huge personal backing in Wigram and the rest of the Alliance facing a hair-raising ride to oblivion.

The remaining two MPs - dubbed the Troubled One (Phillida Bunkle) and the Tortured One (Kevin Campbell) - are in the Nearly Labour group, but not as committed or as enthusiastic about a split as the others - hence their absence from the key Vogel House meeting.

Bunkle doesn't really get on with either camp and Campbell is so thoroughly decent as to be cut to the quick by the knife slicing through his party and his friendships.

At the moment events are poised at the top of the slope. Anderton is taking another couple of weeks to supposedly canvass members, but in reality is trying to garner more support and give Helen Clark a chance to hold her historic meeting with President Bush without the distraction of a Coalition conflagration.

McCarten's group is less patient but must bide its time. While some genuinely want to reconcile with Anderton, they also see political gain from hugging him in public while preparing for his exit in private.

Having rejected a negotiated split, the McCarten-ites believe they will be rewarded by the membership, which also wants unity, at the expense of the Andertonian "waka-jumpers".

So far the voters' eye view has largely been of a dispute over style - how stroppy the Alliance should be in coalition - rather than fundamental policy differences ... the Afghan war aside.

Yet as the strategists prepare for a breakup, style differences are fast being overtaken by substance.

Anderton's faction believes it will be able to campaign as a mainstream social democratic party (it is apparently resigned to shedding the Alliance name, seeing it as a turn-off for the voters).

Selling itself as the only minor party which will definitely join Labour in government, it will likely stress core "left" issues - health, education, jobs and superannuation. The "Wigram values" for shorthand.

Under the enhanced influence of the Democrats it raises at least the prospect that an Anderton party will be to the right of Labour on some issues.

Tactically, Anderton's team believes it will be rewarded at the ballot box for his work on jobs, Kiwibank, regional development and as a supporter of a popular Government. If that is so, the provincial towns and Christchurch will be his power-base.

The McCarten faction - led by Harre and likely to retain the Alliance brand - has a more urban, liberal left and Auckland feel to it with a stronger union bias than Anderton's vehicle. Look for Harre to stand in the new Waitakere seat and McCarten in Auckland Central.

It will be able to rely on a fresher, stroppier, younger-looking team in Harre, McCarten, Jackson and possibly some other high-profile leftists - union leader Maxine Gay springs to mind. A fresh voice will inevitably draw more than its share of media coverage and voters often lean towards the sexy new party on the hustings - in past elections Bob Jones' New Zealand Party, the Alliance, New Zealand First and the Greens spring to mind.

Far from seeing co-operation with Labour as a boon, they will argue Anderton's team are too close to make a difference: why vote for him when you can get the real thing by voting directly for Clark?

But that is for the campaign.

There are still some crucial issues to be resolved in the next few weeks.

Anderton's first problem is how to sell to the public the need for a split. He doesn't have anything as compelling as the Lange-Douglas flat-tax row or the Peters-Shipley fight over selling Wellington Airport.

Will Anderton's "I didn't leave the party, the party left me" line get another airing as it did when he quit Labour to form NewLabour? And will he be able to claim leadership of a party in the House that he is committed to fighting at the polls?

Next, how will he handle his position in the House? Can he be the leader of the Alliance and control its parliamentary budget when the conference elects Harre as the leader? And who chairs the caucus?

Will Clark sack Harre from Cabinet if Anderton wants that? Will she be willing to take the flak for sacking the only minister who plans to stick with the party she is in coalition with? And how will Clark handle claims her coalition is both an opponent of, and obvious example of, waka-jumping?

Suddenly the prospect of a rather flat run-up to the re-election of a Labour-led Government doesn't look so dull after all.