In the unlikely event it ever came to pass, Labour's proposed course of action on the Trans-Pacific Partnership - flout the bits it doesn't like - would constitute the most reckless act by any New Zealand government of the post-Muldoon era.

For those of us who want to see Labour re-emerge as a plausible alternative government, it was dispiriting enough to witness finance spokesman Grant Robertson first float the idea Labour might ban foreigners from buying New Zealand property even if it contravened the TPP. But not only has Andrew Little's repeated doubling down on this reckless notion raised the stakes sharply, it has called into question Labour's capacity to govern responsibly.

Andrew Little echoes Robertson's contention that a government he leads can simply legislate around irksome elements of the TPP - an unconscionable policy position for a serious political party. No trade deal, nor international treaty of any kind, would be worth the paper it's written on if signatories opted out of unfavourable clauses on the grounds of national interest. If Labour's policy of selective implementation were adopted by the 11 other signatories, the TPP would dissolve overnight.

Not for the first time, Andrew Little's Labour has crafted a policy that suffers from being too clever by half, grounded in a hazy matrix of dubious political calculations but utterly devoid of any discernible principle. In a proxy war between those who hate capitalism and those who hate regulation, Labour has, of its own volition, taken up occupancy in a no-man's land of clumsy opportunism.

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It is perfectly reasonable to oppose the TPP if you reject the argument that the free movement of capital, goods and services is an economic or social good. For such critics, trade liberalisation reinforces a global capitalist system they sincerely, vehemently, ideologically, oppose.

This is reflected in the common refrain that the only winners from the TPP are corporations and commercial interests - a bit like complaining that dialysis machines disproportionately benefit diabetics. Of course, trade deals are designed primarily to benefit those engaged in commerce - it is, rather self-evidently, a feature, not a bug.

Marxists and right-wing nativists alike are obliged by their sincerely held beliefs to fight the proposed agreement tooth and nail, and New Zealand democracy is surely capacious enough to accommodate all of them.

New York-based writer and researcher Phil Quin, worked for the Labour Party research unit between on and off between 1989 and 1996. Photo / Supplied
New York-based writer and researcher Phil Quin, worked for the Labour Party research unit between on and off between 1989 and 1996. Photo / Supplied

But Labour's position is not informed by any such lucid political philosophy - unless you count "having, as well as eating, one's cake".

Helen Clark's comments in support of the TPP made crystal clear how the case for New Zealand staying out of the deal, however flawed, is an impossibly hard political lift. After all, we're talking about 11 of our most important export markets that, between them, comprise 40 per cent of global GDP.

In any case, unlike the Greens or protectionist elements of the former Alliance (several of whose most prominent activists populate Andrew Little's office), Labour is a pro-free trade party, specifically endorsing the TPP process as recently as 2013.

In trying to placate opponents of the TPP without further trashing the party's tenuous economic credentials, Labour has half baked a policy that nobody in their right mind could take seriously. Aside from practical problems of implementation, proposing that a future Labour government selectively ignore international obligations besmirches an unrivalled legacy of liberal internationalism, as well as support for multilateral institutions and the promotion of open markets.

It will not be lost on ardent free-traders like Phil Goff and Clayton Cosgrove that Labour is ceding rich and expansive turf to the National Party.

Conservative pundit Matthew Hooton believes they, along with a handful of others, are up in arms. He even claims they are willing to cross the floor in support of the TPP. I'm sceptical: there is scant evidence Labour's remaining moderates are capable of such courageous, potentially career-threatening acts.

They have shown themselves to be no less bamboozled than their colleagues by the fiction that the party's fortunes hinge on unity at all costs, even unifying behind bad ideas and even worse politics.

Phil Quin, a communications consultant, was an adviser to Labour in NZ (1989-96) and Australian Labor (1998-2001).