United Future's secret: divided it stands

This coming Friday Labour, Progressive and United Future will mark a year in harness. Last Wednesday United Future MP Marc Alexander had this to say: “Labour is starting to inspire confidence in the same way that the Titanic inspires buoyancy.”

Not very collegial. What’s going on?

Alexander was objecting to Labour’s “evangelical bunch of ideologues” who “think that minority rights override those of just about everyone else”.

In his sights were the anti-smoking bill, the Prostitution Reform Act — not government bills but backed by most Labour MPs — the Care of Children Bill and the upcoming civil union bill formalising same-sex marriages.

All contravene core United Future values.

Two days earlier leader Peter Dunne, once a Labour minister, foreshadowed Alexander, pronouncing United Future “very concerned about some of the legislation”. The Care of Children Bill had been “hijacked by the thought-police within Labour’s ranks”. He, too, excoriated the smoke-free and civil union bills.

“The practice of corrupting worthwhile legislation with political correctness is becoming a habit for this government”. It is “pink think of the worst kind. They appear to be willing to use legislation to force New Zealanders to see things their way.

“Where is the demand for this kind of radical social reform?” And why, Dunne asked, is it getting priority over urgently needed improvements in social services?

But there is more to the standoff with Labour than a difference over social reform.

Dunne attacked “senior ministers” for “negotiating secretly with their own Maori MPs on the foreshore and seabed while New Zealand families are left wondering whether they can freely go to the beach or cast a fishing line into the water”. That same day he led a march on that issue in Nelson organised by his party, shoulder-to-shoulder with National MP Nick Smith. More and more last week United Future looked like a natural ally with National.

So is this the end of the marriage made in political heaven with Labour? Is this divorce?

No. It is the end of a way of looking at politics.

The first two MMP governments were marred by instability. Also, after 1998 the governments were lopsided: National dependent on ACT on its right flank and Labour dependent on the Alliance and the Greens on its left flank.

Dunne is determined to show his party is a stabiliser. That was the absolute priority through the first 12 months just ended. It will remain a high priority through to the 2005 election and beyond. “We want to be the first [support] party to succeed in providing government stability for a whole term,” Dunne says.

That is pitch No 1 to electors in 2005: United Future delivers stability.

But after spending the first year “settling into the role of a responsible partner”, helping Labour in the House — and earning vituperation for that from a National party blind to its own long-term strategic needs — “now it is appropriate to lift our game a little bit”.

“We are putting more focus on issues of concern to us and are being more vigorous in their promotion.” Hence the up-tempo stuff above.

That is pitch No 2 to the electors in 2005: United Future stands for traditional social values, centred on the family.

Then there is pitch No 3: the party of “commonsense”, a moderating influence and a tactical refuge for those who want to stop “extreme” flank-party tails wagging government dogs.

Anecdotal evidence suggests much of United Future’s vote in 2002 was to forestall Labour dependence on the Greens. Dunne is putting store by a similar vote in 2005 — not just from right-of-centre voters but also from moderate Labour voters who don’t want too much Green influence.

Pitch No 1 and pitch No 3 go hand in hand. If to those you add Dunne’s commitment to back in government the major party which gets the biggest vote — he calls it “mandate” — then after some future election you can expect United Future to offer “stability” to a National-led government coupled with reassurance to moderate voters of restraint of ACT.

That there will be such a government came a very significant step closer on Saturday with “unofficial” overtures from a senior National MP and the ACT president for coalition-in-opposition.

Dunne argues that winning public credibility for pitches 1 and 3 — stability and commonsense/moderation — will give United Future room credibly to push pitch No 2 hard close to the 2005 election and so cement its distinct identity without raising fears of post-election instability.

It is a compelling logic. But there is an attendant logic: that pitch No 2 is so much closer to National than Labour that (despite more congruence with Labour than National on social services) at some point United Future might well fetch up in National’s sphere, not in the middle.

The trigger might well be if Labour at some point depends on the Greens for a majority. Labour therefore needs United Future strong after 2005 so that doesn’t happen. Isn’t politics fun?