A party that needs GM in the political system

Tomorrow the apocalypse. The moratorium comes off applications to release genetically modified organisms.

If the Greens are to be believed, once the first GMO is approved, even conditionally, Pandora’s box is open and there is no putting the lid back on. We are doomed, economically, corporeally and spiritually.

Actually, Armageddon will descend upon us so slowly most folk will hardly notice. There will be few applications initially and they will take months to decide. And there is a fair chance Environment Minister Marian Hobbs will call in any application that involves food, unless it is still experimental and very tightly controlled.

Hobbs, as an urban liberal who was once much more left, might in another life have lined up with the Greens.

But opponents’ vilification has brought her closer to science. Her line is that GM must be treated case by case. Each case involves different techniques, some minor. Food on which most attention is fixed is only one dimension. There are environmental and medical dimensions which pose no risk of consumer boycotts of our exports.

And we have eaten much GM food already, via soya in bread before bakeries switched to non-GM canola. No plague is yet visible — only a curious outbreak of ecdysiast exhibitionism among opponents.

In any case, the Prime Minister has gone steely. She will not be moved. So mere minister Hobbs cannot be moved either.

For a time after Hobbs was roughed up by Parliament’s local government and environment committee the Prime Minister’s steel went white hot and she tipped a pot of molten fury over the Greens, whose co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons is committee chair. A party which by and large acts out its principles does that to people.

And that is partly why Labour so warmly embraced United Future. The Greens are a revolutionary party. They want to remake the world. A Labour leadership which went through one revolution in the late 1980s has no stomach for another.

But on present evidence it is highly likely a post-2005 Labour-led government would depend on the Greens for a majority. And in that event, the Greens are adamant: they would want seats in the cabinet.

They have some bargaining chips. One is that the they have helped the government push through more contentious bills than has United Future. Another is that on social and workplace issues they are developing credence with the Labour left and some unions which want faster re-regulation.

Of course, there is a long way to go to the next election. We cannot even be sure there will be a Labour-led government (though National, mired again in leadership talk, has been doing its bit to help). Similarly, we cannot know the configuration of the next Parliament even if Labour does stay in government because we can’t know what factors will be in play.

And especially we cannot know what will happen to United Future.

The logic of MMP is that two large countervailing parties contest the middle ground, supported by one or more smaller parties. That would squeeze out parties which claim to be centrist, as Peter Dunne does for United Future.

But National’s steep slide in 2002 opened a swathe of middle ground which was part-occupied by United Future. By also vacuuming up some moral conservative votes through its church backers, United Future has enabled Labour to reach by proxy across the middle line and squeeze National.

In fact, National is now struggling to shore up its core vote, which is part of Don Brash’s (qualified) appeal as a alternative to centrist Bill English. That leaves the middle unattended.

New Zealand First has been picking up most of the polling fallout from the government side over the past few months. It looks likely at the next election to be contesting with United Future the pitch for those who are non-Labour but expect another Labour government and want a restraining force.

United Future in fact is the only small party to be significantly below its 2002 level. Its support has halved.

That factor will weigh on its conference in Christchurch on Saturday. It has yet to develop a nationwide membership structure, vital to its electoral health. It is struggling to demonstrate it is a restraining force on Labour, since Labour turns to the Greens on most issues United Future disagrees on.

As an adjunct of the government, it looks increasingly as if it is smoothing the path for the left, PC bills and all. That is anathema to the churches that backed it which need to see it demonstrate a more upfront moral conservatism. These factors will over the next year test Peter Dunne’s strategy of claiming a durable place in the centre by proving United Future is a stabilising force.

In any case, long-term Dunne must wrestle with the system’s tectonics: when National one day recovers it will contest the middle with Labour and leave little room between them. Dunne could do with some genetic modification – of a political culture which still votes in terms of governments in or out, not parties.