Interesting piece by Melissa Fyfe in yesterday’s Age on the debate within the ALP over how to respond to the Greens in advance of November’s Victorian election.

Briefly, she says there are two opposing lines of thought: one, to continue the strategy used in 2006 of directly attacking the Greens, smearing them as tools of the Liberal Party; the other, to try to address the reasons why Labor’s inner-city voters have been deserting it, in the hope of luring them back.

It’s worth reading the whole article, but what most surprised me was that apparently no one in the Labor Party suggested to Fyfe that there was a third option: namely to stop worrying about the Greens and concentrate on fighting their actual opponents, the Coalition.

Both strategies on offer risk hurting Labor in the main game. Painting the Greens as allies of the Liberals could become a self-fulfilling prophecy; in a scenario where the Greens hold the balance of power, they are unlikely to respond warmly to Labor’s offers if it has spent most of the campaign attacking them. But moving leftwards to recapture alienated Greens voters is equally risky, since it may play badly in the regional and outer suburban marginals.

The plain fact is that the election will not be decided in the inner city. It will be decided by Labor versus Coalition contests in marginal seats, and anything that draws Labor’s attention and resources away from them threatens its chances. But the Labor machine’s operators are concentrated overwhelmingly in the inner suburbs, and so perceive the Greens as a much bigger problem than they really are.

Any Labor MP who says the Greens are analogous to the DLP, or “a greater threat … than the Liberal Party”, is either lying through their teeth or has parted company with reality in a big way. As the federal election has just demonstrated, a high Greens vote is more of a problem for the Coalition than for Labor, and on current trends the Greens will soon be threatening inner-suburban Liberal seats as well — a more serious problem for the Liberals, since they are much less likely to win over the Greens as partners in government.

For years now I’ve been criticising the Liberal Party’s spinelessness when it comes to dealing with the Nationals — the way it almost invariably rolls over and capitulates to National Party demands. But Labor’s 2006 strategy represents the opposite extreme of how to deal with a potential junior partner: unrelenting warfare that wastes badly-needed resources and that even on its own terms tends to be counter-productive.

The inner-Melbourne voters (I am one of them) who now support the Greens are less and less responsive to the sort of lurid allegations that people such as Stephen Newnham have been peddling. As Fyfe says, “It’s a bit like a man who says to his wife: ‘You fool! You’ve run off with a dangerous idiot who has hoodwinked you, now come back immediately’!”

Nor does in necessarily help to point out that many Greens policies are foolish and unrealistic. Their voters already know that (although they may disagree about just which ones they place in that category), but they like the idea of a party that expresses its views in honest and forthright terms, instead of only ever communicating in focus-group-driven mush.

But if Labor were to de-escalate its war on the Greens it would be in a much better position to fight off the opposition challenge where it matters. And, as a bonus, it would find the Greens in a more co-operative mood if it were to end up needing their support in parliament.