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Image: Archi Banal
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OPINIONPoliticsNovember 7, 2023

No, the Greens don’t have a Labour problem

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

The idea that progressives should focus their energy on shifting Labour to the left – rather than supporting smaller parties that are already there – fails to win over Green candidate Francisco Hernandez.

I’m writing this in response to Ollie Neas’s excellent piece The Greens’ Labour problem, in which he questioned whether the Green Party was the right focal point for leftwing political energy in New Zealand. I don’t agree with every point Neas makes, but it’s an intelligent and cogent contribution to the debate and honestly, I’m just relieved it wasn’t another Blue-Green take. 

My main issue with the article is his implication that progressives should support Labour and push it to the left. Now, nowhere is it actually stated in the article that progressives should join and support Labour en masse rather than supporting the Greens or Te Pāti Māori, but the argument is implicit. If the “diversion of leftwing organising energy into the Greens prevents that shift from happening”, as Neas writes about the potential of Labour moving to the left, then surely the implication is that progressives shouldn’t be “diverted” to the Greens and should instead go to Labour. 

But think about what doing that actually entails. If Labour – despite refusing to tax capital, despite refusing to commit to the welfare working group’s recommendations and despite scrapping climate policies on the bonfire of policy centrism – still received the votes of progressives, would that not constitute an endorsement of centrism?

Photo: Toby Manhire

I agree with Neas that political parties are contested sites of struggle, but the deck is stacked against progressives in Labour. I know – I was once a proud Young Labour hack. 

Let’s say you want to get selected as a candidate for a Labour seat. Labour’s candidate selection rules structurally give three votes to people appointed by the “New Zealand Council” – the governing council of the New Zealand Labour Party. One to two votes are given to the local branch (depending on size), one vote is given to a delegate elected on the floor and another vote is allocated by member vote. This approach structurally means that between 43% and 50% of the vote is determined by the governing council and not necessarily a local voice. By contrast, the Greens have a simple one-person, one-vote system in selecting candidates.

The list-ranking process is similarly more democratic in the Greens, with every member vote counting as one, in contrast to Labour’s more opaque list-ranking processes. While the Greens do have provisions for adjusting the list to account for representation, you can only get moved two spots at most.

But let’s imagine the best-case scenario for insider change if you overcome the structural barriers in Labour’s internal machinery.

Imagine you’re a progressive aspiring politician. You start your career as president of the best student union in the country (OUSA). You work your way up the ranks of Young Labour and then the wider party apparatus. You work at parliament for a succession of MPs, and then ministers, and then soon even the PM. You get selected for the (formerly) safe Labour seat of Wellington Central and win by a landslide. You get elected in the same election as a bruising loss of government for your party and work your way up in opposition. You do the right things, swallow some dead rats, stifle your conscience on myriad other issues so you can get to the top, and you promise yourself you’ll make changes once you get there. 

And one day you do – you finally work your way up to a position of power and influence, say minister of finance, and become the consigliere to a prime minister, and then win the country’s only majority government under MMP. It’s too bad that she ruled out a wealth tax – but wait! There’s a new PM who has a chance to actually come in with a fresh policy mandate and maybe tax capital. So you commission a study which shows that, surprise surprise, working people are paying more than the capital class. 

And then the new prime minister immolates your entire life’s work – all the dead rats you swallowed, all the little niggles in your conscience that you endured over a political career just so you could make progressive change: nothing. Reduced to ashes in a single captain’s call. 

If the finance minister can get rolled in his *own portfolio* in a role he has held for over half a decade – and longer if you include opposition spokesperson roles – then the path for progressives in Labour is a very difficult and lonely one, assuming they even get there. 

Grant Robertson (Photo: Mark Graham/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

All power to comrades in the Labour Party who want to try to make it a progressive party – you are tougher cookies than I am so genuinely, good luck. I have lots of comrades in Labour trying to fight the good fight and I do support the work they’re doing. Progressives fighting for change in Labour have won some pretty good things, from marriage equality to fair pay agreements. I just don’t think it should be a main or primary focus for most progressives – there are far easier and more direct ways to pressure Labour from the left. 

The most focusing way to get Labour MPs to actually be progressive is for Labour to lose seats to progressive parties – electorate and list seats. In a political marketplace of ideas, if Labour increasingly loses seats to the Greens or Te Pāti Māori, either via electorate contests or losing list seats by a declining party vote, then Labour will have no choice but to pay attention to progressive policies.

We saw this in this year’s election. Is it any surprise that Ibrahim Omer, facing a threat from the left from Tamatha Paul, endorsed a capital gains tax? Or Ingrid Leary, facing the prospect of losing votes to the Greens candidate in a tight electorate race that she won by just 1,500 votes, also contradicted the party line? 

While parliamentary politics is naturally the focal point of political parties in a democracy, we need to consider different ways of doing politics. While Labour parties in their younger and more vigorous days practised dual power – getting involved in parliamentary politics at the same time as their trade union base worked to create a more democratic society through mutual aid societies and cooperatives – it is now the modern-day Greens that have inherited this reformist zeal for a different way of doing politics.  

Green candidates and MPs offer a broader form of activism beyond just parliamentary politics. When disaster struck in Auckland earlier this year, Chlöe Swarbrick used her mana and resources as an electorate MP to mobilise (what looked like from Dunedin) hundreds of volunteers in a community of care. When the Dunedin City Council was deliberating on the Zero Carbon Plan, the Green candidate Francisco Hernandez (literally me) rallied Green members and supporters to work with civic society and faith groups to create pressure to pass an ambitious zero carbon plan for the city. Across the ditch, the Queensland Greens created mutual aid networks that could activate and help during flooding and pandemics.

As distrust of mainstream politics grows and as people become increasingly disillusioned with our political system, it is parties that are agile, energetic and ambitious enough to try to redefine politics that will capture the support of voters. 

Chlöe Swarbrick (Photo: Sherry Zhang)

And history tells us that parties do rise and fall. Labour being the dominant party of the left is not immutable or inevitable. The first Labour candidate (at least according to Wikipedia), William Tanner, was elected to parliament in 1890 on a Liberal-Labour ticket. It wasn’t until 1916 that the Labour Party as we know it today was formed, and it wasn’t until 1935 that Labour was able to form a majority government in its own right, along the way supplanting the formerly dominant progressive party which was the Liberal Party. The first Green MP was elected 27 years ago. The sixth Labour Government (that’s the most recent one) is the first to feature Green ministers and despite every other supporting party in governing coalitions losing seats, the Greens have not only gone from strength to strength but have won a historic result this election with a record number of MPs and votes.

For nearly a hundred years people have argued that progressives should keep faith in Labour – even as Labour destroyed the foundations of the social democratic order they built up during Rogernomics, even as Clark’s government rammed through the foreshore and seabed act, even as Hipkins scrapped climate policy after climate policy in his policy bonfire. 

The implication of the criticism of progressives for daring to be a “diversion” from Labour is that progressive voters should commit to the Labour Party. Despite decades of repeated letdowns, despite the demonstrated limits of Robertson’s “insider approach” and despite having an electoral system where every vote actually matters, we should instead devote our time to contesting the political direction of the Labour Party”.

But I say that we should just let history take its course. Progressive voters should find their home where progressive ideas are. I have no doubt that the Greens will inevitably become the leading party of the left as an overly belated immune system response of the body politic as the climate emergencies burn up the planet in a feverish haze. I have no doubt that should this happen, the Green Party might also inevitably become a careerist, bloated centrist carcass of itself – begging to be overtaken by a more active and energised progressive party to its left flank. But when that day comes, I hope progressives have the good sense to let the dustbin of history sweep us away and embrace the future rather than propping up the past.

Francisco Hernandez was the Green Party candidate for Dunedin and is a current and former Green Party hack. He is also a climate policy expert with a background in student politics.

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