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OPINIONPoliticsOctober 24, 2023

The Greens’ Labour problem


If you’re young and left-wing, you probably voted Green. Was that the best strategy for actually achieving progressive change?

There’s no way around it: this election was bruising for the political left.

New Zealand now faces three years, and quite likely more, with a government that looks set to not only undo many of the Labour government’s modest advances, but to systematically favour the powerful over the vulnerable: landlords over renters, bosses over workers, profit over planet. All this as we enter the middle of a decade that was a few years ago pitched by climate scientists as the last chance saloon to save the planet.

But to some, there is a glimmer of hope in the results. As newly elected MP Steve Abel put it, the Green Party’s success in increasing its share of the party vote and winning an unprecedented three electorate seats is a “banner of hope” in an otherwise poor outcome for the country. As co-leader Marama Davidson put it: “The people have spoken. It’s been incredible.”

There is nothing wrong with looking for a silver lining. But underlying this optimism is an endorsement of a particular political strategy – one that has seen the Green Party become the focal point for left-wing political energy in New Zealand, particularly among young people anxious to create a fairer society and liveable planet.

Marama Davidson and James Shaw at The Spinoff’s podcast studio during the election campaign. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Activists and organisers have invested extraordinary efforts into the Green Party in recent years. This election marked the party’s largest grassroots campaign ever, according to co-leader James Shaw, with hundreds of volunteers knocking on thousands of doors around the country. The money has flown in too. The Greens received more in donations than Labour these past three years. If you are young and progressive in New Zealand, chances are you consider yourself a Green supporter.

Not without reason. The Green Party is now home to some of the country’s most exciting political talent, most notably Chlöe Swarbrick. Its policies this election were undoubtedly the most compelling for those looking for a fairer society and economy. And the party’s willingness to take a principled stance on issues such as a wealth tax has been a stark contrast to the numerous backdowns of the Labour government since 2017.

The Green Party’s core vision is now more urgent than ever. So it’s worth asking a basic question: what’s the plan for actually delivering on that vision? And does that plan make sense? The answer, I’m beginning to think, is probably not. Far from being the success it’s been proclaimed to be, this election has shown the limits of pursuing radical change through the Green Party.

Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw at the confidence and supply agreement signing ceremony on October 24, 2017. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

For many years, the Greens functioned essentially as a protest vote. But in recent times, the party has been transformed by a new generation who are serious about building and wielding power, recognising correctly that transformational change will not just happen but must be enacted. Nowadays, the party campaigns on a policy manifesto full of plans for huge changes to New Zealand’s political economy, and has since 2015 been co-led by James Shaw, a former management consultant, who is as much at home speaking to business audiences as he is to environmentalists.

Although not often spelled out explicitly, this shift is underpinned by a particular view of how political power works in New Zealand under MMP. At its most basic, the idea is that the Green Party can achieve its objectives both indirectly, by influencing the political discourse and thus pulling the public left, and directly, by winning concessions from a Labour-led government in coalition negotiations. As Shaw put it at the party AGM in July, imparting a message that Green candidates repeated constantly on the campaign trail: “The only way we can do that is to have more Green MPs in the next Parliament and more Green ministers in the next government.”

More votes means more MPs means more ministers means more Green policies. Sounds good. But does it actually make sense?

Green Party candidate Tamatha Paul, the winner in Wellington Central

The basic issue is that the Greens have a Labour problem. Unless and until Labour veers left, the Greens have little hope of winning the radical changes that are central to their vision. But the diversion of left wing organising energy into the Greens prevents that shift from happening, leaving Labour hostage to the conservative, poll-obsessed factions that the Greens decry as sell-outs.

Yes, the Greens can win – and have won – concessions from Labour. But in all its various governing relationships with the Greens, Labour has never conceded the big and important stuff, such as a wealth tax. It won’t do so unless it is independently committed to such changes and willing to stand by them.

Consider the Labour government’s climate achievements, such as the Zero Carbon Act and the Climate Change Commission, which the Green Party often points to as signs of its influence on government. While the Greens no doubt influenced the shape of those policies, their implementation came after Labour ran a climate focused campaign of its own in 2017 – remember the whole “nuclear free moment” thing? Even if the Greens weren’t at the table, climate change was going to be a focus of Ardern’s government.

Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations on September 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

The problem for the Greens is that, unlike parties to the right, they have little leverage. While having more MPs might provide some moral or rhetorical basis for securing more concessions, even a small right flank can almost completely stall a left government’s agenda, as Winston Peters demonstrated time and time again in Labour’s first term. By the same logic, even if the Greens were somehow to become the larger left party – which is hard to imagine right now – any programme could be held hostage by a Labour Party to its right.

The left’s only hope of implementing transformational change is if Labour is itself committed to that vision, and can inspire enough people to turn out and vote for it to secure a left majority in Parliament. So how does that happen?

Historically, significant energy was devoted into contesting the political direction of the Labour Party. But now, much of this energy is devoted instead to contesting left-leaning electorate seats from Labour, with zero impact on the power of the left overall. Just consider the effort poured into Mt Albert, Wellington Central and Rongotai this election to flip red voters green, while Māngere and Manurewa recorded huge drops in voter turnout.

To many on the left these days, involvement in the Labour Party is unthinkable. It is seen as somehow endorsing all of Labour’s past betrayals, of which there are many – from Rogernomics to the Foreshore and Seabed Act to the capitulation over a capital gains tax. To get close to Labour is to be a coward and a compromiser and a careerist.

But this view rests on a mistaken understanding of what political parties fundamentally are. They are not simply teams to support or brands to identify with; they are movements made up of competing interests, and sites of political struggle. Labour is not unambitious and conservative because it is inherently that way. It’s that way because it’s currently dominated by lobbyists and professional political operatives. It doesn’t need to stay that way. And given the urgency of the crises we face, it can’t.

The tragedy of all this is that, despite all the money, effort and passion invested into the Green Party in recent years, that party is now in virtually the same position as it was a decade ago, with 14 MPs, in opposition under a National government. Is it time for a new approach?

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