Politics

Inside the campaigns: how the Greens survived Jacindamania

Novelist Danyl Mclauchlan describes his experiences and processes his thoughts after working on the Greens campaign in election 2017.

I had a bit to do with the Green Party campaign this election, which was a hell of a thing to experience close-up. (And my views here are mine not those of the Greens, and possibly aren’t shared by a single other person in the entire party). I didn’t have one specific role. Near the beginning of the year the Greens’ campaign director introduced me to someone and said, ‘This is Danyl, he…’ she turned and demanded, ‘What is it you do, exactly?’ and I had to admit, ‘It’s never been made clear to me.’

I went to weekend meetings and late-night video-conferences and often recalled Oscar Wilde’s comment that the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings. I did some data analysis and some speechwriting. Mostly I oversaw the party’s Creative Committee. Kevin Hague suggested I take on the role in mid 2016, back when Hague was the party’s caucus strategist, before he left Parliament to go run Forest and Bird.

When I accepted I assumed the role would be, well, creative, which shows how little I knew. The ad agency did most of the creative work: my job was to get sign-off on it from different stakeholders throughout the party, many of whom had surprisingly deep and intractable views on font kerning; this may explain the glint in Hague’s eye when he nominated me. (Hague also taught me that if you’re a member of a left-wing decision-making body you can increase the group’s productivity ten-fold by periodically pointing out ‘We’re not generating any outcomes here guys, we’re just talking.’)

I learned a lot about politics. Mostly I learned that after years of pontificating about politics online I didn’t know very much about politics. Campaigns require a lot more consensus building and collaborative work and a lot less sneering and insulting people than the internet had prepared me for. I still didn’t pick the outcome of the election until we were about a week out: I thought that Jacindamania would prevail, until I travelled from Wellington to Taupo and observed that once you get out of the big cities, where there’s a rich diversity of election billboards, the rest of the country is a vast unbroken sea of blue. That wouldn’t be so bad if we had an urban-rural divide, like some other democracies, but there’s a hell of a lot of blue in the cities too.

James Shaw and Metiria Turei in conversation with Toby Manhire during happier times Photo: Adrian Malloch

Every election the wise people of the political commentariat explain to the Green Party that it should be a centrist environmental party that can go into government with both Labour and National. It happened again this year and it was the premise of Gareth Morgan’s TOP. The argument makes a lot of sense if you’re looking at diagrams of Parliament and counting to a hundred and twenty, but this election showed why it’s such dubious advice from a strategic point-of-view.

The 5% threshold makes the centre a very dangerous place for a small party, because in moments of crisis – like, say, your caucus tearing itself apart and the senior co-leader resigning amidst a massive controversy a couple of weeks out from the start of the campaign – all of your votes would be available to both major parties. It is the place of maximum leverage after the election but maximum peril before it. The Green vote plummeted during the campaign, for obvious reasons, but New Zealand First’s vote fell almost as sharply without any comparable public catastrophes. They lost votes because they were in the centre, vulnerable to National’s pivot to social conservatism and vulnerable to Jacinda.

Jacinda! For years the Labour Party has been a political corpse on the floor of Parliament, with all the other parties rifling through its pockets and stealing its shoes. Jacinda was the moment when the corpse’s eyes flicked open and its hands locked around the Greens’ throat. Every time I saw Ardern’s face – which was everywhere during the campaign – I recalled a line from Plath: ‘Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.’ (My wife: ‘That should be her slogan. I’d vote for it.’)

One night the Greens had a crisis meeting. Ardern had re-announced Labour’s campaign priorities as poverty and climate change, which happened to be the Green Party’s campaign priorities. Metiria had just resigned and there had been unconfirmed reports that the other parties’ internal polls – conducted after the caucus split but before Meyt stepped down – had us on three percent which, if true, meant we’d lost about three hundred thousand votes in less than a week. ‘Most media will cover the rest of the election as an FPP election,’ one of the media strategists predicted. ‘It’s going to be very hard to earn any cut-through and win those votes back.’

It was late, and the meeting room looked out over downtown Wellington. I closed my eyes and experienced a brief vision of Jacinda, hundreds of meters tall, striding through the city surrounded by admiring throngs of urban liberal voters aged 18 to 45. She reached down and scooped up vast handfuls of them, tossing them in the air where they spun, screaming in ecstasy, lit by the cold white beams from her incandescent eyes before tumbling into her black and infinite maw.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern addresses supporters (Photo by Shirley Kwok/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Ardern’s campaign was Labour’s attempted solution to the problem of the centre. It’s the same problem National faced back in 2002, when Bill English led the party to a historic defeat. Back then Helen Clark’s centrist Labour Party governed the country in coalition with the Alliance, which had just disintegrated (to Labour’s gain). The ACT Party occupied the right of the political spectrum, winning 7% of the vote that year. If National moved to the centre they lost votes to ACT, but if they competed for the ACT votes, they lost votes to Clark. The problem was solved in 2005 when Don Brash took over National and swallowed ACT, which gave them space in the political spectrum for their victory in 2008 and the long, sleepy, centrist reign of John Key.

Labour and the Greens have spent the past three elections recreating that same National-ACT opposition dynamic, churning through each other’s voters, many of whom are more available to one another than the just-under-half of the country who vote National. The fall of Metiria and rise of Ardern gave Labour a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break out of that trap, and they’ll probably be frustrated that they failed, although their destruction of the Māori Party and an increase in vote from 25% to 35% is a hell of a consolation prize.

How did the Greens survive? I think it was a combination of things: James Shaw, the Greens’ sole co-leader, or whatever his title is now, was a more formidable campaigner than many expected (Disclosure: Shaw is an old friend of mine so I give the reader permission to feel cynical about my endorsement); the ground campaign was more sophisticated than previous Green campaigns: the Greens typically underperform the polls on election day, which would have seen them wiped out this time around, but they successfully turned out their core voters, a constituency they’ve built goodwill with over the years and who didn’t want to lose them from Parliament.

They also got lucky with TOP, Gareth Morgan’s attempt at a centrist environmental and economic reform party. Happily Morgan approached politics like a true economist: he assumed he possessed total mastery of a field in which he was completely ignorant, wasted an enormous amount of time, energy and money, and accomplished nothing while learning nothing. I think there’s probably a voter segment for a centrist evidence-based party, although not a long-lived one for the reasons I’ve outlined above, and I think there’s a constituency for a contrarian, anti-establishment party where Gareth Morgan runs around telling women they’re pigs and femo-fascists and that everyone else is an idiot – but I don’t think those groups intersect very much.

And I think the Greens were helped by Ardern’s attempt to pivot during the final weeks of the campaign, presumably encouraged by a series of polls showing Labour had attracted enough votes from National to achieve largest-party status. She ruled out a capital gains tax and admitted that while climate change was the great crisis of her generation she wasn’t actually going to do much about it. At the same time, National went on the attack. Eleven billion dollar hole in Labour’s budget. Secret taxes. ‘They’re going to tax the family boat!’ The media were admirably forthright in telling the country that Bill English and Steven Joyce were a pair of brazen fucking liars, but the mainstream media are far less influential than they used to be.

‘Media bias’ is everyone’s excuse for everything that happens in politics that they don’t like. Occasionally it’s true, but mostly it’s a more palatable alternative to admitting that your values aren’t popular or that the politicians you admire aren’t very good at their jobs. Of course there’s always bias, but as an institution the media are biased towards whoever produces good content for them, and this election that was Jacinda. I don’t think any party leader has ever received more favourable coverage. She was labelled ‘The People’s Princess’ and ‘The Queen of Hearts’ by headline writers and editorialists, while English and Joyce were denounced as con artists but, just like Trump and Corbyn, they talked past the media, directly to the voters and hammered their message through their digital channels, and it worked. Media bias doesn’t seem to matter very much any more.

Election campaigns are an attempt to seize political power, a once violent process transformed into ritual combat. Ardern announced her style as ‘relentless positivity’ but the first week of her leadership her style was about conflict and dominance, and I think this, rather than positivity was the cause of her early surge. Every new leader wants to fire someone to demonstrate their toughness, but if you’re an opposition leader your capacity to sack people is usually limited to senior staffers and caucus rivals, whom the public are indifferent to. Ardern had Metiria Turei, whom the public was far from indifferent to, and who Ardern ruled out from cabinet three days after she became leader. She fought with NewsHub’s Mark Richardson about feminism; she fought with Australian Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop about Bishop’s bizarre intervention in New Zealand politics. She formed the impression of someone tough and cool in a crisis.

Then came National’s attacks, and Ardern’s response was a policy reversal combined with feeble pleas for her opponents to stop being so mean to her. “This is mischievous Bill,” she complained to the Prime Minister during their final debate. “Look me in the eye and tell me you believe this,” which, of course, he cheerfully did. I’ve lost the energy to muster up much outrage about National’s tactics. If you care about facts and an evidence-based approach to politics you eventually have to accept the evidence showing that facts and evidence don’t count for much in politics, and never have. Campaigns are a ceremonial conflict and most voters are looking for a strong leader who can win, not a civics teacher who loses.

Ardern and English during the Newshub Decision 17 Leaders Debate in Auckland. Pic Michael Bradley. Image © and supplied by Newshub

As I write this there’s a post-election debate raging about whether the Greens should go into coalition with National. (And let me preface these remarks by saying again I don’t speak for the party in any way whatsoever, and have nothing to do with the negotiating process. I was just the guy who fought with people about fonts.)

This is National’s ploy to try and leverage Winston Peters by opening up a parallel negotiation process with another party, but there’s a reasonable question in there. If the Greens care so much about the environment and poverty and climate change, why not maximise their leverage in the MMP environment to get the best deal in those areas from both parties instead of minimising their leverage by committing to Labour and ruling out National?

There are a few barriers to such an approach. Firstly, most of what the Greens want is antithetical to National’s core voters and, most importantly National’s donor class, and vice-versa, so it’s very hard to see how any kind of stable government could emerge from such a union. Secondly: the Greens premised their entire campaign on changing the government and forming a new government with Labour, so going on to prop National up for a fourth term would be somewhat awkward. Third: the Green’s negotiators would need to take any provisional coalition arrangement with National to their party’s membership for approval, who, heh heh heh, would not be enthusiastic.

But putting those insurmountable barriers aside for a minute, what’s the obstacle? Well, there’s still the problem of the centre and the inevitable electoral destruction such an accommodation would bring. But that’s a strategic issue and the Green Party is supposed to be about principles and policy and values. Isn’t it worth going into a government that will be unpopular with your constituency and delivering on your policies and values even if there’s a high risk of getting wiped out at the next election?

Maybe! If poverty, environmental sustainability and climate change were problems that could be solved in three years I’d see the logic in it. But they aren’t. Being in government was certainly very good for Peter Dunne but not so much for his party United Future – which no longer exists – or its values, whatever they even were.

I often think that the Green approach corresponds to what Warren Buffett terms ‘long term greedy’. The Greens haven’t earned any Ministerial salaries, but Green election policies tend to become Labour policy in the subsequent election (and in 2017 this time frame fell from three years to roughly 48 hours) and often finds its way, in diluted form, to National Party policy. Is the ongoing ability to influence public debate and major party policy worth trading for three years in government followed by oblivion? Again, maybe! But you’re not just giving up that soft power, you’re also giving up the long-term, possibly mythical goal of a Labour-Green coalition government, a form of government which is hypothetically survivable for the Green Party.

I don’t know what the outcome of the current negotiations will be. A National-New Zealand First government or a Labour-New Zealand First arrangement with some Faustian bargain for the Greens in reward for propping it up seem like the most likely outcomes. My friends in National seem excited about the prospect of an English-led government in a way they weren’t for the last six years of Key, which they now regard as a wasted opportunity and years of drift.

Things look a little more promising for the Greens, long-term-greedy. The ongoing survival of New Zealand First is predicated on the health and vitality of Winston Peters, who is a very clever and capable politician but who will be seventy-five at the next election, assuming whatever government he forms can last for three years. When he goes his votes will become available to the major parties, which will be pretty ugly to watch but should open up space for the Greens. Hopefully. We’ll see.

On Sunday morning, after the election I went down to the Greens’ Auckland office to try and cadge a ride to the airport. It was near deserted, but I hadn’t been there long when Chloe Swarbrick strode in, ready for her first media stand-up as an MP-elect. Her gaze swept the room and her eyes narrowed when they fell upon me, lying on a couch with my shirt untucked and my shoes off, drinking tea brewed with the Auckland Green Party’s last bag of green tea. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Nothing,’ I replied, realising with an odd mixture of sadness and relief that this was true: that I no longer had any phone conferences scheduled, or scripts to code or speeches to write or the imminent destruction of the party to feel anxious about. It was all very exhilarating: I see how people get addicted to it. But I can also see how they burn out. Elections are exhausting and stressful, even if you were as peripheral to everything as I was, especially if you’re as lazy and introverted as I am. Swarbrick marched off to stand beside James in the media stand-up at the far end of the room, and I slumped on the couch, out of sight, and read a book.

Read the first of this series, Jenna Raeburn’s perspective on the National campaign, here

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.