Environmentalism occupies a place outside the conventional left-right political axis. But for the kind of party envisaged by Vernon Tava to work, it would have to win its place by courting voters from the left, writes Danyl Mclauclan
This was the week aspiring centre-green politician Vernon Tava learned a vital but probably terminal lesson in political marketing: new parties need to clearly define their brand, because if they don’t their adversaries and the media will do it for them. Now his still unnamed ‘centrist’ or ‘green green party’ is cemented in the minds of voters and the media as ‘the blue-green party’ – which is, of course, not a centrist party or a green-green party at all, but rather a blue-green party, an enterprise that feels less like a party and more like a clumsy attempt by National to manufacture a viable coalition partner. But it’s an enterprise that makes no logical sense because almost all the support for any blue-green party will come from National, and is very unlikely to comprise enough votes to take the blue-greens over the 5% MMP threshold, so would only serve to nullify a chunk of the existing right-wing vote. What on earth is going on?
Here’s my best guess. There’s always been this largely hypothetical cohort of non-left environmental voters – sometimes referred to condescendingly as “doctors’ wives” – talked about in political circles, who, the theory goes, care about native birds and not leaving behind a scorched and smoking earth for their children, but who also like low taxes. They’re hard to see in any of the publicly available datasets and there’s not a huge number of them. You couldn’t build a party based on them.
But there was also a substantial softening of the Green’s support between 2014 and 2017. People on the right attribute it to social justice and “political correctness gone mad”; I think it had more to do with Russel Norman’s retirement and the subsequent loss of strategic coherence. Whatever the cause, I suspect National noticed there was this sizable group of voters that weren’t likely to switch to them but which you could combine with the doctor’s wives, and – presto! – you have a viable new coalition partner.
The argument for a centrist environmental party has its strengths. Environmentalism doesn’t sit neatly on the standard left-right political axis. In some ways it’s a conservative doctrine. Like, you’re literally trying to conserve things: endangered species, landscapes, rivers, oceans, human civilisation. In other ways it’s deeply radical. Our political economy, our society, our legal system – almost everything about the way we live – is a weird hybrid dominated by 19th century industrial revolution ideologies: liberalism, socialism, nationalism, capitalism; most of our politics, including the left-right split roughly maps onto conflicts between them. Environmentalism takes a position outside that system and its internal conflicts, and argues that the entire construct is deeply flawed and needs rebuilding before it collapses.
The Green Party – so the argument goes – took a side in the pre-existing debates and a position on the far left of the political spectrum and thus locked themselves out of government for 20 years. Now they’re finally in government and almost all of their portfolios are in the environmental space. Why not reposition the party in the political centre, use the negotiating leverage to play kingmaker and hold those portfolios (and more: why not Energy, Fishing, Transport, Environment?) in perpetuity, in order to make the massive change they say we desperately need?
The Green Party position on the left is partly strategic. The political centre is a dangerous place because your votes are vulnerable to predation from both major parties. Mostly it’s cultural: the Green Party was founded as a left-wing environmental and social justice party, and it still is: the justification is that you can’t have environmental justice without social justice, and that the capitalist components of the economic system need to be destroyed because “you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet”. It’s all nonsense, of course: growth is not synonymous with resource consumption. You can have a circular economy with high growth, low waste and zero emissions, just as you can have a zero growth, zero GINI people’s utopia powered by burning coal on every street corner. But people believe it – party ideology is usually about coalition building, not logic – and you couldn’t shift the Greens to the centre without tearing the party apart.
So only a new party – a real party, not whatever Vernon Tava and National are doing – could adopt the centrist green kingmaker strategy. But – doctors’ wives aside – I think that such a party would still mostly be talking to people on the left. The argument for it would have to be strategic: that it’s a way to maximise the value of your vote as an environmentalist, to protect the environment no matter the overall outcome of the election.
I have no idea how many people would go for this, but I do know that all those pre-2017 soft Green voters aren’t Green any more: they’re Labour voters, and to win them over you need to find a centrist environmentalist leader more appealing to them than Jacinda. Good luck with that.
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