The Green Party contest for its next female co-leader is essentially an ideological decision between two candidates from the left and right factions of the party. Sue Bradford is undoubtedly the left option in the contest – which is partly why she won't be elected. As pointing out in the blog post on Meteria Turei, Sue Bradford is incredibly unlikely to win the contest for the Green Party female co-leader – mostly due to the fact that she is - for better or worse - very strongly associated with the so-called anti-smacking bill, an elitist style of process for pushing forward this social change, and has been typecast as a radical ‘extremist’. In fact, the decision of who to select to replace Jeanette Fitzsimons will effectively decide the ideological trajectory of the party over the foreseeable future. Bradford is the choice of those that are uncomfortable with the party's very deliberate shift towards the centre of the political spectrum under Fitzsimons and Russel Norman. This blog post takes a look at Sue Bradford's past, suggests that the left option in the Greens will lose and the party will hasten its shift not only towards greater independence from the Labour Party, but also towards the right. It also tries to unpack the history and politics of Bradford, attempting to get beyond some of the simplicities and myths projected about this unique but also rather ordinary politician [Read more below]
Bradford’s pragmatism and respectability
The greatest myth about Sue Bradford is that she is some kind of purest ideologue that only has the one mode of operation: being anti-establishment. In fact ‘Bradford the Radical’ has very easily transformed herself into ‘Bradford the respectable’ – an effective politician able to work inside the parliamentary system as well as the best of her more long-term Establishment opponents. This is a point made well by ex-Green Party parliamentary spin-doctor Gordon Campbell:
Furthermore, Campbell says quite rightly that ‘Bradford’s political flexibility and lobbying skills are not be taken lightly’. Rather than bringing her protesting style into the political arena, Bradford has actually proved to be a very hard working and cooperative parliamentary workhorse. In fact she works across party lines like a true political insider, rather than any kind of partisan class warrior. As David Farrar has stated on Kiwiblog, ‘Sue Bradford is a very competent and hard working MP. She impresses on select committees’.
It is Bradford’s willingness and ability to make use of the select committee process that has made her one of the party’s most effective parliamentarians. One media report has outlined how ‘Bradford the Radical’ has become a convert to this system that she once derided: ‘Bradford recalled that before she went to Parliament, she thought that select committees just ignored submitters, laughed at the public and just went through the process “and I'm not saying that it is perfect or could not be improved, but I think that it is a hell of a lot more meaningful now”’.
It’s a testimony to this that in 2007 the Listener declared Bradford to be one of the 50 most powerful New Zealanders. And on the list Bradford was evaluated as more influential than co-leader Fitzsimons – Bradford was deemed to be the 18th most powerful New Zealander and Fitzsimons the 21st. This very high ranking was a testimony not just to her ability to get the anti-smacking legislation through Parliament but also of how respectable and respected she is by the political community.
Likewise, in 2007 the Dominion Post named Bradford as their ‘Politician of the Year’, and both the Herald and North and South magazine declared her ‘Backbencher of the Year’. (In fact the New Zealand Herald selected Bradford as Backbencher of the Year for 2000 as well). Then in March 2008 Bradford was ranked third among Auckland MPs by a panel of 5 press gallery journalists.
Softening her image
The respect and liking for Bradford extends to her parliamentary opponents, who regularly report on how nice and reasonable she is. For example, former Act Party MP Deborah Coddington declared that Bradford was one of the ‘nicest people in parliament’. Likewise, according to Paul Holmes, ‘Jenny Shipley told me in 1999, when still prime minister, how much Sue Bradford was impressing her as a person and as an MP’.
Furthermore, one journalist says, ‘it’s difficult to find detractors. Even Annette King, the Minister of Employment, says she likes and respects Sue Bradford’. So, rather than being an isolated radical that rejects playing the parliamentary game or rejects being part of the cozy ‘political class’, Bradford is more than willing. She no longer even seems to have a visceral hatred for the National Party or employers. According to one article on Bradford, ‘She's fascinated by getting to know people from the other side, National Party people, getting to know employers’.
Even in terms of business interests, Bradford has become a lot more friendly. Notably in 2008, Bradford took responsibility for pushing the Green’s election policy on business – for the first time the party put out a business policy, and one that was very sympathetic to New Zealand business. On launching the policy, Bradford stated, ‘A lot of those people that support the Greens and are in the party are businesspeople’. Furthermore, ‘We care about New Zealand business just as we care about workers’ jobs – because they go together’ – See Greens co-leader Sue Bradford on their business vision for NZ (3:58).
So has Sue Bradford sold out? On this question of selling out, Bradford had this to say when she first stood for Parliament for the Greens in 1999: ‘If I do, it will make a mockery of everything I have done and the years I’ve spent criticizing other people who have sold out.’
Bradford’s socialist background
Sue Bradford’s upbringing has been described as ‘upper-middle class’, as her father was Professor of Cell Biology at Auckland University. Her mother was an American, and hence Bradford spent part of her youth in the US. There, at the age of 13 she marched against the Vietnam war. Then back in New Zealand, she was nearly expelled from Auckland Girls Grammer – at the age of 15 – for selling Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book to schoolmates.
She subsequently became involved in the unemployed workers movement, feminism, and the socialist left. She was arrested for the first time at 16, and according one article on her, ‘She's long ago forgotten exactly how many times she's been arrested. "30 or 40 times," she thinks. She once spent "4 or 5 days" remanded in prison’. Certainly she was arrested countless times during the 1981 Springbok tour, and then in protests against nuclear ship visits, unemployment and globalisation.
As well as concentrating on issues of unemployment and poverty, Bradford was involved from her early age in feminism – she helped form Auckland’s first women’s liberation group.
Maoism and the Workers Communist League
Inspired by the Chinese revolution while at Auckland Girls Grammer, Bradford joined the Maoist Progressive Youth Movement in her teenage years. She helped set up Auckland’s Resistance Bookshop in the late 1960s, and even travelled to China to study during the 1970s. Eventually she went back to Auckland University to study Chinese, and then to Beijing in 1981 to study at the Beijing Language Institute.
Around this time the Workers Communist League (WCL) was formed and Bradford joined, remaining active until it dissolved about a decade later. The WCL according to Chris Trotter was, ‘a feisty socialist party of mostly university students which acquired an important industrial base in the car-assembly factories of Porirua and the Hutt Valley.’ One leftwinger I know with a background in the far left of the 1970s also had the following to say about Bradford’s involvement in the WCL:
I tend to think that Bradford was always a very non-reflective Stalinist hack. She got involved in (WCL) Maoism, which was miles to the right of the CPNZ's brand. And she chose to get into it at a time when anyone with any nouse, or just plain human decency, already understood how awful Mao and co. were. I mean the guy was the first head of state to recognize Pinochet after the coup, even beating the Yanks! Mao and co were also funding the contras in Angola and aligning with ultra-right wing regimes all over the world on the basis that they were good coz they were anti-Soviet and the USSR was imperialist enemy no 1 for Peking. And that was what she signed up to! All that's happened with her is that she has returned to her natural state - wet liberalism. The WCL recruited loads of wet liberals, it was their speciality, out of the China tourist trade. Once the going got rough in the late 80s, they all ended up as right-wingers… or went back to being wet liberals.
In 1990 the WCL dissolved into a new organisation called ‘Left Currents’, and Bradford also joined this. She also joined the breakaway parliamentary party, the NewLabour Party, to which she surprised many other activists in the party by getting elected to the vice-presidency. She only lasted about a year before being marginalized by Jim Anderton.
Sue Bradford’s identity politics
The Workers Communist League (WCL) and Maoists were strongly into identity politics, somewhat associated with ‘political correctness’. In fact, since the early 1980s, practically every faction of the New Zealand political left also adopted ‘the politics of identity’ (Trotter, 2002, p. 6). The advocates of identity politics proposed the ‘tripod theory’ of exploitation, according to which race, gender and class comprise the separate but equal pillars of human oppression. The tripod political ideology held that class should no longer be the primary concern of the left. Gender, race and class were to be given equal status in terms of analysing society and in terms of engagement in political action.
Disillusioned Stalinists and Maoists like Bradford, who were desperate to discard their unfashionable baggage, enthusiastically embraced this new approach. Such tripod theories can be seen as a variant of post-modern approaches to struggle, with no form of oppression or identity afforded primacy. Instead a tolerant, non-critical approach was given to various avenues of struggle.
This approach can lead to a very elitist approach to policymaking.
Elitist social change from above (the anti-smacking bill)
There’s actually a very conservative aspect to Bradford. Rather than bringing a bottom-up, protest style to parliamentary politics, Bradford has embraced ‘change from above’ – an elitist style of leftwing politics counterpoised to the democratic socialist left which emphasizes the need to make ‘change from below’. A bottom-up approach to social change occurs when political activists attempt to bring change through convincing the population at large about the need for change and then channeling this popular support into governmental or parliamentary change. This often involves street protests, campaigning, rallies, petitions and generally widespread civil society organizing.
By contrast, an elitist style of bringing about political and social change is to try and change society from the top-down by using parliamentary mechanism and bypassing the harder task of changing popular opinion. Such a strategy means simply lobbying other politicians and the parliamentary system, trying to establish a majority of the elite to make the change.
In pushing her so-called anti-smacking bill, Bradford adopted an elite, lobbying-style of politics rather than a popular emancipatory street level approach. To this effect, Chris Trotter wrote a very interesting opinion piece in the Sunday-Star Times arguing that the 'anti-smacking' private members bill should not be rammed through Parliament in the context of such widespread opposition in society. Trotter said that when something like 80% of New Zealanders oppose the bill, it's bad politics and bad law to push legislation through just because you have assembled a slight parliamentary majority in favour.
Bradford and her allies never really attempted to focus their campaigns on ordinary people. Instead they took an elite political approach of lobbying those in power rather than the public. Trotter suggests that previous agents of social change were about more participatory and democratic means: 'the anti-Vietnam War movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-nuclear movement and gay-rights movement. As their names suggest, they were all exercises in mass democratic action - and took years.' Likewise, pro-choice groups that argued for free abortion on demand in the 1970s didn’t simply convince MPs to change the rules, but campaigned for a public referendum on abortion law.
Bradford joins the Greens
Sue Bradford joined the Greens in 1998, and in 1999 she was placed fourth on the Green Party list and was elected to Parliament that year. This was not the first time that Bradford joined the Greens. After leaving the NewLabour Party in 1990 she joined the Greens almost immediately, but only lasted in the party for four months. After missing out on selection as Green candidate for Auckland Central, she left the party and stood unsuccessfully as an independent. She later said that,
for a while looked to the Greens as an alternative political force. However, she felt both parties had no effective plans for improving the crumbling economy and that both parties demonstrated no evidence of a “class consciousness”.
She also stated that she was repelled by their essentially middle-class orientation. Speaking about this period later in an interview, Bradford maintained that,
she found the Greens to be either ignorant of or hostile to worker and union issues. She describes two kinds of Green: hippie dropouts content to make pots, be creative and smoke dope; and those who are quite right wing, “who think it’s fine to send the unemployed out to work that is environmentally sound like cutting bush tracks” ‘ (Leget, 1993: p.68).
According to Chris Trotter:
In the late ‘90s, sensing that the tide was going out on the New Right’s revolution, Bradford quietly entered the Green Party organization, and, drawing on her years of experience as a socialist organizer, steadily built up a core of loyal supporters among the rank and file.
She now says the Green Party is her natural home.
Sue Bradford is the first representative of the extra-parliamentary Left to enter Parliament in more than three-quarters of a century. Not since the early 1900s has a street-level activist and grass-roots organiser entered the House without first passing through the finishing schools of the trade unions and/or the Labour Party.
But getting elected meant renounced her socialist past – which is exactly what she did in the National Business Review in November 1999 after being elected. She wrote a letter with Keith Lock in which they explained their past socialism and how they had now moved on from that:
There are lots of people with socialist backgrounds, of one type or another, in the New Zealand political world, including the media and Parliament. Generally they joined left-wing groups when young from a genuine commitment to bettering the lot of ordinary people. Like many of these people, we found our ability to bring about change through such organisations was often constricted by narrow agendas and bureaucratic socialist models. So we moved on. Green politics has a much broader agenda, connecting the needs of people and of the environment in ways that old-style socialism failed to recognise. And one of the distinguishing characteristics of Green politics is its emphasis on local empowerment through democratic structures, rather than imposing all environmental and social improvement from the top down, from the state. Like many others before us, we are maturing and learning with age and experience.
Internal struggles over the direction of the Greens
Between 1999 and 2002 Bradford and Locke, in particular, were of the eco-socialist tendency and clearly worked to push the party to the left. During the 1999-2002 parliamentary term the Greens became more associated than ever with pursuing social justice and peace issues as well as green ones. This was possible because the disintegration and moderation of the Alliance allowed the Green Party to consolidate its position in the party system by moving to the left. A number of policy initiatives and parliamentary manoeuvres showed the Greens to now be the most left-\wing party in Parliament. For example, the Green Party was the only party to show any opposition to sending the New Zealand SAS to Afghanistan. Also, a bill was introduced into Parliament in the same year that would have restored the Emergency Unemployment Benefit to students, and this was opposed by all the other parties including the Alliance.
It seems that the party was cultivating an image of radicalism and seeking to take over from the Alliance as the main party to the left of Labour. Mostly this was possible because the Alliance had moved so far towards the centre whilst in government. With the Alliance vacating this space on the left, the Greens were given a free ride to establish themselves as the left alternative to the government. And by maintaining a distance from the Labour-led Government, the Greens boosted their support at the expense of the Alliance.
A shift to the right then occurred. The Green vision of society was also becoming more compatible with the neo-liberal economic framework. After leaving the Alliance, the party gave away its more state-centric, collective, leftist policies. As James pointed out in 2002, ‘They emphasise small-scale economic enterprise and cooperation, especially to make a "just" society. But, individualists themselves, they also value the individual. That sets them apart from the socialists. Socialists were centralisers. Their social democrat descendants are, too. Greens are decentralisers’ (James, 2002g). Or, as Sue Bradford put it, ‘I hate the idea of government bureaucrats telling people what to do. I’ve probably got the same phobia about that as Roger Douglas has’ (quoted in Conn, 1990: p.108).
Fitzsimons believed that the party could reposition itself in the middle of the political spectrum and thereby encourage a ‘green-off’ between National and Labour to win Green Party allegiance. This was a policy also endorsed by Russel Norman, who set out selling such a position with his ‘Coke and Pepsi’ cant. To justify why the Greens might not prefer the Labour Party over National he had to paint Labour and National as being essentially the same. Norman made this his duty, coining a line that the two parties were ‘Mother Coke and Father Pepsi’.
This shift to the right has been happening on and off since the party departed from the Alliance. The Greens’ departure from the Alliance in 1997 saw the re-emergence of many of the more conservative Green supporters and members who had been alienated from the Green Party’s involvement in what they perceived as a hard-left and socialist Alliance party. The re-involvement of the mystics and pragmatists led, on the one hand, to a more mainstream and liberal political approach and, on the other hand, to a concentration on issues such as genetic modification and environmentalism. The policy developed by the now-independent Green Party was mostly – but not consistently – to the right of what the Greens had stood for as members of the Alliance.
Bradford definitely doesn’t fit this new direction. In fact Bradford is one of the key barriers to the ‘New Greens’ strategic direction of being more of a centrist environmentally-oriented party. This makes Bradford’s election very unlikely.
Bradford’s role in keeping the Greens to the left
Since last being blocked from joining the Labour-led coalition government, many in the Greens have been keen to increase the party’s leverage by repositioning the party as a more independent party that might play a stronger role in determining which of the two major parties got to form the government. In ideological terms this meant shifting the party out of the left-flank party status that some felt ghettoized the party.
They have wanted to end the perception that the Greens were an appendage to Labour – especially because Labour had been in power for nine years and had repeatedly left the Greens out of its coalitions. There was hence some internal dissatisfaction that the Greens had become ghettoized on the left-flank of Labour. Attempts to reposition the party as a more independent force that might have more leverage in coalition formations, came to halt in 2008 however, when Sue Bradford effectively vetoed the party from going into the election campaign with any prospect of assisting the formation of a National government.
Now in 2009, Sue Bradford is undoubtedly the ‘leftwing option’ for co-leadership. But that’s precisely why she won’t be elected.