The Greens detach their socialistic soul
The attempt by Bradford and other leftwingers to implant a socialistic soul into the distinctively liberal middle class Greens has failed. With the elections of Metiria Turei and Russel Norman to the leadership, the party has deliberately chosen to throw off any leftwing ideological baggage and embrace the mainstream. Deals can now be cut with either major parties of the right or mildly 'left' without fear of dissent or division. In line with this, Claire Trevett of the NZ Hearld wrote in May how the election of Turei indicated a new direction for the party:
The decision [to elect Turei or Bradford as co-leader] is an important one for the future of the party and was also a vote on the direction members want the party to take. The two had different views on the future direction of the party. Ms Turei believed the party should work to get gains regardless of who was in government and is more open to dealing with the National Party. Ms Bradford believed the party needed to be more radical and take more risks to increase its vote. She was also more averse to working with National, concerned in case it damaged the Greens principles.
Thus the writing was clearly on the wall for Sue Bradford after her response to the Green leadership's flirtation with the National Party during the period preceding the 2008 election. Her threats to resign if the Greens would not rule out a deal with National led to a conscious effort by Russel Norman and others to first undermine Bradford and then to marginalise the left wing positions she stood for.
Norman undermines the Green left
During the 2008 general election campaign the Greens surprised the public and political commentators by announcing that the Labour Party was their only acceptable post-election coalition partner. This announcement jarred with all the previously messages that the party had been sending out, which suggested that the Greens were positioning themselves to be less dependent on Labour and keen not to be caught in the poor negotiating position of being off to the left-flank of Labour. After all, Russel Norman had been constantly pushing his ‘Mother Coke and Father Pepsi’ analogy to say that National and Labour were as good or bad as each other, and that the Greens wanted to work constructively with all parties. The official reason the Greens gave for choosing the Labour Party as their only acceptable coalition partner was a convoluted and half-hearted explanation that Labour was wanting to shift things in a direction more in tune with the Greens’ policy aspirations.
Yet, as has been publicly revealed recently – first on a blog post here on liberation, and then in a Sunday Star Times ‘scoop’ – the real reason for the Greens’ 2008 coalition stance shift was actually the fact that Sue Bradford put forward an internal ultimatum to the leadership that she would resign from Parliament almost immediately if the Greens continued with their independence-seeking, National-friendly coalition maneuvers.
Unsurprisingly, the party leadership accepted the ultimatum – albeit with great displeasure – and effectively announced publicly that National was ruled out of contention. Privately, however, Norman started spreading the word that the Green leadership had no choice but to drop National as a potential coalition partner due to Bradford’s so-called 'blackmail'. Norman informed a whole layer of Green supporters and members of Bradford’s threat to the party’s caucus, which insiders read as a distancing of the leadership from the perceived intransigence of Bradford, and an expression that the clique were still prepared to do deals with National eventually.
Picking up on this internal divide within the Greens, the Standard blog site recently speculated on who was behind last week’s leaks to the media over Bradford’s anti-National position:
As far as I can see the story has been fed out by someone high in the party as a way of distancing the Greens from Bradford and her Left politics. In classic good cop/bad cop style the anonymous source (who is highly likely to be a senior staffer who is speaking with Norman’s blessing) describes Bradford as “blackmailing” the party while Norman takes the line that social justice is still as important for the Greens as before. He even uses a platitude about not forgetting his working class roots. Does anyone else find this reminiscent of Key’s “born in a state house” shtick?The defeat of Bradford in the co-leader race, and the memorandum of understanding between National and the Greens this year, showed the hollowness of the Greens previous statements of their preference for Labour and a left-centred government. The reality is that the new Green leadership desires to have the maximum flexibility to cultivate relationships with all political parties and not to feel trapped in what they see as a ‘leftwing ghetto’.
The left’s initial distrust of the Greens
Although the New Zealand left has been relatively keen on the Greens in recent years, it hasn’t always been this way. The left initially showed a strong resistance to support or even work with the newly formed Green Party in the early 1990s. What existed of an active left during this period mostly coalesced around the New Labour Party (NLP) – the left wing split from the then governing Labour Party. Activists, who then aimed to build a new working class party of the left, were deeply suspicious of a Green Party made up almost exclusively of middle class pakehas who, while centering discussion on the environment, lacked any answers to the economic crisis facing New Zealand’s working class and poor. At an NLP meeting in Dunedin during the 1990 election campaign I remember NLP election candidate and politics professor Jim Flynn expressing his disgust that, at a time when hundreds of thousands of workers had been thrown on the unemployment rubbish heap, the Greens lacked any economic policy or vision to deal with unemployment.
Interestingly, Sue Bradford actually expressed similar critical views towards the Greens in the early 90s. After leaving the NLP in 1990, which she saw as now being dominated by conservative social democrat Jim Anderson, Bradford's initial flirting with the Greens led to a quick separation after she decided the party offered nothing for the left. On her decision in the early 1990s to separate from the Greens Bradford said that
for a while [she] looked to the Greens as an alternative political force. However, she felt both parties [the Greens and the New Labour Party] had no effective plans for improving the crumbling economy and that both parties demonstrated no evidence of a “class consciousness”.
She also made clear that she was repelled by the Greens essentially anti-working class nature. Bradford asserted 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).
So with initial feelings of distrust and even disgust towards the Greens, what then led to an eventual hook-up between the Green Party and a large element of the New Zealand left? The answer, as we will see unfortunately, is opportunism and desperation on the part of the New Zealand left.A bad marriage
The left's initial embracing of the Greens was a clear result of the failure to build a mainstream working class party in the form of the New Labour Party. Despite the efforts of a large number of committed activists, the left-leaning NLP generally failed to poll above levels of the margin of era, and made little inroads with trade union support. Rather than seeing the task of building a mass working class party as a goal that would take time and patience, NLP leaders Matt McCarten and Jim Anderton came to the conclusion that middle class forces traditionally hostile to a working class agenda should be embraced. The end result was the formation of the Alliance – a cross class, non-ideologically specific formation. Although the Alliance was dominated by the NLP, it also included such parties as the conservative small business orientated Democrats, the National Party split-off - the Liberals and the middle class Greens. Any initial leftwing distain for the Greens was put aside by leftwing NLP activists for perceived electoral advantage.
As with most bad marriages, the Alliance coalition of divergent parties eventually ended in divorce, with the Greens departing from the coalition in 1997. The factionalist Alliance eventually imploded in 2002. Despite the Greens separating from the left in the Alliance, an increasing number of self-declared socialists, as well as left anarchists, joined the Greens from the late 1990s onwards. The Green Party was seen as a refreshing alternative to the heavily bureaucratic and hierarchical Alliance. Statements made by Bradford in the National Business Review in November 1999 encapsulated the left’s new attitude to the party:
Green politics has a much broader agenda [than traditional socialist organisations], 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.
However, the left’s portrayal of the Greens as a progressive social force was always more illusionary than real.
A divergent party
Over the last decade an implicit peace pact has existed between the divergent forces within the Greens, from its ‘neither left or right’ environmentalist wing through to its pro-worker left-leaning wing. Chris Trotter recently commented on how former co-leader Rod Donald was able to hold together these divergent forces and move them successfully in a common direction:
More than any other Green Party leader, Rod Donald understood the critical importance of keeping all of these aspects of the Greens in play. A natural and highly effective political campaigner, he knew how important it was to have clout on the streets as well as in the House. He knew, too, the value of Nandor’s gentle eco-evangelism in a society increasingly bereft of religious and spiritual nourishment. In Sue and Keith, he recognised two potent links to New Zealand’s radical socialist traditions. And, in the environmental work of Jeanette Fitzsimons, he appreciated the value of a well-argued case, based upon solid empirical research. It was Rod’s great skill to keep all of these ideological currents flowing in the same direction. Tragically, his premature death allowed them to diverge, and the resulting intra-party power-shifts have led to the departure of their most articulate representatives.
Despite Donald acting as a centripetal force in the party, the contradictory ideological and class-based interests in the party would inevitably give prominence to centrifugal forces in the Greens. The left’s days in the Greens are finally coming to an end, with Norman and Turei positioning the party as decidedly centrist and mainstream. Thus former radical street fighters such as Bradford became a liability to the new-look Greens. A large part of the Greens have welcomed this shift to the right and recognised that Bradford’s departure from Parliament allows the party to rebrand itself further as a sensible middle class party. The party’s response to Bradford’s resignation has been telling. Recent comments on the Green Party’s blog site, Frogblog, included the following indicative comments:
From 'The Drop':
Congrats on a savvy political move there – with the Red team looking more and more blue it could be time for a 15% – 20% party vote share to a moderate green party focussing on environmental issues and leaving social engineering policy ‘out of the limelight’ so to speak.
Now is the chance to get out the Green broom and sweep the Red dust out of the party. Make the move to the centre as an environmental party. Ditch the socialist left-of-labour millstone. Commit to getting into government. For the enviromentalist wing of the party, the distancing from the socialist tinted policies that Sue Bradford represnted offers the Greens a greater chance of gaining real power and [be] able to be a kingmaker of future governemnts.
There is a strong sense, therefore, in which Bradford’s departure is being celebrated by Green supporters.
The Greens – a centrist Establishment party
Sue Bradford’s resignation, and the election of a new crop of Green MPs, allows the party to cement its new profile as a party of the centre. Recently ex-Green MP Nandor Tanczos commented insightfully on the Greens’ new political orientation:
Along with new MPs Kennedy Graham and Kevin Hague, David and Gareth signify a change in the Green Party's political orientation and flavour. The Old Left element of the party, once so influential, will be scarcely represented once Sue has left. With this new influx, the Green Party is likely to become a more emphatically 'green-wing' party than has been possible in the past.
Clearly the Greens more explicit focus on environmental policies, together with a distancing from left-leaning social policies, allows the party to position itself as a sensible mainstream party looking out for the best interests of the system. In this context it is worth recalling a revealing blog posting by Russell Norman in 2007 on Frogblog, where he presented his thesis on the role of the Greens being an environmental party aiming to ‘save capitalism’:
It’s a funny position we find ourselves in. Just as the social democrats (Europe), labourists (UK, Oz, NZ) and new dealers (US) of the 1930s and 1940s had to save capitalism from its own destructive tendencies by introducing a range of modifications and interventions on the market system, so now the Green Parties of the world find ourselves in possibly a similar position. The best of the old social democrats like Michael Cullen are too locked in the old paradigm to understand it, and the sectional interests like the business roundtable and employers federation are too narrow to see it, but we have to intervene on the market system to place a price on resource use and pollution so that we can save the planet. And in the process we will quite possibly save the market system from its natural tendency to destroy or consume all resources leading to its own demise as well as the demise of the planet and all of us living on it.
Obviously the Greens’ solutions to ‘saving the planet’ in no way acts as a threat to the dominant capitalist system, but clearly works within its framework. As pointed out previously on this blog, the Greens are increasingly adopting a pro-capitalist orientation towards environmental issues:
Note, for example, the Greens’ new climate change plan announced recently called Kicking the Carbon Habit. In this, the Greens propose that global warming can be averted by making use of an international emission trading market in which New Zealand businesses essentially buy and sell permissions to emit pollution. This market approach has been welcomed by everyone from Labour and National through to the forestry industry. Rightwing and business interests are starting to realise that they can actually do business with the Greens.
Norman has gone to great lengths to emphasis that his solutions for ‘saving capitalism’ and the planet will in no way interfere with the market mechanism of the economic system. In fact, he has indicated a general desire to embrace ‘the market’ (and therefore capitalism). In his first speech as co-leader, Russell stated:
We had Keynesian economics, we had neoliberal economics, now is the time for some Green economics. Now is the time to harness the undoubted power of the market to internalise the costs of pollution. (emphasis mine)
Political commentator Steven Cowan of the excellent leftwing blog Against the Current has argued that this shift to the right by the Greens was initiated by former co-leaders Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons, but then escalated by Norman:
The Green Party's move to the right began in 2005 when, shortly before the last election, co-leader Rod Donald invited New Zealand's business elite to Wellington in order to assure them that the Green Party had no intention of frightening the economic horses, that it had no intention of rocking the capitalist boat. That rightward turn was accelerated when former socialist Russell Norman was voted co-leader to replace Rod Donald who had died.
Cowan has plenty other highly-recommended, insightful leftwing analyses of the Green Party, which you can read here:
- On the road to nowhere
- Green Party fraud
- No answers from Norman
- He’s a real nowhere man
- The Green Party are a joke
- The Green Party con
- Russel Norman: Will he and the Green Party choose Coke or Pepsi?
- Russel Norman talks more nonsense
Such analysis from Cowan helps show that the Greens’ move towards becoming a more ‘emphatically 'green-wing' party’ will bring it respect from New Zealand’s business and political elites, and may lead it to gaining real power positions in the near future. However, it is now absolutely clear that the Green Party offers nothing real for the left.