The New Zealand Green Party has the potential to achieve unprecedented electoral success at the 2011 General Election. Over the last few years, the party has undergone a transformation that has seen them become increasingly pragmatic and mainstream. This reflects the Greens’ ambition to target a broader, more ‘suburban’ constituency. This blog post is the first of five, written by Niki Lomax, based on her recent University of Otago Politics Department Honour dissertation which discusses the path the Greens’ have taken to get to this point, focusing on what has made the Green Party successful and what barriers has it faced in its quest for success. An assessment of theoretical explanations for the success of green parties internationally, and in particular the examination of their unconventional political origins, ultimately shows that the key to explaining green success lies in their inherently contradictory reputation for being both insiders and outsiders simultaneously. The history of the Greens’ electoral success can clearly be tied to their ability, or indeed inability, to maintain an insider/outsider status. Leading up to the 2011 election, the Greens have demonstrated a skilful ability to balance this dichotomous reputation. This could see the party achieve a higher electoral result than ever before. However, this research suggests that in the long-term, the ability of the New Zealand Green Party to use their insider/outsider status to achieve electoral success is limited. [Read more below]
Electoral success is the primary goal of every political party. The New Zealand Green Party has achieved relative success, but has it reached its electoral potential? Since its entry into parliament, the Green Party has remained electorally stagnant, consistently receiving between five and seven percent of the vote. A consistent presence on the political landscape is a significant achievement; however, the Greens have the potential to achieve more than just presence. Commentators portray the 2011 General Election as being the potential breakthrough election for the Greens. It is thought that this could be the election in which the Greens finally break free of their single-digit status. The Greens are well positioned to meet these expectations. Over the last three years, the party has changed more than it has at any time throughout its twenty-one year history and has repositioned itself with the specific intention of attracting a broader constituency. This will prove immensely important for the 2011 election.
In this context, an assessment of the New Zealand Green Party’s ‘quest for success’ is particularly relevant. This dissertation examines the strategic approaches of the Green Party and discusses why, or why not, the Green Party has achieved electoral success throughout the course of its history. Particular attention is paid to the Greens’ repositioning leading into the 2011 election and the impact this will have on their potential for success. Will it be a hindrance and undermine their party’s ‘outsider’ brand, or, by launching themselves ‘into the suburbs’, will the Greens attract a broader more mainstream group of voters and achieve the ten percent result they desire?
In 2001, political scientist Tim Bale commented to a journalist that ‘[Green parties] do particularly well when they manage to pull off the trick of being both insiders and outsiders at the same time.’ Ten years later, Bale’s statement has considerable salience in the New Zealand context. This insider/outsider idea refers to green parties being seen as challengers to the conventional political system, a reputation rooted in the emergence of green politics from New Social Movements (NSMs) in the 1970s, while at the same time participating in the conventional political system they supposedly challenge. Bale’s articulation of this inherent contradiction forms the basis for analysis in this discussion of green success in New Zealand. To what extent has the Greens’ insider/outsider status affected their electoral strategy and success?
Although green party success has been widely discussed in academia, the modern green party’s struggle to preserve an insider/outsider status has been largely overlooked. Theorists emphasise the factors that made it possible for unconventional outsider parties to enter parliament, but few continue past this point to explain what the consequences of becoming an insider were for these parties. An exception to this is Irish political scientist Peter Mair. Mair’s research concerning the German Green Party is particularly significant as it acknowledges the dichotomous nature of green party positioning. Green parties, he argues, are fundamentally limited by this dichotomy.
These ideas are discussed in depth in the next blog post. Particular attention is paid to European theorists Ronald Inglehart, Ferdinand Müller-Rommel, and Herbert Kitschelt who present explanations for how green parties were able to become part of the conventional establishment they initially challenged. This blog post also discusses the work of Peter Mair and his suggestion that there exists a ‘natural limit’ to green success as a direct consequence of their insider/outsider status. The third blog post examines the development of the New Zealand Green Party from its origins in 1970s counter-culture, through to the 2005 election. During this period the Green Party was defined, and to an extent limited, by its outsider status. 2005 was a significant turning point in the history of the Green Party; this marks the point at which the party became increasingly electoral-professional and altered its strategy to convey a considerably more mainstream, insider image. The extensive strategic repositioning that has occurred since 2006 has put the Greens in a position now, in 2011, where their insider/outsider status could afford them greater electoral success than ever before.
Green parties have thrived on emphasising their distinction from mainstream political parties. Yet increasingly, the New Zealand Greens have repositioned themselves in a way that erodes this point of difference. This has been seen as a necessary compromise by the Greens whose ambition is now greater than just parliamentary presence. How the Greens maintain this balance in an inherently dynamic and unpredictable political system will be the key to their future success.
Next blog posts:
Vote for me: (Part 2): Theoretical Interpretations of Green Party Success
Vote for me (Part 3): The Greens go from Protest to Permanence
Vote for me (Part 4): The Greens go into the Suburbs
Vote for me (Part 5): Conclusions
The above blog post is the first of five posts taken from a dissertation submitted for the degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Otago, by Niki Lomax, and entitled ‘Vote for Me: The Green Party’s quest for success;. Niki can be contacted at: [email protected] The dissertation was supervised by Bryce Edwards.