Is the Green Party now the nature home for progressives in New Zealand? While the David Shearer led Labour Party is rapidly distancing itself from its brief move to the left under the leadership of chameleon-like politician Phil Goff, the Greens have seemingly embraced a number of leftwing causes. These include: opposition to state asset sales, support to various striking and locked-out workers, and the struggle against growing inequality. So if you are leftwing you should vote Green, right? In this guest blog post, John Moore argues that the Green Party is once again making an opportunistic political shift in an attempt to capture a segment of the electorate. In light of the Greens’ shift to the right over recent years, and the exiting of a number of key leftwing activists from the party including the prominent resignation of Sue Bradford, the Greens born-again leftism therefore needs to be viewed with a large dose of cynicism. [Read more below]
The post-Occupation zeitgeist
It is true to say that the Greens are attempting to embrace the zeitgeist of 2012. Since the Occupy protests swept the country last year, issues related to inequality, poverty and industrial conflict, have gained unusual prominence. So recently we have witnessed significant levels of public support shown for Ports of Auckland unionised workers, as well as an opening up of a serious discussion on the presence of widespread inequality in New Zealand. On top of this is growing opposition to the partial privatisation moves by the current government. Yet, until recently none of the major parliamentary parties seemed to encapsulate this new public mood. True, Labour under Phil Goff’s leadership did make some leftish noises, but with a new ‘nowhere to be seen’ leader the party has now been dismissed as just a pale imitation of the centrist Nats. So, up pop the Greens, who have declared they wish to appeal to traditional Labour voters who are now put off by the party’s shift to the right. Greens’ co-leader Russel Norman made this clear in a recent Listener interview when he commented on Labour’s shift to the right, saying, ‘I think it creates a lot of space on the progressive end of politics’ – see Guyon Espiner’s interview with Green Party co-leader Russel Norman. Therefore, in light of Labour showing itself to be a hopeless cause for regenerating progressive politics in New Zealand, many progressives are once again turning to the Greens.
The Greens’ born-again leftism
As Chris Trotter argued recently (To Play The Queen) for many ‘stranded’ left-leaning voters, including former Alliance supporters and members, there is no longer a difficult choice to make between voting for the Greens or for Labour. Right?! Trotter’s argument centres on the observation that while Labour has lurched to the right, the Greens are seemingly embracing the new progressive trend in politics.
But, haven’t we been down this road before? In light of the Greens’ consistent move to the centre over the last few years, which was highlighted with a declaration of being open to work with the National Party and a deliberate alienation of the party’s own leftwing by the party’s leadership, shouldn’t the Greens’ latest step to the left be viewed with at least a bit of cynicism?
Prominent activists, including Sue Bradford, once championed the party as the leading force of radical and progressive politics in New Zealand. Her resignation from Parliament in fact represented a distancing between the Greens and a whole range of radicals, former Alliance supporters, anarchists, and socialists who had once championed the party. These former left-Greens effectively declared they had made a mistake and had now given up on the party. However, with the Greens’ current born-again ‘leftism’, will we see progressives in New Zealand be fooled once again?
Fool me once...
Of course this is not the first time the Green Party has attempted to capture a large slice of the left-leaning section of the electorate. In this regards its most important asset was Sue Bradford, who was strongly associated in the public’s mind with fighting for low-paid workers and beneficiaries’ rights. Although many voters came to genuinely believe that the Greens were a party of the left, it is questionable whether Bradford ever truly believed this herself. Her first-time relationship with the party (back in 1990) quickly ended acrimoniously when she dismissed the party as failing to provide a real alternative to the neoliberal consensus:
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 why did Bradford eventually throw her lot in with the Greens a second time round (in the late 1990s)? Probably because she really had nowhere else to go, and also she clearly believed that she could use the Green Party as a base for promoting a form of progressive politics. And because Bradford was able to associate a number of key leftwing policy planks with the Greens, she helped to pull a number of Labour as well as former Alliance voters in the party’s direction.
It’s also true that the presence of a number of socialist activists, including Bradford, as well as anarchist members did lead to the Greens endorsing some left-sounding policies. However, many of these policies were so vague that they could have been defined and interpreted a number of ways by Green MPs if they ever ended up holding key power positions in a future government. As I argued in a blog on the Greens’ policy platform in 2008:
The Green Party [have] put forward … a number of progressive sounding policy platitudes. For students they offer moves towards ‘establishing a public ‘fee-free’ tertiary education system’ in the unspecified future while, for the moment, they will kindly cap and maybe reduce fees. For workers faced with the draconian restrictions on the right to strike with Labour’s industrial legislation they dispense with detailed policy and offer support for ‘a complete review of the Employments Relations Act’.
Like Labour, the Greens do not presently call for reversing the savage benefit cuts enacted by the Bolger-led National Government in the 1990s. Instead they offer beneficiaries ‘benefit amounts at a level sufficient for all basic needs of the individual/family’ and for protecting all benefit levels ‘by linking rates to a fixed percentage of the average wage’.
All this vagueness serves a purpose. Specific policy details can be problematic when moving towards picking up the reigns of power and working in the realm of realpolitik. With vague policy statements coupled with statements of ‘long term’ desires and principals, this allows Norman, Turei and co to enter post-election negotiations with no ‘bottom-lines’ and awkward specific policy commitments that hinder their chances of gaining precious cabinet seats. Of course the Greens are no different to the other parliamentary parties with their non-specific policy platforms and flexible maneuvering to stay in the political centre. However, this jars against the attempts by the party to pretend that they are some sort of fresh alternative to political ‘business as normal’.
A faux-left party
Sue Bradford was clearly prepared to swallow a lot of dead rats to accommodate herself to ‘middleclass’ environmentalists. However, the crunch finely came when the new Green Party leadership pursued a shift to the right. This was seen with the party’s declaration that it could work with a National-led government, as well as a increasing focus on environmental over social concerns.
While it is certainly true that many of the Greens’ manifesto policies did not change, judging a party by focusing on its policy statesments and manifesto can often result in a superficial reading of the political positioning and trajectory of such an organisation. So, to come to a nuanced analysis of party politics it’s necessary, amongst other things, to: carefully examine what policies and concerns are receiving the most focus by a party’s leadership, to study how statements by party leaders indicate what policies are held as core beliefs and which can be jettisoned in cross-party negotiations, as well as to look at who are the potential coalition partners of this party. For example, if we consider the Labour Party, it has clearly moved to the right over recent months, despite the fact that there has not actually being any formal change in its policy platform. This can be deduced from statements made by David Shearer, who has speculated on the party dropping some key policy planks, as well as from the party’s new focus on style over substance.
Similarly with the Greens, an attempt to position the party on a left-right political axis requires an analysis taking in a range of factors, rather than solely focusing on manifesto policy. Clearly the party has over several years taken a shift to the right. But it is also true to say that the Greens have now made a slight step to the left. However, the fact that the Greens can so easily maneuver between the centre-left and centre-right should lead to more critical questioning of the sustainability and authenticity of the party’s current embracement of certain progressive concerns. Although certain left activists and commentators may be desperate to find a new left political vehicle to support, the reality is that the Greens are not that vehicle. Sue Bradford’s initial analysis of the Greens as a party that in reality offered little to a working class and left constituency, succinctly summed up its faux-radical nature.
A step to the right
The Greens have always tried to appeal to a cross-section of the electorate: from those concerned almost exclusively on environmental issues, through to old-fashioned socialists, anti-state anarchists, libertarians and green-minded business people. At certain times the party has leaned to the left, such as when the party was part of the Alliance, and especially when it allowed former MP Sue Bradford to push a number of its more progressive policies. However, in an attempt to appeal to a wider and more centrist sector of the electorate the Greens have, under the leadership of Metiria Turei and Russel Norman, shifted their image away from being a party permanently to the left of Labour. Instead the Greens reformed their image to being an organisation focused on the environment, rather than on contentious social policy, and as being open to working with all parties including the possibility of being in a government coalition with National. Despite this shift to the right, leftwing apologists for the Greens have been able to maintain that the party has remained positioned on the progressive side of politics by citing the continuation of some leftish-sounding policies. However, a significant change in focus did certainly occur over recent years.
And a step to the left
The opportunism, if not outright cynicism, of the party leadership has been highlighted by a recent step to the left. When public support for National was high and there was a widespread hostility to the perceived nanny-state political correctness of the precious Clark regime, it made political sense for the Greens to shift their focus away from what might be perceived as unpopular social policies. Certainly the ditching of Bradford allowed the party to make a clean break from being perceived as being stuck in a ‘left of Labour’ cul-de-sac. Now the Greens were open to all takers, with certain conditions of course. However, with the National Party slowly losing support and with clear signs that the zeitgeist is now tilting to the left rather than to the right, the Greens have unsurprisingly jumped on the anti-right/anti-government bandwagon. That the party is so easily able to shift its political focus says something about the cross-class and ideologically syncretic nature of the Greens.
...Fool me twice
The Greens have never been a party with genuine roots in leftwing and working-class politics. They have never been a social democratic or socialist form of political organization, and have in fact rejected being labeled as either leftwing or as a class-based party. Despite the presence of some leftists in the party, generally the Greens have acted to encapsulate the concerns not of the poor or of working people but of middle class liberals. Even when the party has been seen to champion ‘progressive’ social policies, these policies have a distinctly middle-class professional twist to them.
So the Greens’ ‘on-again, off-again’ concern for the poor has in reality always been more about controlling and managing poor people, rather than about empowering working people to transform their own lives. In this regards we have seen the Greens champion the worst form of nanny state politics, where regulating poor peoples lives is equated with progressive politics. For example, we have seen Green politicians call for restrictions on gambling and liquor outlets in lower socio-economic communities.
The Greens therefore have never been a truly leftwing party with a base amongst working and poor people, and the party’s outlook has always been that of socially concerned middle-income liberals. Those who define the Greens as ‘leftwing’ fail to see a clear distinction between liberal middle-class politics and leftwing politics rooted in the working class. Leftists who are once again calling for support for the Greens seem to ignore the reality of the class and ideological nature of this party, as well as its shift to the right over recent years. In their failure to engage in a nuanced analysis of the Greens, and to take at face value the party’s recent leftist posturing, a large number of leftwing commentators and activists seem to be prepared to be fooled again.