Only 6 months ago the UK Liberal Democrat party was at a real low, with their leader resigning and the polls about 7%: same as the last five years.
Fast forward five months from that and the new leader Jo Swinson leads them into being a major party of opposition to the UK’s ruling Conservative coalition.
This weekend the Green Party hold their only annual conference before the New Zealand general election in 2020. They are bumping around 4-7% as they have for years and years, and on current tracking that’s what they’ll get next year.
Is there anything the Green Party can do to rise like the Liberal Democrats?
The reason for the Liberal Democrat transformation is simple: they have successfully ridden Brexit – and were rewarded in the European elections in May, in the wake of Britain’s failure to leave the EU on 29th March. Even at the time of the English local elections held just three weeks before the European contest, the party’s average Westminster poll rating was still no more than 9 per cent.
Now after the recent by-election they hold Westminster on a knife-edge.
Well, there’s no Brexit here, thankfully, to propel and centralize political debate. But there can be.
Many of the minor issues that have kept small slivers of Green voter support alive have been neutralized by numbing policy anesthetic, such as capital gains (or any other tax reform), use of marijuana, euthanasia, conservation funding, G.E., and suchlike. They won’t bring fresh voters. Nor will they get any fresh voters supporting Maori land protests. Righteousness won’t get them over 6%, and 6% provides very little leverage in Parliament.
What we do have is the weather. We remain one of the most weather-reliant developed economies in the world, and most weather-obsessed societies. We have more to lose from a serious drought than most. Rain without snow means no skiing tourists. Rain at volume cuts off whole regions from tourists, and defiles pristine beaches. No rain means reduced dairy and stock farming. All of them act against our economy.
The Greens already own the climate policy frame; they need to own the weather. Their mild reforms in climate change mitigation won’t turn to more votes. But every storm needs to become a Green storm. Every new tropical disease entry a Green-framed anxiety. Every drought or near-drought a Green-focussed policy anxiety with Green popular answers. It’s a sibilant slipperiness between the weather and the climate, ripe for political ownership by the Greens.
The weather, not just climate, is our Brexit. It’s a policy field that will give and give forever.
And yet as it stands the voter field most opposed to them is the field who hate the the Greens the most: rural New Zealand. They hate them because they feel regulated and taxed and under-represented against sneering townie liberals, who are often Green-leaning.
New Zealand First continues to court the rural vote with its massive business funding rollout to businesses. The Greens need to attract candidates who are credible and charismatic farmers. They also need a similar policy to directly help farmers recover from weather events: wider bridges, more sealed rural roads, small-scale electricity generation, generous payout to accelerate coastal retreat, free small dams for towns under 500 people, payouts to convert dairy farms in the North Island to horticulture: show the rural economy that state money is coming their way in great expansive flows, and it has Green means and ends.
And they could do worse than a full-throated attack against the dairy companies and corporations who have locked our farmers into being cheap commodity producers. A big-business attack is clearly impossible from any other party in parliament, and a rural big-business attack is near unheard-of.
A wee way back in history, New Labour was able to stand as a serious contender, and the Alliance with Greens inside them continued this momentum at least into Labour’s first 1999 term.
So political revival can be done here.
The Liberal Democrats are now such a viable option that some Change UK, Labour, and Conservative members are defecting to the Liberal Democrats. People like James Shaw need to enable the Green party to peel off some of the National Blue-Green MPs to their tent and properly attack the otherwise moribund NZFirst rural support. There’s no need for the Greens to be stuck at 6%, and as they are seeing in government there’s no real influence in it either. They simply need to do better and they should be.
To take stock of the comparison, some of the Liberal Democratic gain is brittle. Virtually all of the increase in its support since the spring has occurred among those who voted Remain. Indeed, more generally, the party’s recovery is best described as partial. It is still short of the 23-24% it won in 2005 and 2010. This is a Lib-Dem recovery, rather than a full-throated revival.
But if the Greens can become the party of the elements and our total structural reliance on them, and indeed railing against all the corporate powers that stop us reacting to major weather events (such as insurers, banks, lazy local governments, and commodity producers), they have a policy field that will lift them beyond the organically-fed urban bourgeoisie and into the towns and farms that need every drop of water, every tourist dollar to sustain them.
The Greens can rise like the Liberal Democrats beyond 6%, but they need much more than they have to offer.