In the lead up to the 2017 general election, then Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei made a remarkable speech on welfare at the Greens’ AGM, laying out their new policy platform to raise benefits and the minimum wage, and tax top income earners to pay for it. It was bold and beautiful and a long time coming.
In the ensuing months all hell broke loose in a bitter backlash, with the right and the mainstream media going hard not just against this blatant left wing policy but against Turei personally. By the time we got to the election Turei had resigned, and the Greens squeaked back into parliament on 6.3% down from 10.7% in 2014.
A year before, the Green Party had announced their plan to change the government. They invited Labour Party leader Andrew Little to speak at their AGM, and outlined a collaboration between the two parties that set the stage for Labour leading the government following the 2017 election. This was potent imagery, Labour and the Greens on a stage together.
I’m mentioning this for a number of reasons. One is it points to the long process the Greens went through to get the kind of strong, functional working relationship with Labour that was necessary to change the government.
Those years show that the Greens can do smart, bold and cutting edge. It’s also a reminder that they have the most left wing policies of any party in parliament (with the possible exception of the Māori Party).
But it’s also a reminder that the last time the Greens went bold, they paid a big price. It’s an indicator of what the reactionary powers of the right do when the Greens get too close to real power.
Turei was right, and the Greens shouldn’t regret that speech. The Greens want change not power. They often play the long game, and they are adept at getting policy change even when they have little power in conventional political terms. Shifting the Overton Window on left and green politics has worked and dragging Labour leftwards and greenwards has had some successes. Think climate and welfare (compare Labour’s welfare position before and after Turei’s speech).
But the Greens are paying a difference kind of price for doing this in quasi partnership with Labour. They are being subsumed by Labour’s progressive shifts. Why bother voting for the Greens if Labour are perceived to have similar (but safer) policies?
Even worse, Labour’s very strong political position is watering down Green Party policy and politics, and to such an extent that the Greens’ harshest critics are now on the left. Shifting Labour on climate and welfare might have worked to some extent, but the Greens are now often blamed for Labour’s inadequacy on both those issues. The real kicker here is that the integrity of the Green Party has been undermined.
I’ve previously been philosophical about much of this because I believed the Greens needed time in government to gain Ministerial experience, and to make progress on Green Party policy in those less visible ways eg by being in charge of a government department. Calls for the Greens to man up almost never explain how that might work within the realities of parliamentary politics and governance.
But I think we are now at the point for the Greens to go ‘fuck it, time to go back to our radical roots’.
I started writing this a few weeks ago as a kind of ‘what’s the direction for 2022?’ post, and was pleased to see this week a number of green politicos with more experience than I, speaking up about the problems with the Greens’ current position and direction. This includes former Green MPs Sue Bradford and Catherine Delahunty, as well as “a number of activists have recently stepped away from the party, including former executive and policy branch members“.
A TL;DR Delahunty quote from the RNZ audio,
"Labour doesn't need a stable partner, it needs a kick in the arse" 🔥🔥🔥 @greencatherine
— Wild World (@_wild_world) January 9, 2022
Main points from Delahunty,
The Green political vision has been lost,
People don’t necessarily want you to be in the tent being quiet, what they want is a vision for change.
The Greens should be a strong voice, and would be much freer separate from Labour,
People are used to the Greens being a strong radical voice. Who’s to the left of Labour now? Who’s challenging Labour to be better? Who’s pushing Labour hard?
On welfare, housing, climate,
We need the Greens to be on the outside of Labour’s narrative, saying this is not acceptable.
That’s not the role of the Green Party, to make everbody happy, the role of the Green Party is to make sure that change can happen because they’re willing to push the boundaries.
The Greens don’t have enough MPs to make being in an agreement with Labour work in their favour,
When your numbers are weak, you have to use the tools you do have, which is your voice.
To my mind, this is the way out for the Greens. It’s not a ceding of power, it’s a stepping into genuine power.
I wish Delahunty was still in parliament, but maybe part of point here is that in the absence of the Green MPs being more free to speak up, we need strong green voices outside of parliament who are free from caucus and party constraints.
Particularly important here are the perspectives of people who understand how the party works internally. RNZ report former policy branch and executive member Megan Brady-Clark,
She said the Greens were failing to push the government in key areas of policy contention, namely the environment and inequality.
“By ostensibly handing over responsibility without the resourcing commitment or power behind the ministerial portfolios and areas of co-operation Labour has managed to silence the Greens on some issues where the Greens should be most clearly and loudly critical of the government,” she said.
“We know from past research the demographics of Green Party supporters and Ardern’s supporters are similar, so from a strategic perspective it’s important to differentiate. It’s not clear that the Greens are currently offering something meaningfully different from Labour. If voters are disgruntled with Labour at the next election, they’re going to be looking for a clearly articulated alternative – where is it?”
Joel, a former branch organiser and executive member,
“The watchword of ‘further and faster’ used last term has been weaponised in a way that kind of scorns explicit critiques. So that even our more critical MPs, like Ricardo [Menéndez March] or Elizabeth [Kerekere], will hear a Labour policy and say ‘this doesn’t go far enough’ instead of ‘this is a bad policy that goes the wrong way’.”
He said dissent existed among members, but there was also a reluctance to debate issues, with many deferring instead to the directions of MPs.
“From what I’ve noticed, the mood has definitely changed on the agreement. I’m not sure how much of the party now supports it. Every time it’s brought up internally it’s kind of kicked down the road a bit, which suits the leadership position.”
(as an aside, for those that see this as a chance to get rid of Shaw, bear in mind: co-leaders are chosen by the party, via a non-swift process. Afaik, the Green Party rules still say that one co-leader needs to be male, so if you want to advocate for Shaw to step down, who exactly should replace him?)
The main issue here, the perennial elephant in the living room, is the climate and ecological crises. We just don’t have time to use conventional politics to address the magnitude and speed at which that tsunami is growing.
It’s clear that the Greens working with Labour will be supporting ongoing, incremental, ‘don’t rock the neoliberal boat’ steps that make progressives think something is being done but really we are still dragging the chain. Labour’s handling of the acute aspects of pandemic has been outstanding, but their inability to shift out of a neoliberal frame for the long haul means we just won’t take the necessary action on climate mitigation and adaptation or ecological regeneration.
There is an option for the Green Party to let go, for now, being in government, and focus instead on being an effective opposition to both Labour and National/ACT on environmental and social justice.
This would free them up to do major public work on their own policies and to hold Labour to account for Labour’s weakness on climate and welfare in particular. Everything else will follow from that.