The Greens can be very proud of their achievement this election. With 13, probably to become 14, seats, they have achieved the second-best ever result for a minor party under MMP. They have succeeded in becoming credible to mainstream New Zealand and, in doing so, brought the new economics we need to the fore.
The Greens’ new MPs are an impressive bunch. If you got down to 13-14 any other minor party’s list you would be into the territory of serious weirdos. With the Greens you have a group of highly intelligent and skilled young women who know politics – many of them are former Green staffers – who aren’t going to be there just to make up numbers for their leader and be headline fodder with their embarrassing antics.
And, sure, this new generation might be more professional in their appearance (or ‘branding’) than the first generation of Green MPs but, actually, they’re from the same backgrounds of student environmental activism. They’re just more sophisicated in their approach.
Whether the new Greens can hold their activist base remains to be seen. But, perhaps the price of being a larger party in MMP is giving up some of the activists to Mana. That’s the joy of MMP too. Parties of the Left don’t have to try to be all things to all people – they can specialise and segment. Contrast that with the Right, which with Banks and Dunne one-man bands in their last terms and the Conservatives likely to fade away, is now monolithic. If National has a bad run in future elections (and their dramatic drop in the last view weeks shows they are finally past their apex), voters will have to go to Labour or stay at home. Parties of the Left can now trade voters, and voters can choose which aspects of leftwing politics they want to emphasise, while still maintaining the size of the Left-wing bloc.
Speaking of which, it has to be disappointing that the combined Labour-Greens vote has shrunk since the last election. Part of that is, no doubt due to lefties backing Peters – ensuring he got over the line was a vote-multiplying tactic for the Left that sees us far closer to a majority against asset sales than would have been the case if NZF had polled 4% – and the lion’s share is due to Labour’s poor performance but I wonder how successful the Greens have really been in taking votes off National. It looks they’ve mainly picked up disaffected former Labour voters who are looking for a more competently run voice against National.
The last time a minor party surged by picking up votes from disaffected Labour voters in opposition was the last time Labour had a result in the 20s, and when the largest-ever minor party result was achieved. The lesson from what happened next is one the Greens should note. In 1996, Peters repaid that anti-National vote by working with National. The result was that New Zealand First was nearly wiped out in 1999. The Greens need to bear in mind that their new supporters, too, have ticked Greens because they want them to oppose National. If that expectation isn’t met, the new supporters will leave as quickly as they arrive (assuming Labour gets itself back on its feet) and, having burned off its activist base the Greens could find themselves in real trouble.
The opportunity, though, for the Greens is to bed themselves in as a 10% plus party – not just a tack-on to Labour after 2014, but a major partner in the next government. Getting there means foregoing small policy gains from working with National now and keeping the faith with their supporters.
Here’s hoping they’ve got the wisdom to do that.