The left’s change of fortune in the last 3 years is still kind of mindblowing. In 2017, the election that many believed the left would lose was twice turned on its head. First by Metiria Turei’s speech announcing the Green Party’s new welfare policy, where she, and they, managed to shift the Overton Window on poverty and welfare in a way that no-one else had managed through the long 30 years of neoliberalism. We owe them a great debt for this.
Turei’s speech was closely followed by the resignation of Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party, and we are fortunate that Little’s timing and how he managed that process enabled the rise of Jacinda Ardern (imo Little is one of the best men in parliament currently, and like the Greens points the way to post-macho politics).
Forward three years, covid changed everything again. At the start of the year, there was a fair chance of a Labour-led victory but it was by no means certain. This has morphed into an Opposition in disarray and Labour having a high likelihood of being able to govern with no coalition partners.
Two other features of this year’s election are the potential removal of NZ First from parliament, and the increase in ACT’s party vote. I’m not writing off Winston Peters until the final votes are counted, such are his legendary Lazarus powers, but I also have the feeling that this time he has misjudged the electorate, who in the age of covid want a kind of security that doesn’t come from powermongering, divisive politics, but from people being good to each other and the sense of we are in this together.
Peters has long applied the monkeywrench to MMP, using the inherent advantage of centrist parties to play each side off the other and to consolidate his power. Sometimes it’s hard not to admire his gall and mastery of his trade, but this isn’t the MMP that many of us envisaged whereby representation broadened and democractic engagement increased. The Peters’ era MMP is basically FPP with the power to enforce the status quo consolidated into the hands of one man.
It’s not that I don’t see a place for NZ First in parliament, it’s that as the global crises deepen, we desperately need to move on from macho politics and I can’t see that happening as long as Peters remains. I hope this is the year we reject the divine right of kingmakers.
Then there is the prospect of ACT having 5 MPs in opposition. One of the gifts of MMP is that we get to see true colours. Rather than having the hard right hidden within National, better to be able to see what they are doing and what they want to achieve out in the open. Also who will work with them and why. ACT historically had appeared more as liberal libertarians, but this is changing as they actively cultivate gun culture, Trumpian politics, and the racism that comes with both. There are multiple challenges here for the left, but there’s also an opportunity to work with what MPP offers.
Which brings us to the Greens. Long the conscience of the left, if we listen to the polls we apparently don’t need one any more.
Two of the popular narratives about the Green Party, in the mainstream discourse but also in parts of the left, are that the Greens 1) haven’t achieved much in this first term and b) are neoliberal centrists. The right love those narratives, for obvious reasons, harder to see what the left have to gain, especially in the face of some of the most progressive policy in decades.
The responses to this policy document from many on the left were strangely muted, as with the earlier welfare policy, the most progressive social security policy I’ve seen in my 50 odd years.
Understandably, because of 2014 and 2017 (and the Morris Dancing legacy), the Greens have been focused on changing the mainstream perception of the party as economically unreliable or too left field. My understanding is that party activists and others close to the party have pushed the Greens to now front foot the more radical progressive policies.
This doesn’t surprise me, because the progressive nature of the Green kaupapa is built into the party and timing is everything. Rather than the Greens being centrist neolibs, they’ve played the hand dealt them and trod a fine line between their values and the pragmatics of parliamentary politics.
As for the idea that the Greens haven’t achieved much, given the number of MPs they have and that they’ve worked outside of Cabinet for three years, I think it’s time to acknowledge that the Greens have really stepped up. The narrative on the left that they haven’t done anything really needs to die now. For those that missed it, here’s the list of what they have done this term.
Two things interest me now. One is the 4.4% of voters who voted Green in 2014, then Labour in 2017, dropping Green MPs from fourteen to eight. What are those 95,000 odd voters thinking now?
The other is does the left actually want MMP? At at time of big shifts of power in parliament, will New Zealand look to the full potential of our electoral system?