The Greens’ vibe has changed, but have they lost grip on values with a small and large V? For all the strengths and wins of the 2011 election campaign, it also failed
My new theory of the Greens is recycled. The new thing is the old thing, really.
In 2011 we changed some things, and won some votes: not a world-changing number of votes, but a historic number, enough for some more Green growth.
Having celebrated this, I’d like us to remember our roots, honour them, and branch out from them, because to forget them would be perilous for our party and the planet. I'd like us, in the fray of politics, to not lose sight of the true fight.
Chris Trotter said last night that Labour, before it can rebuild, needs to decide who the party is now. This is the right time for Greens to do the same.
We are, fundamentally, philosophically, the opposition in Parliament. We are the radicals and the revolutionaries, and this is true whatever we wear. Radical and revolutionary is what the world needs and what a good proportion of the voting public want.
Until now, the prevailing view within the party on policy seems to have been that because everything is interconnected, and it is all equally important, it doesn’t matter much which bit happens first. The first generation of MPs did their own things and did them well, but at some cost to the Green brand.
Nandor Tanczos called it the multi-choice option: we had, he said, “practised the politics of addition and that has added up to a 5% base ... we give [voters] a multi-choice option and then let them decide for themselves, based on their biggest like or dislike”.
This general election campaign was focused. It was tight, as Jolyon White found out. There were three top priority policies: kids, rivers, and jobs.
They were smart choices. There was an instantly recognisable social policy, an environmental one, and an economic one. Each of them was individually also all three: social, environmental and economic.
The billboard slogan was “party vote Green, for a richer new Zealand”. They showed some healthy children swimming in a clean river, and wind-powered energy for green jobs. They suggested, perhaps, that a richer New Zealand could be reached by a different route than the fossil-fuelled, dairy-fed path we’ve been on.
And, the campaign said as much in the subtext. For example, the Green Room, an online forum scheduled to coincide with the first major party leaders’ debate, told voters that the debate has a new third dimension now.
But for all the strengths and wins of the 2011 campaign, it also failed, irrespective of the size of the resulting vote. Because it did not give real profile to the difference in Green values, or confront the need for a change in values. It did not spell out that a party vote Green is not just a vote for a smart-thinking smart-looking more environmentally-friendly party branded under a different colour.
It may have said the opposite.
We need consumption and growth in green things, and we need fossil-fuelled growth to stop. But even green growth has limits. The Greens’ charter principles of ecological wisdom (including ecological sustainability), social responsibility, appropriate decision-making and non-violence will stand or fall in the end on the values of enough -- values of unselfishness and kindness, civility and restraint.
The need for enough is a physical constraint, on a finite planet. Until the privileged among us say “enough”, the world will not be environmentally sustainable or socially responsible; and in the end it will be a violent place.
This is one thing the former Values party did well, and the 2011 campaign did not. Values crafted a narrative about environmental limits, the need to sustain quality of life, that growth would not be a solution and in fact was the problem, therefore different social and economic policy was needed, alongside environmental policy. They succeeded in writing a coherent story, that people wanted to read and be part of, and that still speaks today.
Values, with a small and large V, is the key. And in fact, it was not just a failure in 2011. With the exception of Jeanette Fitzsimons, the Greens have never done this.
Greens do stand for something very different than the status quo, or should. With Labour and, to a lesser extent, National “nicking our stuff” -- adopting policies and taking full credit for what are in fact Green achievements -- saying so, and explaining why we are the new, the only opposition in Parliament, matters.
It will matter even more, as Labour starts to rebuild.
This is not about misplaced nostalgia for the past, at the very moment the Greens have never faced a brighter more exciting future. It is that future. Because far from being threatening to voters and a political risk, “new political compass” author Paul Ray argues that a substantial minority of voters can be found, unaffiliated to either left or right, because neither represents their values or confronts the world’s problems.
Talk of new values is no more off-putting to such voters than Greens being either confused or vigorously self-identified with the left, whom, for the most part, this group does not like. They are socially liberal and politically progressive. But they have no interest in re-mobilising the hatreds and angers that were last century’s fight, little in identity politics, and they can see that the ways of the left haven’t worked, any more than the ways of the right.
They want someone to represent their new values, about a future for their children, a globally sustainable society, and the need to confront the twin eco-crises: ecological and economic. In an election with record low turnout, it is this kind of disengagement and disillusion that Ray has reanalysed.
Values' ultimate goal was -- and the Greens’ goal is? -- the quality of life. Little of what materially matters is lost, by choosing to live differently, and everything is gained. That is what Greens in the end stand for, not just “a richer New Zealand”; that is the thread running through all processes and policies.
Meanwhile, the old parties favour capitalism and growth and neo-liberal economics, consumption is a goal rather than a risk, both have been laggards on the environment, they fight over who owns the means of producing wealth, and how to distribute it.
However, whilst reaching out to these people, it is just as important to explain why the Green Party has not shifted from its base, and must not, in its eagerness to be popular and polite.
The Green Party is Values’ child. But it was the missing narrative that bound together Values’ people as well as its policy: its radicalism, including a dabble in anarchy, a strong drive towards socialism that threatened to split the party, environmentalism, ecological economics.
Values was white, middle class, highly educated, in short "ordinary" enough, but smart. Founded by a couple of former journalists, their use of new media strategy and influence was a strength, as it continues to be, for the Greens.
It was also, in campaign mode, satirical, good-humouredly radical, stunt-based. A human 50 cent coin chased a human dollar note down the street. A funeral procession was staged along Wellington’s new motorway route (bisecting Bolton St cemetery).
In 2011, “wild greens [were] nowhere to be seen”. And yet, at its heart, Green policy is as subversive and seditious and revolutionary as it ever was. It is about rebuilding the whole cage, and explaining why this is a promise, not a threat.
It is no less important to communicate and keep that part of the brand, as the polite, professional, reassuring part. Because it, too, tells the truth.