Colourblind political science: mistaking Green for blue

Bryce Edwards has been blogging about the Greens’ abandoned social justice agenda, saying they’ve nothing to offer the left. Russel Norman says that’s “bullshit”

Otago University political studies lecturer Bryce Edwards writes a learned blog. I like looking at its pictures. But, unsure how well his views on the Greens stacked up against what Russel Norman and Metiria Turei have actually said, I decided to ask them what they thought.

Norman’s reply was characteristically blunt and scatological. He thought Edwards seemed “singularly uninformed about the Greens”, and directed me to his speech to the Council of Trade Unions delivered on 22 October, in which he’d described similar theories as “bullshit”—as in: “There’s been a lot of bullshit spoken lately from some in the Labour Party and elsewhere that somehow Sue Bradford stepping down as a Green MP means that the Greens no longer care about social justice. Well I say that’s garbage. Green policy and kaupapa remains unchanged.”

In posts here and here, and here (hosting guest blogger John Moore), Edwards’ blog Liberation sets out the Greens’ political history, focusing particularly on their connections with the Alliance.

The Alliance, says Moore, brought the Greens—“middle class forces traditionally hostile to a working class agenda”—together with activists looking to build a working class party of the far left. As with most bad marriages, the Alliance coalition of divergent parties ended in divorce, with the Greens’ 1997 defection. In 1999, they took Bradford to Parliament with them; an increasing number of socialists, as well as anarchists, were joining the Greens at that time. The Green Party was seen as a refreshing alternative to the bureaucratic hierarchical Alliance.

In a way, then, the Greens might be seen as a microcosm of the Alliance: a similar mix of ideological currents, without the Jim Anderton paternalism.

Edwards’ and Moore’s thesis is that, since the Greens split from the Alliance in 1997, they have been on an “ideological moderating trajectory” towards the centre of the political spectrum. They’ve moved away from radical protest politics to a more sensible, middle class, mainstream image; their future is as a centre party that focuses most strongly on environmentalism.

As Bradford has publicly said, it was this philosophical difference, rather than the loss of the co-leadership per se, that prompted her to resign. The bloggers deduce that the co-leadership change was a symptom of a wider problem; they accept that it is a real problem, rather than perceived.

Bradford was the left wing radical stalwart of the Greens. In her absence, the Greens’ trend of “distancing from left-leaning social policies” will continue; their “intrinsic political nature as a centre-right force” will be exposed; they are “in reality a pro-capitalist party of the Establishment” that, far from threatening the dominant capitalist system, looks out for its best interests.

Whew. Stern stuff.

In this account of events, the preference for Metiria Turei over Bradford as the Greens’ new female co-leader symbolised the new mood. It may be that Turei has matured into a less radical figure than promised in her youth, when she dabbled in anarchy and performance art, and stood for the McGillicuddy Serious and Aoteoroa Legalise Cannabis parties. Certainly, her first speech as co-leader was vanilla—blander than that even. If you wanted evidence of having lost the radical edge, perhaps this rote recital of the party line was it. But there seems to be a degree of assumption that in taking on the trappings of the establishment, Turei has become the establishment; that cutting off the rats’ tails means abandoning the cause.

In fact, her maiden speech, delivered not that long ago, was all about social justice. It was also, if I understand it correctly, about trying different means and methods: “widening the floor of the cage”, rather than seeking to smash it. You might argue that reshaping the cage covertly, from within, is even more subversive than outright attack. Or Turei might have just grown up.

Norman, says Edwards, has probably pushed the party more than anyone else towards the centre. Edwards’ main beef with Norman seems to be that he has, from time to time, expressed confidence in market mechanisms.

In his maiden speech delivered on 1 July 2008, and echoed before the CTU, Norman dug down to his working class roots. One striking thing about this is how uncannily his choice of political story resembles Phil Goff’s: “I am the grandchild of a couple of carpenters who barely survived the depression with their families intact; I am the child of a man who was given a chance to get an education and become a fitter and turner and then an engineer. We grew up in a housing commission house in Brisbane and went to the local state school. I was the last of six children and the first to go to university … I am proud to stand before you as co-leader of the Green Party.”

It was his story, before it was Goff’s, and it illustrates how they’re staking out the same ground, in line with speculation from some that the Greens may seek to position themselves as an alternative Opposition in these troubled Labour times. It’s as if Norman’s implicitly saying: this is where a party of the centre left should be. If Labour is too busy chasing after law and order, and perpetual economic growth, and beneficiary bashing, the Greens will occupy the abandoned bits of turf. To find evidence here of “distancing from left-leaning social policies”, you have to buy into the hostility theory: that you won’t find a pool of voters with broad-based social consciences for whom working class and Maori issues and eco-friendliness are all part and parcel of the same thing.

The charge of looking out for the best interests of the system, as a “pro-capitalist party of the Establishment”, handily ignores a larger point about growth unsustainability that Norman has raised repeatedly, including in the same blog post where he talked about the irony of saving capitalism from itself. He posed this “question that defines our age”: whether you can have GDP growth without growth in resource use. If you could achieve that, I suppose it would still be capitalism; you’d still be left with a further set of social issues that Norman didn’t address. Maybe that speaks volumes; or maybe Frogblog just doesn’t lend itself to whole theses.

Neither co-leader bows to the present model, as Edwards and Moore would have it. If you renovated the cage by grafting on, for example, progressive social policies, and environmental sustainability, and Treaty recognition, it would be a different-looking cage.

I’d venture that Bradfords departure tells us more about Bradford than it does about the Greens. She is, through and through, a proud radical and idealist. More than once, her preference has been to take bat and ball and go home, in defence of her stringent beliefs, to save them from being sullied.


As Moore tells it, Bradford was at first shy of joining the Greens: if they weren’t middle class pakeha putting kiwi before workers, they were pot-smoking hippies who’d never worked a day in their lives. However, from the time she did join to the day that she left, it’s debatable whether the ethos of the party has radically changed, which is really the charge being levelled. Perhaps there were features of the previous co-leadership style that made it easier to bear, not least of them being that Bradford didn’t feel personally slighted.

For the time being, at least, the Greens are trying to sustain a broad church. Edwards et al may think this is a bad marriage—I might well agree that it’s more of a political than an ideologically defensible position—but this is politics, after all.