Green is the new black, but if the Green Party wants to attract mainstream voters it must confront its daggy image and cliquey mentality

“I don’t want to wear a hemp shirt and hairy knickers, I want a 21st century lifestyle with a coffee machine.” —Dick Strawbridge

Last month, Jeanette Fitzsimons formally announced her resignation from the Green Party co-leadership. She was eulogised as the party’s last true environmentalist, its “organic fig leaf”. Commentators were alluding to a broader problem—a problem for both the Greens and green-tinged voters. Not everyone green-tinged is comfortable voting Green.

Green is the new black, they say. Sustainability is on the lips of many: we’re talking about growing vegetables, seed swapping and keeping chickens in the urban backyard. The Green Party should be verdant. Instead, the Pundit poll of polls puts them at 7.3%, not far off their share of the party vote in the last three elections (7% in 2002, 5.3% in 2005, and 6.4% in 2008).

In theory, it seems conceivable that the “Green” brand might become mainstream. Often the Greens front issues—vital issues—that every other party overlooks or attributes relatively low importance to: animal welfare, food security, food quality, peak oil, renewable energy… I could go on. Yet they’re consistently found lurking on the border of electoral viability. We like them, we think they fill an important role in Parliament, and we know political life would be poorer without them—but we don't value them enough to give them our votes.

To become a mainstream party, the Greens need to be a true centre party, using whatever MMP-style heft they can muster to make sure the Green voice is heard on green issues, whoever is leading government. The political centre is crowded, but the Greens have the brand to sustain it.

But then there is their two-pronged problem: image and ideology.

The image problem might be voters’, attributable to prejudice and stereotype: the alleged “hemp shirt and hairy knickers” difficulty, that would have us all living in a commune, riding round on bicycles and sprouting organic mung beans. It’s true the Green movement has historically tended to attract those who are, shall we say, a bit eccentric—but I saw Russel Norman asking a question in the House the other day, and he was looking sharp. (It was not a bad question, either.) It would help the Green Party if they were to select and highly rank candidates who embody a professional image.

There’s a tired old slur, often found around Peter Dunne, that our Greens are “watermelons”: green outside and red in the middle. In other words, they say they’re about the environment, but principally what they stand for is somewhere on the spectrum that traverses social justice, social activism, socialism and communism. I’m being slightly unfair to Peter Dunne here, because the same line of argument gets rehashed most days of the week on the discussion threads of Kiwi and Frog blogs. Both regularly feature some really distasteful and boring vitriol targeting the Greens in general and Sue Bradford in particular.

To the outside observer, it’s hard to pick whether this is image or ideology. It might be a bit of both.

Now, my best claim to a grasp of political theory is Animal Farm. As any gossip, scandalmonger or liar will tell you, the best—as in, the most enduring, plausible, scurrilous—stories contain filaments of truth. And so it is in this case, when you look at some aspects of the definitions of socialism and communism, and compare them with how the Greens conduct themselves.

On Frogblog, mud gets slung in both directions. Green Party members, responding to arguments like the one I’m mounting, get a bit grumpy. They say anyone who doesn’t like the Greens needn’t vote for them. They might, for example, go and join National’s Bluegreens, or start a new political party. They say this quite vociferously. Curious logic: I would have thought the point of a political party was to try to attract the largest possible number of votes, not burn them off; to achieve wide electoral appeal, not form a clique with your mates.

Alternatively, Green Party supporters say, people uncomfortable with current party strategy should join. Everything the party does, it does democratically, so it’s open to any member to change it from within, provided they can sway a majority of other members to their point of view. Again, beside the point. Most of us don’t want to join a political party, and yet most of us vote. Few of us can afford to invest time and effort gambling on changing the approach of a political party that doesn’t want to change.

The 2008 election offers a recent example. While it’s possible this was a single (big) strategic mistake, and it’s perhaps a bit mean to point to it as evidence of disposition or keep harping on about it, it’s illustrative nonetheless. Shortly before the election, the Greens announced they would not assist National to form a government; in fact, they would actively vote against them on confidence and supply. On all 12 criteria for this decision, expressing “core principles of care for the earth and care for people”, National was, allegedly, heading in the wrong direction. Labour failed to perform much better but overall their policy was closer to the Green Party’s, making them a possible coalition partner.

The subtext seemed to be Labour’s always going to be a better government, no matter how badly they might be behaving. No matter that, in a robust democracy, time out can be salutary.

The criteria included questions about food security, child poverty and abuse, forming a genuine Treaty partnership, free education, overseas ownership of land and strategic assets, keeping New Zealand out of foreign wars, and preventive health care measures such as healthy food in schools. All of this is important—just like having a robust economy is important.  In fact, you need both a healthy planet and a robust economy to deliver the social justice. So… where is the mental block exactly? Is it antipathy to capitalism, or idealism trumping politics, or are the Greens just anti-establishment to the core?

Well before the election it was clear that John Key would reach out. The Maori Party got it right, and the Green Party wrong. The Greens do, and can continue to, hold governments accountable from the outside and take comfort in a few policy crumbs. Someone of Jeanette Fitzsimons’ calibre could have done so much more in Cabinet as Energy or Environment Minister; the loss of this opportunity is a shameful waste. Those fiercely protective Green Party supporters seem to fail to recognise that if the Greens keep taking this line, it will decrease their bargaining power 100% of the time, not just the 50% of the time that a National Party might be leading government.

Who knows where National’s headed with their environment policy. Who knows what policy concessions the Greens might have been able to extract, but take the Climate Change Committee for example. The Greens lambasted it (apparently forgetting they didn’t like the Emissions Trading Scheme much themselves until after it was passed), but they must share some of the blame. If in coalition negotiations the Prime Minister had been able to say to Rodney Hide with his five seats, "I’ve got the Green Party here with nine and they won’t have a bar of this nonsense," does anyone think the terms of reference would have looked the same?

The centre party policy I’ve outlined was Nandor Tanczos’ during his unsuccessful bid for the male co-leadership. He’s still trying here and here from outside Parliament. This gives me some comfort that the Greens are not just misunderstood: sadly, their position looks equally daft, from both inside and out.

There’s a cohort of green-friendly voters out there looking for a political home, perhaps not deeply ideologically attuned to either Labour or National and inclined to put the environment first. If the Greens won’t buff up their political act, perhaps Labour and National can smarten their environmental initiatives. I’m not politically fussy. Won’t somebody, anybody, save me from my melancholy blues?

Comments (23)

by william blake on March 20, 2009
william blake

I suspect that environmental (green) concerns sit most comfortably a little left of what used to be called the conservative party. Labour used to be about the workers and therefore had a vested interest in industry. National used to be about the farmers and dependant middle New Zealand.Green does not fit into this picture.

Neither of these entities exist anymore as National and Labour are both captured by the minority neo conservatives, whos purpose is unqualified growth and consumerism. Green does not fit into this picture either.

I suspect the Green partys day will come when we can no longer sell milk and beef and when we can no longer afford petrol.

Greenies arent watermelons they are kiwifruit; hairy on the outside and green all the way through.

by Claire Browning on March 20, 2009
Claire Browning

Or maybe when - like the petrol - we can no longer afford to buy the milk and beef at internationally-inflated prices.

If/when the Green Party's day does come, that will be gratifying.  But here's the thing: is it about being proven right (eventually) or doing something about it? The Greens say now is the time to act.  I believe them.  They seem unable or unwilling politically to position themselves to do it; they've spent the last 4 months taking pot shots from the sidelines, focusing on how correct they were to doubt the National Party.

by Raymond A Francis on March 20, 2009
Raymond A Francis

Excellent roundup of the present Green's problems

One of the Greens real problems with the voter is that they are against so many things, they come over as "knowing best" which is not going well at the moment or at least didn't at the last election

More postive positions might have more appeal because as you say most of us have some latent Gren in us. Just a matter of making us feel that a vote green will make a diference

Which of course is your position


by Conor Roberts on March 20, 2009
Conor Roberts

I couldn't disagree with you more.

I don't think the Greens could change their stripes without losing support. If they shifted to the centre and looked like they would support a National government, Labour-leaning and leftwing voters would desert the party (and I suspect they make up half the current support). I doubt there are enough 'centre' voters to make up for the loss and the Greens would be out of parliament. Unless you haven’t noticed, parties in the centre get squished by Labour and National - there is no room for that kind of Green party...

Commentators seem to think that because the Greens don't reflect their centrist thoughts that there is something wrong with them and they need to shift. This totally misses the Green's positioning.

Take the repeal of section 59. Many commentators seem to suggest that it was a bad move by the Greens because 80% of the population are against the move. Wrong, 20% of the population are for the move and that's the pool that the Greens are fishing in. Pick any of their policy positions and I suggest it would be much the same. The Greens are currently maximising their vote. Shifting would undermine that.

Looking around the world you don’t find many examples of Green parties achieving a greater percentage of votes that our one does. The German Greens seem like one that *could* traverse the two main parties, but then I don’t see them making much of an impact over there (the only coalition they’ve had with the CDU occurred last year in Hamburg). The Irish Greens went into coalition with (centrist-centre/right) Fianna Fáil but their voters are pissed at the current arrangements. I’ll grant you that the Canadian Greens are rightwing, but that’s just odd. Some of the Scandinavian green parties perhaps, but I just don't see it happening here.

P.S I'm not a Green voter.

by BeShakey on March 20, 2009

I think part of the dilemma for the Greens is to figure out where there current votes are coming from and where they plan to get additional votes from.  WIthout having seen their polling, I wonder whether their reluctance to leave open the possibility of supporting National is due to the possibility that they have a large number of supporters who want to use their vote to ensure a Labour government that is more left than centrist.  When the Greens promise to support Labour these voters will stay, if the Greens are ambivalent, and particularly if the polls are close, the Greens risk losing significant votes to LAbour. 

For mine, they need to try to open up the possibility of working with either party, depending on who is willing to make concessions that will advance the Green agenda.  To do this I think they need to spend a lot of time (e.g. the rest of this term) preparing their existing supporters for the possibility of an agreement with National.  To do this they'll need to work with National to get some wins to prove that a formal relationship could work.  So far there are few signs of this happening though.

by Jonathan Devine on March 20, 2009
Jonathan Devine

Well argued, Clare.

As I see it, the Greens divide into two natural camps: the ones that see a role for the state in delivering social justice (Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sue Bradford, Sue Kedgely, Catherine Delahunty, Meteria Turei) and those who see individual agency as the key to the same end (Russel Norman, Keith Locke, Kevin Hague, Kennedy Graham).

I may not have the camps exactly right, but the divisions are certainly there. Until the Greens can decide on the extent of the role of the state, they'll never be in a position to set the political agenda to 'green'.

As an aside, you argue "It would help the Green Party if they were to select and highly rank candidates who embody a professional image." True, and I think they've done that two times out of three with their recent intake. Kevin Hague (former CEO of the West Coast DHB) and Kennedy Graham (former diplomat and academic) are professionals to their back teeth. It seems that Catherine Delahunty was the concession to the Green Left.

Whether this intake signals a shift to the right, I don't know, but with Hague and Graham the Greens should be in a stronger position to appeal to 'mainstream' voters in 2011.

by Claire Browning on March 20, 2009
Claire Browning

Conor - well, I didn't expect to convince everyone! Actually, I was half expecting Frog et al to hop over; so on the whole, I think, things are not going as badly so far as they might.

It's not easy, and I don't underestimate the size of the dilemma and gamble for the Greens, if they did decide to change tack. 

Couple of questions around your implicit assumptions - firstly, that the Canadian Greens are right wing but "that's just odd".  One of the difficulties I have with the Greens is the received wisdom that environment/social justice agenda are inextricably linked.  The point fell a bit prey to editing, but what I was trying to argue was: if the Greens judge the situation correctly (and environmentally I think they do), this is a time when the environment/planet need to come first.  The Greens get that logic totally when arguing environment = economy.  It's only one extra step, and essentially the same argument, to say environment = economy = ability to deliver social justice.  In other words, I'm suggesting they could and should reprioritise.  Perhaps a way to begin to sell that to their left/Labour-leaning voters is as a response to the present climate - temporarily, or longer term if they find that it works out.

Secondly, that Greens are necessarily limited to fishing in the 20% population pool.  Raymond agreed with me that there's latent green in us all - or more than you might expect anyway - and again in the present climate, the Greens might well find people prepared to put aside their normal political sympathies, in the war spirit if you like.  It inevitably follows from fishing in that left/Labour-leaning pool that the two will tend to cannibalise one another's vote, especially in elections like 2005.  I was talking about trying to grow the vote.  I sound like Roger Douglas - must be time to stop.

But I do completely defer to your expertise about Greens coalitions elsewhere.  I wanted to look into that, but ran out of words and time.

by Claire Browning on March 20, 2009
Claire Browning

ps - by the way, I reckon if the Maori Party can do it, anyone can.  It will be interesting to watch how that one works out.

by Claire Browning on March 20, 2009
Claire Browning

Jonathan - I agree with you about the Greens in recent times, which might by the way tend to reflect the wider range of people thinking green and wanting to be affiliated with the Party these days.  I wondered briefly when I wrote that if it would be interpreted as a slur, and I didn't mean it that way.  What I was trying to say was: more of the same, please!

by DeepRed on March 21, 2009

If there's a bit of green in all of us, then are the Greens, like ACT, a party of influence rather than government?

by Adolf Fiinkensein on March 22, 2009
Adolf Fiinkensein

A very good piece Claire.

The Greens should be very worried about John Key's National Party.  He has shown an adebt ability to steal the ground which others thought safe and this has led to Labour's downfall.  The Greens are the next cab off the rank.

by Claire Browning on March 23, 2009
Claire Browning

Matthew SH - I was wondering that too, as I wrote - ie, whether the Greens would be more accurately characterised as a left wing ginger group, than an incipient centre party. 

I decided not - or at least, not yet.  Perhaps either future is equally likely; the Greens have to decide which they want.  But it seemed to me, if they were practising their theory, they would not choose the ginger group route for this reason: they take pride in idealism, in preferring principle to politics.  They want to change the world.  They won't get a mandate to change the world on 7% of the vote.

by Claire Browning on March 23, 2009
Claire Browning

Adolf - I think they should be more worried about the Labour Party. 

Last week we saw Labour pinch the Greens' home insulation policy that, in government, they didn't want to pay for (the Green Homes Fund wasn't comprehensive, arguably not fully funded, and the Greens say they had to fight for it tooth and nail).  It would be in line with Labour's tactic to discredit the Maori Party, with much greater chance of success: the Greens, unlike the Maori MPs, have no electorate seats.  The risk is heightened by Jeanette Fitzsimons' departure: if the party's agenda is perceived as slipping towards the far left, and if Labour can green its policies a bit, swinging Green/Labour voters might well shift back.

Personally, I think we desperately need the Greens in Parliament, to keep both big parties honest on green issues.  But they need to get a lot smarter quite quickly.

by Claire Browning on March 23, 2009
Claire Browning

And by the way, Conor - no, you're not a Green voter, because unless I'm mistaken you're a 2008 Labour Party candidate.

Also, incidentally (relevant to my point above?), the champion of a new Carbon Reduction Action Group initiative.

by Metiria on March 23, 2009

While acknowledging my own interest in this discussion...

There can be no environmental reprioritisation if fairness is not an inherent part of the package.  We constantly make the "environment = economy = ability to deliver social justice" connection: read Green New Deal, RMA, housing, transport, agriculture, fisheries and more.  Whenever we talk about that connection between the environment and fairness we are criticised for being too left.  Its not unusual for us to be stuck between this rock and that hard place, but continued repetition of the criticism doesn’t get us any further in the debate.

Jonathon suggests that two of our new MPs might signal a shift to the right.  Kennedy was a key player in the nuclear free debate some decades ago and Kevin has a long history of gay social activism.  Are they left or right now?  If the issue is image - sure, they look good and that’s great, but that’s all.  I'd expect that a signal of a shift to the right consists of more than just a decent suit or I might have to give up my high heels.  And I don’t want to, lefty though I might be.

I agree with Claire that the we Greens need to consider very closely our decision on political positioning at the last election.  There is a lot of speculation about whether it cost us and if so how much.  We need to understand better what kind of message we sent, given that the message did get crunched in the media digestion of our statement.  In elections there is little room for correction and statements have to be straightforward and clear.  We can take some responsibilty for that.  I want to understand better why 11% were saying they would vote for us in the week before the election and why nearly half of them changed their mind on the day.  That is the key to understanding how we can best grow our support, everything else is speculation. 

BTW - there is no way that National would ever have given us a portfolio as crucial as Energy or Transport.  They didnt need us for votes, they had a choice of easier friends than us.

Cheers, Metiria

by Conor Roberts on March 24, 2009
Conor Roberts

I am the same. There is no other Conor Roberts in New Zealand. I'm also a student of politics and that is what my post was based on. Thanks for the replies - good discussion.

by Claire Browning on March 24, 2009
Claire Browning

Metiria - thanks.  I'll try to keep this brief because really, I've said plenty.  I'd rather hear from others.  But I'm assuming you're interested in hearing from me, as a member of the other half of the heady 11%.

Image: it's not who looks good in a suit, or signals a shift to the right (as you point out, that kind of approach is inevitably pretty superficial).  It's about an image of competence: who's equipped to run the country and/or have influence in Parliament? 

Media messages: the message I heard pre-election was delivered by Jeanette, in her usual clear style, during the "minor party" leaders' debate.  The criteria for rejecting National were published on Greens' website, and I read that material too.  In relation to me, at least, there was no issue of secondhand media delivery.

Happy for others to judge whether this post and accompanying thread offer any advance on other efforts - which do have an unfortunate tendency to go round, and round, and round again in circles.  The same circle. 

As you rightly point out, repetition of the same old criticism doesn't take things forward.  If I might, I'd like to turn that back on the Greens, in their approach to National. 

We know you think they're doing a disastrous job.  For my part, I'm happy to suspend judgement on that, for a little while, at least in relation to the two big issues: environment and economy. 

We know you don't like them much.  But it seems to me, it's as silly to dismiss all National governments as capitalist money-hungry "rich pricks" as it is to deride all Greens as reds under the bed.  OK, they didn't keep faith in the 90s - and Labour didn't either, in the 80s.  Might we perhaps move on?

Having a Labour government all the time is bound to be a very bad idea - whatever one typically thinks of Labour governments.  For NZ, the environment should be a priority all the time and especially now.  That is why I think the Greens have to be a bit more openminded, and think a bit more laterally, about ways to find or create common ground with whoever is leading government - as has the Maori Party.

by Metiria on March 25, 2009

i agree that those kinds of broad brush approaches dont allow us to progress our kaupapa.  We are not in parliament just for the fun, but to get changes, so we will work with whoever we can.  That doesnt mean we have to have a confidence and supply agreement - we have yet to see whether the Maori Party will benefit or not from theirs.  Having ministerial positions is not itself an indicator of success.  Getting stuff done is the indicator of success. And there are many different ways to do that.

I am looking forward to seeing where and how we might be able to work with National.  It is not an easy fit, thats true, but it will be very interesting and more importantly useful.  And that will require National  to make real progress on the key planks of environment and economy - we wont accept platitudes, we want the Green New Deal.

If for example they give the fisheries over to the industry to manage they will have proved that they do not understand that the environment=economy.  I will fight them all the way on that, because of the impacts on our marine ecology and long term fishing industry economy.  That doesnt make the Greens inherently anti-National.  It makes us fiercely pro-Green.   And at the same time, we may be able to make progress with them on other things too - JK has said good things about country of origin labelling for example.  Thats real politics playing out, not entrenched politics.


by Brian TLO on March 29, 2009
Brian TLO

It is clear to me that our education and legal system are very poor with, for example, people believing they are entitled to drive a dinosaur juice powered vehicle and disown the refuse generated.

While Mothers push babies in pushchairs past parked cars with the exhaust pipe pumping toxic chemicals into the lungs, brains and immune systems of their victims.

I am sure that if I was to spray a politician with water I would be arrested. Yet I can legally spray them with the toxic substances of the industrial revolution.

It is impossible to be green. The laws ensure it. Who will we blame when it all goes wrong? I doubt it will be the stake holders. Will it be ourselves? It is in the best interest of the stake holders to poison us to ensure the profits are maintained.

We are denied basic rights to achieve this. Will we realise something is wrong when all the honey bees are gone? When all the fish are female and 99.99% of all germs are dead?

It is not about politics but about the welfare of the future generations. In all honesty we are failing them. All of us, green, red, black and blue. Any colour you like we are all responsible. The divisions are created to achieve little in reality.

Once humans had to work together to survive and provide for the future generations. The efforts of the past peoples now allow us to be more concerned about the colour of our car.

by Claire Browning on April 08, 2009
Claire Browning

Greens and National announce a working relationship:

by Metiria on April 20, 2009

Kia ora,  So what do you think of our agreement?

by Claire Browning on April 20, 2009
Claire Browning

Couldn't be happier - clever politics, by both the Greens and National.

Looking forward to testing the size of the government's commitment: is this just "Greenwash" for them, or genuine collegiality?

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