Towards a new theory of the Greens: transition times

The global green change needed is desperately urgent. Paradoxically, the fastest and best way to achieve it locally might be more tortoise than hare

The Greens have made a feature out of slow, but steady, organic growth.

Having entered Parliament in the Alliance, gained independence in 1999 with an electorate win in Coromandel, maintained (sometimes precariously) a core vote above the 5 percent threshold, the party has now elected two new co-leaders and sworn in a whole second generation of MPs.

On December 20 Greens take their seats in the 50th Parliament with 13 MPs, 10.6 percent of the party vote, and 50 percent more weight in the House. We have won a three-year opportunity to make an indelible political mark.

The next half-dozen years will be a tussle on the opposition benches as Labour regroups, and the Greens try to establish and grow this new double-figure vote base.

Labour, according to aspirant David Cunliffe, want “their” votes back that swung to the Greens in 2011. Labour want to regain their former strength as the Opposition in our Parliament. Labour is developing a bit of a habit of poaching Green policies; I don’t say a bad habit, because Greens should celebrate this, and Lord knows, they can write some better ones. Labour needs to re-examine everything, including what kind of a manifesto and political vision it will put forward to re-establish its relevance. I wonder where it will look. Economic, social and environmental sustainability are the global challenge.

The Greens, according to co-leader Russel Norman, want Labour’s place in the House.

The Greens’ growth to date has been slow, but over the next few years if it is to continue, they might aspire to be a party that can work within some sort of governing arrangement or coalition without breaking apart, or disintegrating at the next election. More speculatively, over a longer time, they could be a major opposition force – the Opposition, with a capital O.

The second of these, in particular, will not happen unless some things about the way the Greens do politics change. I think that the Parliamentary part of the party knows this; whether the wider party does is less clear.

Many things need to happen; I am interested in two. The Greens need to profess more clearly their values, their vision, and their relevance to the needs and challenges of today’s voters – to explain that this is their time, and why – and then, they need to take this, and progress it strategically.

I think, right now, there is more focus on the strategy than the policy.

Green policy is revolutionary. It means trying to build a thing that has never been fully tested, though we can reuse some parts. Before the Greens can explain what their point of difference is, and why they are the true Opposition in parliament, not just 'watermelons', they need to start talking about this.

And yet, in 2011, a ‘less is more’ strategy won: less radical-looking and sounding, more result.

The focus in 2011 was on three local green priorities: kids, rivers and jobs. And some motherhood, and apple pie, but something short of changing the world. The Green candidates in 2011 did not look radical: they looked hip, young professional.

Substance-wise, the suits and chic are nothing; the policies have not changed. Perception-wise, the style is all.

We need to start a conversation, a hard one. That means first inviting people to listen, and participate. It means looking non-threatening, and sounding competent – looking like you’re capable of running the country, when applying for the job of running the country. It means building respect and trust.

That said, former co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons earned huge respect and trust with her trademark courtesy and formidable grasp of policy detail – but also, alongside the particular policies like enviroschools and energy efficiency, her focus, often called “steely”, on both where she had come from and where she was going – on her Values and values.

Ray's theory that there is a cohort of voters swinging the political compass in a new direction, on a third dimension, whose values are not captured by either the left or the right makes sense to me: I am one of the unaligned kind and, judging by this election result, another 31-plus percent is disengaged. He also says that, at any one point in time, many of them are in transition towards living their aspirations, protecting the planet for their children, extending equality and justice to all:

on average most take about 10 years (from 5 to 15 years) to bring their lives into alignment with their professed values. You didn’t just change your mind one day, and step across a category boundary. It was not a quick and easy crossing of a line, but a lloonnngg, ssllooww change of values, worldview and lifestyle — often done without much social support.

From what voters are ready to support now, follows what Greens can achieve now. To get more votes, to progress with the utmost urgency, the Green Party needs to explain what it stands for and aspires to, in the end, and yet also step slowly for the time being. Paradoxically, temporarily, it needs to slow down.

First, the need is to accept the world as it is, and work within it, but all the time, supporting and leading the evolving social movement. We are, in that sense, all in transition together – the Greens leading step by step to a place out in front, rather than standing out in front, hectoring the remainder.

All of that is about pragmatism and politics.

Reputedly, more important to Greens are policy and principle. Framing the question in that way, too, the answer is the same.

The system that we have and we know must be dismantled and rebuilt. But this can only happen bit by bit, if social disaster that would be anathema to Greens as well as counter-productive to their goal of winning hearts and minds is not to ensue. The alternative would be Lange-Douglas again; the policies would be different, but the result would be the same.

Here on Pundit earlier in the year, we had a wee stoush about Green capitalism, and greed. My colleague Sue Bradford wrote a withering post titled “greed is good as long as its Green”, extolling a piece by Richard Smith which said (I paraphrase) we have many big problems to which socialism is always the best and only answer, beneath which Fitzsimons commented:

I’m afraid that if we have to wait to change the whole economic system and grow a form of democratic eco-socialism that has never been tried anywhere let alone succeeded in leaving us a blueprint, we will still be designing it when the oceans close over our heads and food wars break out all over. Of course it would be better to run society as a participatory, democratically controlled egalitarian economy that plans to meet human needs sustainably, but the big problem remains. What seem like the obvious priorities to us - quality food and shelter for everyone, products that last for ages and can be repaired, renewable energy, local production - just aren't the priorities most people would choose …

To achieve the policy and the principle does require interim pragmatism, working within the system for the time being, so as not to totally break the system. We will get there faster and better, assuming it is not too late to get there at all.

And it is consistent with Green principle in another way too: celebrating diversity, subject to the proviso, first do no harm. There are different ways of humane being.

Hearing Greens insist that no good can come from the right infuriates me, not because I am of the right, but because it is utterly at odds with what the party professes to stand for. If Greens are to be the change we want to see in the world, it means making room for everyone: the individuals, as well as the collectivists.