If the Greens thought the past three years were challenging, just wait for the next three. They – and Labour – need to figure out a new way of growing the centre-left bloc without tearing each other to pieces

If her speech is anything to go by, it was a confident and combative Metiria Turei who took to the stage at the Greens' policy conference in Palmerston North yesterday, looking over what the new Greens had created and declaring "it was very good". And why not? The Greens were arguably the smartest political operators last term, increasing their support by two-thirds and bringing seven new MPs into the House.

Green co-leader Turei rightly boasted:

"We have survived leadership changes and the retirement of all of our original Green MPs, and we are still here and stronger than ever."

Many in political circles were dubious of the second generation of Greens and their ability to build on the foundations laid by the much-admired Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons. But that's just what they did.

So credit where credit's due. But let's also not get too giddy about the Greens' future prospects; however well they've done reaching base camp and pitching their tents, she's a hard road yet to the top.

And it seems the top's where they want to be. Turei spoke of not being Labour's "little brother" and "being bigger, stronger and fiercer than ever". She said

"This election does not represent a high water mark for Green support. It is just the beginning. We will get bigger and stronger."

Which can only be read as a direct challenge to Labour's ascendancy on the centre-left. Or so you'd think.

Turei went on to say:

"We are not the benefactors of Labour or National voters shifting to the Greens. We are our own political force that generates support in our own right."

To which I'd ask, so where do you think your increased support came from? The pixies? Santa Claus? The horribly low turn-out at the election makes if crystal clear the Greens aren't adding to the sum total of voters, so of course it's stealing votes from the big parties, Labour in particular.

Turei's claim to the contrary is rhetorical nonsense. But it does raise a crucial point of tension that will be well worth watching between now and 2014.

Fact is, the number of voters is finite. While there's always room to bring in non-voters, by and large politics is a competition for market share. In their more sober moments, Turei and her team must recognise that their peak coincided with Labour's nadir, and that's no coincidence. Labour's survival depends on it also getting "bigger and stronger".

So the real question for both parties is how to grow the combined centre-left vote, rather than cannibalising each other or getting into a self-destructive slagging match for a percentage of the vote that won't even get you into the Beehive.

It hardly needs saying that most of that growth has to come from the 'centre' part of that combo, rather than the 'left'. And that means taking votes off National.

Turei implied that she understood as much by ripping into John Key as a wheeler-dealer Prime Minister whose government is dishing out tax dollars to big business whilst cutting the state sector and ignoring the poor. She couldn't have been clearer, saying:

"It is our goal is to remove this Government; to replace it with one of our own construction."

(It's a fascinating sentence, that one. It's quite a hostile line for the peace-loving Greens. It doesn't talk of winning over the public, but of simply eliminating the opposition. It lays out the Greens' ambition to be at least Kingmaker, and ultimately even the senior party of the left.)

The Greens recognised the need to win some in the centre by last year opening the door to a deal with National, even if they repeatedly described it as "highly unlikely". It fenced National off (a little) and helped shake off some of the 'loony left' perceptions. But I'm not sure if they can go back to that well. To use a terribly un-Green metaphor, they will have to drill somewhere else this term.

It helps that the party's on the right side of "centrist" public opinion on the likes of asset sales, overseas ownership and probably even deep sea drilling helps, but a more sophisticated strategy will be needed.

For a start, the attacks from the right are likely to be bigger and stronger too. It's not hard to imagine what National – and even the Maori Party – make of other lines in the speech when Turei promises to "to engage constructively" with the government and find common ground: "You want to work with us while declaring your desire to destroy us? Go take a running jump".

But the more interesting and vital question is how Labour responds to the Greens this term. Labour has undoubtedly lost support to the Green Party. So does it go for them hammer and tongs? Publicly new leader David Sheaer is up for a fight, saying:

"We're not going to sit back and see the Green Party eat away our support."

Which must delight National no end. It would love to see the centre-left parties attacking themselves, much as the Democrats are loving the spectacle of the Republican candidates tearing strips off each other in the US primaries.

When Gingrich calls Romney a liar, he's simply doing Barack Obama's work for him – and in a much more damaging way, because it's criticism by a supposed friend rather than enemy. The only winner is the other guy.

No, Labour and the Greens need to nut out a new way. Does David Shearer – he of the life and death negotiations in refugee camps – have a different strategy behind the scenes? Does he have it in him to be a true MMP leader? (if anyone even knows what that means).

The political fact is that Labour and the Greens combined can probably count on around 40 percent of the vote; they need to find at least five percent more in the next five years. Where does that come from? And which party gets it?

Does Labour need to work harder with the Greens to find (gift) them a winnable electorate seat? Does it need to back-off some popular issues to allow the Greens a positive spotlight? Do the Greens need to talk up Shearer's credentials as a PM? Can personal and policy bridges be built by the likes of Green-friendly Labour front-bencher David Parker?

I'm not sure of the detail, but if they can't find a way of working together while holding to what makes them distinct and different parties, National will be able to feel more confident about a third term.

Comments (19)

by Nic on February 21, 2012

Green 'growth' is directly related to unprecendented social & environmental decay!

Fradulent, fake & have neither the emotional or mental devlopment to know better ( as encapsulated by the Green party, it's politicians & dignitries etc, the epitomy of what is wrong with the whole political pay roll & lustre!!

Won't go on forever even in the relative short-term, they will be known for their fruits, not in a 'denier' type witch hunt fashion but in a systemic way, for the shadow is beyond left & right as is the increasingly counter-point non-voting public & general voting public who don't bother following politics - which is where this poster is heading back to, after this wee tangent slip, for the more fruitfull quests in the nature of truthful living.

No offence intended, either is rubbish or very true, but one is the flip side of the other,and what being the nature of both is could surely be the same for everyone anyway?




by Tim Watkin on February 21, 2012
Tim Watkin

No offence taken Nic, because I have absolutely no idea what it is you're saying! Want to try making your point again in complete sentences?

by dc on February 21, 2012

"To which I'd ask, so where do you think your increased support came from? The pixies? Santa Claus?"

This interpretation reminds me of Claire Curran's "white-anting" comments that sparked such ire on The Standard and elsewhere.  Surely it's overly simplistic to assume that Labour (or any party) has some natural right to their historic level of support - that voters are somehow obligated to remand loyal even (in some cases) in the face of radical changes to what the party purports to stand for.

If parties internalise that view in their strategic planning then they're likely to fall into the very trap of zero-sum infighting that you describe.  More healthy, surely, to focus on offering the voters the clearest, most inspiring vision, strong polices and commanding, respectable spokespeople.

by dc on February 21, 2012


by stuart munro on February 21, 2012
stuart munro

You make a couple of points that I think are pretty questionable logic:

That the logical area of growth for the Greens are in the 'centrist' votes. This territory is already crowded with parties that have vague or no principles. Actually having positions, though it may contradict conventional media 'wisdom', indicates a greater fitness to govern. Voters abhor insincerity.

That the Greens should not cannibalise the Labour vote. They cannot avoid it. Labour since Douglas has travelled along way to the right, but the social statistics the Herald has been putting out recently show that society has been growing more unequal, and quite rapidly,ever since Douglas's great mistake. This means that traditional Labour policy has more voters who logically ought to support it than ever before. But Labour has abandoned them for the New Labour insincerity that typified Tony Blair. Such people will hardly vote National. So as long as the Greens avoid disgrace theywill pick up the greater part of those votes. More if they explicity took up a few more positions like their stance on child poverty, that Labour, in its dotage, has abandoned.

by Tim Watkin on February 21, 2012
Tim Watkin

dc, you seem to have missed my point. Labour doesn't have a right to any support per se. But that doesn't seem to have what Turei was saying. She was claiming that the growing support for the Greens wasn't coming from shifting Labour or National supporters. I was simply saying, 'of course it was'.

Voters aren't just motivated by pull factors, but by push factors too. Some of the increased support for the Greens would have certainly been an anti-vote for Labour and if Labour finds its feet some of those voters will swing back.


by Tim Watkin on February 21, 2012
Tim Watkin

Stuart, by your logic the Greens should do well in the centre then, with their clear principles. Regardless of how many parties are there now, that's where the vast majority of voters and almost all swing voters are, so it's the only place where they can grow their vote. They'll get no support further right of National and, in broad terms, those on the left are either with them or loyal to Labour or Hone.

I agree the Greens can hardly avoid cannibalising some of the Labour vote (or vice versa). I disagree with your dismissal of Labour. I mean, whether your characterisation of them since Douglas is fair or not, they're not carved in stone. Labour has a new leader from the post-Douglas era and therefore could become a very different party and gain support. The Greens may implode and lose support. Who knows?

My broader point though, is that if all they do is cannibalise each other, they won't govern – 40% ain't enough.

by DeepRed on February 22, 2012

Non-voters, and floating voters who initially supported Key but are waking up to his agenda, are the obvious targets. With the Crafarms legal tussle and asset sales, maybe it's time to slip off the kid gloves and do an Orewa Rotary.

What would be the Left's equivalent of 'dangerous separatism'? Maybe inspiration could be taken from a speech Bob Harvey gave to the 1999 Labour conference: "For believe me, if we are not successful this time, then the future of NZ won't belong to us. It'll belong to boardrooms foreign to these shores." It would likely invoke the spectre of Wall St and TranzRail - and perhaps also the word "bankster".

by Bruce Thorpe on February 22, 2012
Bruce Thorpe

Just as Alliance prospered when Labour stocks were low, so has the Green support grown in similar times.

An important motive in previous Labour voters moving to Green  was to give the old party a warning that the left was not to be  taken for granted.

Those concerned with child poverty, the health services/healthy livng balance, respect for minorities and disabled, could all become green rather than labour supporters.

The economic nationalism and distrust of common market regulation issues are also rich green fields.

For a while yet, I expect Labour to hold the conservative trade unions, public service and teachers, and the church based Polynesian conservatives.

The Port of Auckland dispute could be a story to watch.

by stuart munro on February 22, 2012
stuart munro

Tim, I know the centre is usually perceived as the fertile ground - but if all a party is is centrist, it promises to basically do nothing - and there significant problems to be addressed.

But in the left field,where the wretched of NZ are congregating year by year in ever greater numbers, is a large eligible population that rarely votes. It is attributed to cynicism and voter apathy and a number of other issues. Traditionally Labour was reasonably good at motivating this group, though their competence in that area has collapsed in the post-Douglas era. There is an easy 5-15% of the vote in this area for any party of the left that is respectful and trustworthy.

And it may amount to considerably more. If you consider the moving blob that supported NZ First and United Future, then deserted them as their want of integrity became apparent, there are it seems plenty of New Zealanders looking for a better standard of representation. Mostly in vain.

by stuart munro on February 22, 2012
stuart munro

Go Deep Red! - That's what Labour has to do to get its vote back. But so far it does not seem that Shearer has the stomach for it. If not he'll be toe-to-toe with Key in the middle ground, and without a robust policy position the matter will be decided on that media construct 'personality'. Makes it a coin toss. Fine for those with backbench aspirations, not so good for the country.

by Tim Watkin on February 22, 2012
Tim Watkin

Stuart, I'm afraid you're completely misreading the situation, imho. Centrist doesn't necessarily mean inactive per se. And I'd love to see any evidence you have to suggest NZers are congregating in ever greater numbers on the left – voting patterns tell you otherwise (as do right/wring direction polls and preferred PM polls).

If you're assuming the non-voters are all left-wingers, I'd like to see evidence for that too; a chunk of those will have been those on the right too complacent to vote. And if you think all of those who have come and gone from NZF and UF are looking for left-wing solutions, I think you're in for a shock.

Might not be what you want to see, but it is what it is.

by Duffy on February 23, 2012


The votes were counted as Green votes! This makes them Green votes in their own right. They are therefore Labour or National no! not a complete statement. Green votes are Green votes. Many of these votes may have come from the younger generation which have never voted before?

by Tim Watkin on February 23, 2012
Tim Watkin

Looking at the turnout numbers Duffy, I think you're right to put a question mark at the end of your last sentence. The number of first time voters voting Green would not account for seven new MPs. So by definition, an increase in the number of votes means those voters ticked someone else last time. As I wrote, politics is largely a competition for market share.

And if voters can move one way, then can move again. To assume these are "Green votes in their own right" is to be far too complacent. Swing voters have to be earnt and earnt again and again.

by stuart munro on February 24, 2012
stuart munro

"If you're assuming the non-voters are all left-wingers,"

No, but as a proportion of the left/right split, the non-voting is usually much heavier on the left. Strong electoral turnouts too seem to favour the left. And in the recent election the swing to Key was accompanied by a lower turnout.

As for the NZF & UF voters,what is sure is that they were looking for something other than what they got. So a crowded middle with each party saying as little as possible to try to win votes on empathy rather than policy positions - is an attrition strategy. What you do when you already expect to lose. Moreover, even if it succeeds it will disappoint voters, as they learn that the common values they estimated their candidates held prove to be both less communally held and less abundant than they hoped. Better to represent a position clearly, and chance your arm on persuading people, than essentially mislead them. They won't readily forgive it.

by Tim Watkin on February 24, 2012
Tim Watkin

Stuart, you're still assuming that aimg for the centre means standing for nothing, and I don't think that's accurate; not politically and not in the minds of voters.

Sure, more non-voters are usually on the left (or, at least, worse off). But I reckon some of the low vote was down to a confidence amongst some that Key would win again and there's nothing wrong with him. And just because some of the non-voters are on the left doesn't mean that more left wing policies will get them to vote. There were, unusually, two parties to the left of Labour on most policies, and yet the turnout was still super low, which rather scuppers your theory, doesn't it?

by stuart munro on February 25, 2012
stuart munro

Certainly not - the low end voters are less accessible by conventional media - it takes more than a sop thrown their way in a newspaper to get their attention. There is moreover a sentimental attachment to the major parties from first past the post times -as you point out in your following article. For a party of the left to secure a significant groundswell from, for example the 50% of NZers who are currently 'thriving' on 5% of GDP, that party needs to either be Labour, or to displace Labour as a credible contender. Though this is not a trivial task, given the lack of enthusiasm for their traditional supporters within the Parliamentary Labour party, it seems more likely that Labour will be displaced than that they will go to the mattresses.

The difficulty with the left parties crowding the centre is that they then fail to fulfil their balancing function - and the vested interests that have secured a halving of top tax rates over the last few decades as well as alienating every monetisable asset they could glom, show no sign of abandoning their designs.

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