What alternative? The rise and rise of the Greens

For many periods in the last four years you could be forgiven for thinking that the Greens were the main opposition party. Despite having only fourteen MPs to Labour’s thirty-four, the Greens have managed to put themselves at the front of most of the opposition to National’s privatising and cutting agenda, leading in the campaign against asset sales and having critical comments prominent on most issues of the day. This has been noticed by commentators in the bourgeois media; after years of mocking the Greens as out of touch, neoliberal journalists have been forced, grudgingly, to recognise that this is a party with a record and stability. The right-wing newsletter Trans-Tasman listed Russell Norman as one of the top five politicians of 2012.

The Green vote at the last election was the highest they have ever achieved – 11.1% – and they have consistently polled above 10% since then. The Greens are the only party apart from the big two to have gathered more than 5% of the vote in each election since 1999. In comparison to the time-servers, stuffed shirts and political hacks who seem to dominate Labour’s list, the Green MPs look and sound like people from outside the official and respectable channels of political life. This is not just a question of ‘diversity’: Catherine Delahunty was a feminist and campaigner for decades before becoming an MP; Kevin Hague has a record at the AIDS Foundation to be proud of; Mojo Mathers has extensive experience as an environmental activist in Canterbury. The Greens have spoken out in support of Ports of Auckland workers and locked-out meatworkers. Denise Roche has been a union organiser, and Green MPs went out on the picket line to support SFWU members in aged care.

So this is a party that looks and sounds like part of the left. While David Shearer still struggles to talk in full sentences, and manages to ‘forget’ to declare over $50 000 – a fortune for most working people – the Greens have set out a clear alternative to National. No wonder plenty of left-leaning voters, especially among young people, look to them for a lead.

But there is a tension here.  For all that the Greens seem as if they are on the left, the party itself does not claim this status. The Greens will not rule out coalition with National, the open party of business. “You’re going to start hearing this a lot: Greens are not left or right, but out in front”; that is the message an August 2011 press release sent out, stressing that the Greens were an “independent” and “progressive” party. The Green ‘image’, under Russell Norman and Metiria Turei, has moved much closer to the ‘centre’ of politics, and Sue Bradford’s defeat in the leadership contest in 2009 saw a clear left-right spill in the party, with the forces wanting a less obviously leftist party triumphant. Certainly we are a long way from the days in the early 2000s when Green MPs travelled to take part in anti-capitalist protests abroad, or when the party endorsed direct action against Genetic Engineering. The visibility of the Greens in extra-parliamentary activity, or the profile of their activist membership, has declined since the days of the Iraq War.

What accounts for the rise and rise of the Greens? What sort of a political force is this? Is it a real left alternative?


The Greens have some good policies – around housing insulation and the minimum wage,  for example – but, at the same time, because they accept the logic of capitalism, their ideas all work within the limits of the system and the needs of business. So their support for an emission trading scheme put the market ahead of the planet and the poor, but is justified for how it could transform the economy. Vague long-term statements of value, about transforming us into a green society, are matched with short-term concessions to business. As Sue Bradford argued in 2011:

Green Party support for emissions trading schemes was almost the last straw for those of us who felt that setting up another market for capitalists to play in, while not necessarily achieving any gains for the people and environment who are suffering most from the impacts of climate change, was not something the party should be promoting.

When in power, Green parties have had to prove their loyalty to business and capitalism. The results, for Green supporters, have been disastrous. In Germany the Greens, in coalition with the Social Democrats, voted to support social welfare reform and war, and ended up acting as advocates of NATO interventions and imperialism. This devastated the Greens as a force by the end of the last decade. In many Australian state governments, including Tasmania and the ACT, Green coalitions with the Liberals have overseen cuts to public spending. Green parties across continental Europe have been at the forefront of the ranks supporting ‘austerity.’ The New Zealand Greens have not been tested like this, yet. But their studied vagueness around the question of how they might relate to National shows us this international experience has worrying relevance.

Of course, all the parties represented in Parliament currently support capitalism, so it might seem unfair to target the Greens. But they are a special case for those of us on the left. Their support amongst left-wing people has grown, especially after the collapse of the Alliance and now that Labour is in such a sorry state, and yet the party itself denies any connection with the left. It has working-class supporters, and prominent trade unionists are leading members, but the Greens lack any established connection with working-class organisations. Labour was built by the union movement, and some important unions are still affiliated; this shapes what kind of party Labour remains, and what sort of support it draws on. The Greens, styling themselves ‘independent’ and ‘progressive’, have no such links. So there is a ‘Green Union’ network in the party alongside a ‘Business and Professional’ network, and the two are supposed to co-exist. No sense here of a party taking sides, or recognising the conflict between unions and business.

New Zealand racism

Without an orientation to working-class politics, the Greens can also get pulled in dangerously nationalist directions. Auckland is in the middle of a housing crisis. This is to do with affordability and planning; a left-wing party would appeal to workers on this basis. But the Greens have focussed on ‘foreigners,’ playing into anti-Asian racism. “In order to make land and housing affordable for ordinary New Zealanders,” Russell Norman argued, “we need to put the brakes on foreign buyers of housing.” Nothing here criticising local speculators, business or those making profits out in the rental market. The Greens target ‘foreigners’ instead.  A ‘little New Zealand’, localist, nationalist strain runs through Green rhetoric, and has been prominent in the campaign against asset sales.

This contradiction is reflected in the party’s voting base. It is pulled to the left by its youth support: students and young workers look to the party for its lead in taking opposition to National. But the Greens also get significant support in wealthy areas, from small businesses in the ‘green’ world (organic farmers, ecotourism operators, professionals, craft dealers; a not insignificant part of New Zealand’s middle class and small business world). So in the last election the Greens did very well in Wellington Central, coming second after National in the party vote with 27%. Wellington Central combines a lot of students with wealthier public servants, and so expresses the two wings of Green support. The Greens scored 12% in Epsom and 13% in Ilam, both traditionally conservative electorates covering substantial well-to-do areas. If you look at the figures for blue-collar working-class electorates, though, the party’s support is minimal: only 4% in Mangere, 3% in Manukau East, 3.8% in Manurewa. The Greens support base is amongst students, better-off layers of the white-collar working class, and middle-class professional and small business people.

The rhetoric of the Greens fits this middle-class layer. They want a nicer world; they are horrified at the facts of child poverty; they dislike privatisation; they would like to live in a clean, safe, tidy, kind world. But, having done reasonably well for themselves in business or the professions, there is no social force driving them to struggle. The utopian aspects of the Green programme fit this group’s social reality very well – it’s a dream they like, and may sincerely share, but the realities of class conflict are outside the realm of their daily life. So the Greens are pulled in opposite directions. They have taken a good stand over the Government’s anti-democratic attacks on elected boards and councils in Canterbury.

But Metiria Turei has spoken out in favour of four-year terms for Parliament, a move which would make MPs even less accountable, and which would give us fewer opportunities to vote. The Greens draw their support from many opposed to National’s pro-business and anti-worker policies, but they cannot turn this opposition into a clear alternative. They are, in a different way, pro-business themselves.

How should socialists relate to the Greens?

Our argument is that real power lies outside Parliament, with workers taking industrial action, mass social movements, protests and occupations. The huge strikes and struggles in Greece against austerity currently offer a more inspiring model than the ‘success’ of the German Greens, ruined by government. So we need to work to build movements that can pressure whoever happens to be in Parliament, as well as building independent class organisations – our unions, and a political alternative – to challenge the logic of the system.

That’s an ambitious goal, certainly, and one that our current tiny forces don’t come close to matching. So many left-wing people will continue to look to the Greens as an alternative. We want to be working alongside them, debating politics in a respectful way, trying to encourage self-activity and self-reliance. It may take the experience of the Greens in government to shatter some of the illusions that exist. It may take the struggles around a particular campaign and issue.

Whatever the case, the job of socialists remains the same: we want to work with whoever we can to build resistance to National’s attacks. So that means looking to real collaboration with Green supporters and members. But it will also mean having a clear understanding of the Greens as a political force. This party cannot become a genuine left alternative.