"Fredo, You Broke My Heart!" Michael Corleone would not tolerate disloyalty - not even from his own brother. Will Labour forgive the Greens for doing a deal with National's 'Godfather', John Key, over the 'Red Peak' flag? Or will Labour's decades old strategy of "no enemies to the left" set in motion a 'hit' against their supposed Green brothers?
THERE ARE PEOPLE in the Labour Party who take an almost forensic interest in the Greens. They can discourse at length on the “fundi/realo split”; “Deep Green” versus “Red Green”; and whether the electorally perilous potential of “Blue Green” will ever be realised.
Labour’s ongoing surveillance of the Greens should not, however, be compared to the twitcher’s hobby of watching birds. Labour’s interest in the intricacies of green politics is much more akin to the FBI’s interest in the intricacies of the Mafia. Agents may be able to rattle off the names of the heads of the Five Families; which gangsters are on the way up; and where the gangsters who used to be on the way up are buried; but this does not mean that the FBI loves or admires the Mafia. Far from it! The FBI is interested in the Mafia only because it intends to destroy it.
A Labour Party that drew its electoral support, overwhelmingly, from the poorest and most marginalised members of society would have little to fear from green parties of any kind. If they thought about them at all, it would only be as an eccentric off-shoot of middle-class politics, whose electoral participation was as likely to damage the Right as the Left.
The fate of the Values Party (arguably the world’s first “green” party) demonstrates the point nicely. Though it made a big splash in the news media, the newly-formed Values Party attracted only 1.9 percent of the popular vote in the General Election of 1972. This was, of course, the election in which the Norman Kirk-led Labour Party romped home with 48.4 percent of the votes cast.
Values did better in the next election, but only because Labour’s popularity, over the course of the intervening three years, had plummeted. In 1975, Values’ share of the popular vote swelled to 5.1 percent. Labour’s share, by contrast, fell nearly 10 percentage points, to a dismal 39.5 percent.
Between 1975 and 1984, however, Values’ support collapsed. In 1978 it polled 2.4 percent. In 1982, 0.19 percent. And in 1984 0.20 percent.
In spite of the fact that New Zealand’s two-party system had largely broken down by 1984, Labour was still able to capture 42.9 percent of the popular vote – on a record turn-out of 93.7 percent of registered voters.
The General Election of 1984 would, however, be the last in which Labour entered the race as an unequivocally social-democratic party, and was swept to power with the support of the poorest and most marginalised voters. In future elections an increasing percentage of Labour’s support would come from middle-class electors. This demographic shift in Labour’s electoral base would, increasingly, bring it into head-to-head competition with the Greens.
Labour’s electoral base is, however, broader than the Greens’. Though middle-class voters now comprise an important chunk of Labour’s constituency, its residual support among Pakeha, Maori, Pasifica and immigrant industrial and service-sector workers is still high. These traditional loyalties usually ensure that Labour’s vote is two-to-three times that of the Greens – enough support to make it a major party, but not yet enough for it to form a government without first securing a voter-antagonising guarantee of Green Party support.
Labour’s problem may be summed up in two words: proportional representation. New Zealand’s MMP electoral system allows minor parties to thrive, thus removing the pressure on opposition supporters to transfer their allegiance to the party best placed to defeat the Government. By denying Labour the 5 to 10 percentage points it needs to become a credible competitor to the National Party, proportional representation and the Greens are encouraging the Right to contemplate permanent political ascendancy.
In these circumstances, it is hard to blame the Greens for engaging in a little contemplation of their own. If, by its very existence, and by positioning itself as Labour’s “natural” coalition partner, it is keeping the Left out of power permanently, then wouldn’t the Green Party’s chances of achieving at least some of its critical environmental objectives be improved by repositioning itself as the potential coalition partner of either Labour or National? Certainly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is exactly what the Green Party membership was contemplating when they elected the young, business-friendly, social entrepreneur, James Shaw, as their co-leader on 31 July 2015.
The same Mr Shaw’s adroit handling of the Red Peak flag issue in the House last week will not have lessened Labour’s forensic interest in the Greens’ ultimate intentions. His parliamentary “deal” with National, relatively insignificant though it may have been, was seen by Labour as an alarming portent of things to come.
If Labour operated like the Mafia it would know exactly what to do. Without seeking permission, Jimmy “The Business” Shaw, and his Green Gang, made approaches to a rival family.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 September 2015.