Red Or Green? Metiria Turei’s sudden and dramatic elevation of issues relating to the poor and marginalised shocked and surprised many of the Greens’ middle-class voters. That their own social class was being cast as the villains of her “I, Daniel Blake” drama did not make the acceptance of Ms Turei’s radical welfare policies any easier.
THE GREENS as a political party, a social movement, and an electoral block, constitute three very different groups. Metiria Turei, by failing to balance the respective claims of each group, has plunged all three into a potentially terminal political crisis – destroying her own parliamentary career in the process.
The Green Party defectors’ (David Clendon and Kennedy Graham) grasp of the moral expectations of actual Green voters has proved to be considerably stronger than their co-leader’s.
As numerous political scientists and journalists have pointed out over the 28 years of the Green Party’s existence, its electoral base is overwhelmingly middle-class. “The wives of doctors, lawyers and architects from Wadestown and Mt Eden”, as one Press Gallery pundit put it.
Putting to one side the sexist over-simplification, the raw electoral data shows him to be more right than wrong. Nandor Tanczos, Sue Bradford and Keith Locke – the so-called “Red Greens” – may have captured the headlines when the Green Party first squeaked into Parliament back in 1999. But, the MP who most resembled the typical Green voter was the very middle-class Sue Kedgely. Close behind her was the irrepressible Rod Donald. As the former manager of a small business, he, too, represented a good-sized chunk of the Greens’ electoral base.
If one listened only to the rhetorical sallies of Sue Bradford, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Green party was chock-full of eco-socialists. Well, it ain’t necessarily so. For the voters concerned about dangerous food additives, genetic engineering and climate change, the Greens were neither Left, nor Right – the Greens were in front!
Metiria Turei’s sudden and dramatic elevation of issues relating to the poor and marginalised shocked and surprised many of the Greens’ middle-class voters. Their astonishment turned to alarm as the political implications of her defiance of WINZ acquired greater clarity. The Greens’ co-leader obviously regarded the laws surrounding the administration of social welfare as unjust manifestations of one class’s determination to limit the life chances of another. That their own social class was being cast as the villains of this “I, Daniel Blake” drama did not make the acceptance of Ms Turei’s radical welfare policies any easier.
Given that this sort of class war rhetoric had not been deployed in mainstream New Zealand politics for many decades, the public’s (including 51 percent of Green Party voters’) largely negative reaction to Ms Turei’s intervention was hardly surprising.
That Labour voters had celebrated enthusiastically their early leaders’ run-ins with the law reflected the extent to which class-based political ideologies had seized the imagination of the New Zealand working-class. Labour’s formation in 1916 came barely three years after the Great Strike of 1913 – generally accepted by historians as the closest this country has ever come to open class warfare. As late as 1932, it was still possible for unemployed rioters to wield the Auckland Methodist Mission’s picket fence against the Police – and receive absolution.
“If what happened last night makes authority act to help desperate people obtain the justice they deserve,” said Colin Scrimgeour, in his guise as the broadcaster “Uncle Scrim”, “the pickets torn off the fence of the Methodist Mission in Airedale Street will have caused this church to give the people the most outstanding service of the church’s hundred years of history.”
By 1935, however, Labour’s new leader, the avuncular Mickey Savage, was dampening-down the fiery class rhetoric of his party. To extend the appeal of Labour beyond the militant trade union movement from which it sprang, Savage required his comrades to master a more inviting and inclusive political language.
Herein lay Ms Turei’s error. To ask a political party to embrace the uncompromising goals of a social movement, in defiance of the moral expectations of at least half of that party’s electoral base, and without the lengthy preparations necessary to modify those expectations, can only be described as the purest political folly. It is all very well to present yourself as the reincarnation of Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, the hero of Les Miserables, but only after a majority of your fellow New Zealanders have been made familiar with the plot – and only if your own and Jean Valjean’s poverty are genuinely comparable!
The tragedy is not only that Ms Turei’s unapologetic radicalism has terminated her political career, but that the Greens did so little to prepare their supporters for its sudden arrival.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 August 2017.