Sunday 13 June 2010

Stroking The Cat

Dressed for Success: NewGen Green co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman are keen to present a "credible" (i.e. non-threatening) face to the "mainstream" New Zealand electorate. But, is it possible to appease the prejudices of one group of voters without offending the principles of another?

RUSSEL NORMAN’S right about one thing – the way you dress is important.

I remember very clearly my first encounter with the Dunedin Labour Party back in the early-80s. Young people were conspicuous at local party gatherings: not only by virtue of their rarity, but also because of their sartorial indifference.

Jeans, T-shirts and long-hair might have been de riguer on the university campus, but to the middle-aged and elderly working-class members of the Labour Party they constituted a cultural affront. Politics for these folk was a serious business – with a dress-code to match.

It wasn’t quite a case of wearing your Sunday-best – but it was close. Youngsters who stood up to speak looking like they’d just spent six months on a hippie commune were not kindly received.

So, my wardrobe changed. My long hair was clipped. The jeans and T-shirts were replaced with pressed pants, clean shirts and a sports jacket.

The response was dramatic. The older members knew that my change of attire was both an acknowledgement of and a concession to the rules they lived by. I had demonstrated my respect – and they reciprocated by giving me a more than fair hearing.

But that was the Labour Party in the early-1980s.

At the time of the Springbok Tour it was still the case that an influx of young people to just about any New Zealand institution – but especially the institutions of the Left – meant radicalisation.

Young people challenged the verities of New Zealand’s buttoned-down society: raising difficult and often painful questions about the role and rights of women, the treatment of Maori, and the criminalisation of homosexuality. They demanded a radical shift in New Zealand’s foreign and aid policies; they were inspired by the defiant solidarity of the militant trade unions; and they were deeply worried about the degradation of the natural environment.

Their elders, many of them deeply religious, were shocked. And even those who were sympathetic to the youngsters’ idealism could draw on a wealth of personal/political experience that argued strongly against mistaking Labour Youth’s most radical and militant ideas for the best policy options.

So, what about the Greens of 2010?

Is it still the case that "young person" equals "radical"? Do the headlines from last weekend’s Green Party Conference, such as "Red is dead as guard changes", signal the arrival of a generation with more – or less – revolutionary ambition than their parents and grandparents?

And to whom, exactly, is Russel’s suit and tie intended to show respect? The radically dishevelled "alternative" culture out of which the Values and Green parties sprang? The culture of Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford? Or is Russel’s wearing of a suit and tie both a cynical gesture of acknowledgement – or even a potentially fatal concession – to the planet-destroying corporate culture that Green parties everywhere were established to challenge and destroy?

Listening to Russel on Radio New Zealand, and reading the Green MPs’ speeches to the Conference, it struck me that this younger generation who’ve taken over the Green Party haven’t made it more radical – they’ve made it more conservative.

The inspired amateurism and anarchic flair that made the entry of the Greens into the NZ Parliament resemble (to use the author of the seminal Making of A Counter-Culture, Theodore Rosack’s, wonderful phrase) "an invasion of centaurs" has gone.

Russel and his co-leader, Metiria Turei, along with their coterie of Gen-X and Gen-Y advisors, are no longer dreadlocked outsiders prophesying in the name of Gaia and demanding a fundamental shift in the suicidal economic paradigm of limitless consumption. Rather than cut out the neoliberal cancer that is eating the planet, the objective of this new, well-groomed generation of Greens is to zap it into remission with the "sustainable", "environmentally-friendly" capitalism of the "Green New Deal".

Their goal is to win at least 10 percent of the Party Vote in 2011 – and, who knows, they may well succeed. A snappy suit, a slick advertising agency and a swag of non-threatening policies might be all that’s needed to secure the support of a generation whose formative political influences were Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.

It’s a generation which has learned – on pain of penury – that it is wisest in this life to stroke the cat from its head to its tail.

The truly radical question, of course, is: Which cat?

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 11 June 2010.


Bryce Edwards said...

Nice column. It raises lots of interesting issues. Wasn't it Lenin that said, "If you want to say something radical, wear something conservative"? So Russel Norman has some logic on his side there. The problem is, of course, when you start to obsess about "appearing conservative" and stop actually saying anything radical. Norman's obsession with being mainstream is really what the banker suits are all about. It also feeds into the Greens' new style-over-substance approach. All rather soulless really.

Also though, 2010 is not 1981 (or 1917), and a failure to wear a suit and tie when you say something radical doesn't have the same problematic results. "Diversity" is the obsession of the day in politics, and I don't think most voters expect our politicians to look like bankers. I think some of John Key's most successful visual imagery has been when he's appeared on television etc wearing T-shirts etc.

Anonymous said...

you become that which you joined - seeking to change.

Carol said...

Russel Norman seems more centrist to me than Turei. Metiria seems more like the 70s/80s young long-haired lefties that cut their hair to show some mutual respect in left-wing ranks. I expect her to retain some radical bite, along with some others in the Green Party.

Also, one of my problems with the Labour Party is that it has espoused many neoliberal poicies. So the Greens still seem more radical than in some areas/policies of the Labour Party.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Carol, I hope you're right about Metiria. Personally, I've always been a little suspicious of someone whose political trajectory took her from McGillicuddy Serious TO the Greens.

But you're certainly correct about Labour - they have much more to live down than the Greens!

Anonymous said...

The wearing of hippie attire and other satorial outrages is something in economics called 'cheap signaling' where you can make a representation as to your beliefs but without engaging in any concrete action where one pays a cost for your beliefs. A mode of expression especially favoured in Aro Vally.

Cactus Kate said...

Shame is Chris that the business world has gone all casual. As I sit on a Monday in the centre of world capitalism wearing jeans, slip on cuban heels and a t-shirt. Typical Pinkos, always 10 steps behind.

Grogger123 said...

I have to second the the second anonymous. I'm of a younger generation yet than either the X's or (probably) the Y's and I've never been very impressed with the shallow radicalism of either generation. The thinking going on beneath the dreads wasn't usually very profound, so I welcome a broader, more realistic approach. Besides, the really radical types are never interested in the parliamentary process, so why should their more moderate cousins follow the same fashions?

Chris Trotter said...

The thing is, Joshua, I've noticed very little in the way of "deep" radicalism emerging from Generation Z(?)

Certainly there's been nothing to match the Situationist Manifesto of 1961, the Port Huron Statement of 1962, or even The Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" of 1972.

Your "shallow" elders would be delighted if you could provide us with an example (that we haven't thought of already and promoted long before you were born).

Anonymous said...

I don't think it matters how the Greens dress, the electorate has largely woken up to the fact that the Green Party represents an existential threat to the Kiwi way of life, that the fa├žade they present masks a deep commitment to Communist totalitarianism.

Kiwis don't want a South Pacific Killing Fields, or a Cultural Revolution. We realise that the Green Party are the ideological inheritors of some of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th Century, rather than a solution for New Zealand in the 21st.

Anonymous said...

One test for the greens will be how far they defend direct action if that is what it takes to Keep Gerry Brownlee from his sexycoal and New Zealand's National Parks.

The greens caved on GE in some ways. The accepted the useless ETS from labour, and they accepted a lot more than that. While they started to shift labour, how far were they shifted?

Drakula said...

I think that Russel and Metiria are simply trying to capture the middle left and why not!

Roger Douglas and co used Trojan Horse tactics to infiltrate the Labour Party under false pretences and since then the Labour party has constantly had to clean it's house.

I think that the leaders of the Greens are just conforming to the dress code of parliament.

I would rather look at the content of what they stand for and from what they are promoting with regards to human rights and industrial relations (apart from environmental issues), they stand firmly where Labour should be!

That is why I no longer support or vote for Labour.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Drakula.

In the end, I think it comes down to a question of acknowledging and respecting the values of your political base.

The point I was making about the Dunedin Labour Party of the early 1980s was that by turning up at meetings dressed in clothes befitting an entirely different social and political milieu I was disrespecting my party comrades.

Media reports from the Greens' conference made it clear that Russel was the only male in attendance wearing a suit and tie.

At the Green conferences I attended when Rod Donald was one of the party's co-leaders this was not the case. He moved among the attendees in his trademark open-necked shirt and braces.

Russel in his suit and tie sent a message to his party that how he looked on TV mattered more than dressing in a way which signaled his identification with the social and political milieu out of which the Greens sprang.

In my opinion that is actually a very significant message, because it speaks volumes about both Russel's, and his parliamentary apparatus's, political priorities.

Those who you aim to please, in my experience, are those who you end up serving.