Friday 30 January 2015

Repositioning Rightwards: The Political Consequences Of Russel Norman's Departure

Victim Of Labour's Failure: Had they but known it, Russel Norman was Labour's best hope for an uncomplicated left-wing coalition partner. Norman promised the doubters in his party a seat at the table - if Labour could but win the election. Labour's failure rendered Norman's political project untenable. His decision to stand down as co-leader means that the party's long-delayed move to the right can now begin.
RUSSEL NORMAN’S DECISION to step down as the Greens co-leader reflects the party’s longstanding determination to reposition itself rightward. For eight years Norman’s personal energy and political discipline succeeded in turning aside the pleas of a clear majority of the Greens’ membership to break the party out of its left-wing ghetto. Only by exploiting to the full the party’s consensus-based decision-making processes was he able to keep it anchored firmly on the left of New Zealand politics.
For eight years Norman strove to fashion a Green Party manifesto that was not only compatible with the Labour Party’s policy platform but would, to a remarkable degree, serve as its inspiration. His astonishing and largely successful mission to master the challenges of contemporary economics; an effort which allowed him to participate in policy debates with an authority sadly lacking in his predecessors, and to drag Labour along in his wake, is probably the most impressive achievement of his leadership.
It was this ability to render the Greens’ left-wing policies economically intelligible that allowed Norman to spike the guns of the Greens’ very sizeable “moderate” (for want of a better description) faction. The latter had demonstrated its power by installing Metiria Turei as co-leader – rather than the overtly left-wing Sue Bradford – following Jeanette Fitzsimons’ retirement in 2008. Had the rules made it possible, this same faction would have radically repositioned the Greens as an ideologically agnostic environmentalist party of the political centre; one capable of forming a coalition with either of the main political parties.
Norman was only able to appease these moderate Greens by holding out to them the promise of real power as members of a Labour-Green coalition government. Following the party’s record level of electoral support in 2011, and the narrowness of National’s victory, Norman's vision, at least initially, looked like a realistic prospect. What Norman could not have anticipated was the Labour Party’s self-indulgent descent into fratricidal factional conflict. Three Labour leaders in as many years destroyed any chance of a Labour-Green coalition. It also fatally compromised Norman’s political position.
The intrusion of Kim Dotcom and the Internet-Mana alliance only made things worse.
The coup de grace that finally extinguished the Green Left’s survival chances was the Labour Party’s very public spurning of the Greens’ (i.e. Norman’s) invitation to campaign together. Labour clearly regarded the Greens as mad, bad and dangerous to know, a judgement reinforced in the last few weeks of the election campaign when it became increasingly obvious to Green Party members that David Cunliffe was much more disposed to forming a coalition with NZ First’s Winston Peters than Norman and the Greens.
The final, ignominious defeat of the Left on 20 September 2014 undoubtedly caused cries of “We told you so!” to reverberate through the Green Party organisation. Combined with the slight, but unexpected, decline in the Greens’ Party Vote (the polls suggested, and the Green leadership were anticipating, an outcome of 14 percent-plus) the Labour Party’s abysmal performance, not to mention its unreconstructed hostility, when the chips were down, towards all things Green, rendered Norman’s position untenable. It sealed his fate.
It is highly unlikely that Labour fully grasps what a friend they have lost in Norman, nor how very uncomfortable their relationship with the Greens is about to become.
If Labour is lucky, the Greens’ transition from Left to Centre will be gradual. The supporters of Kevin Hague, widely tipped to be Norman’s successor, will be arguing that his accession offers the best chance of taking the party from its present position of political irrelevancy to that of permanent kingmaker in good order.
For those who favour a much more decisive break with the traditional Green “brand”, by electing co-leaders who can make a plausible case for representing a Green Party which has moved on from its radical left-wing past, James Shaw is the obvious choice. One has only to look at the official video of his maiden parliamentary speech to realise that this is a very different sort of Green to Russel Norman – and Kevin Hague.
Much depends on whether the moderates want to play softball or hardball. If they opt for the latter, then expect to see a full-scale challenge mounted for the Green Party leadership. That would not only entail the nomination of Shaw, but also of the fearsomely capable and articulate Julie-Anne Genter.
A Shaw-Genter ticket would constitute a re-branding exercise with a vengeance. Telegenic, articulate, non-threatening and business-friendly, Shaw and Genter would signal in a way no other pairing could hope to replicate that the Greens are ready to take their place at the Cabinet Table – regardless of who holds the lease.
Under Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons, Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, the Greens belonged to the Left. Under its next set of co-leaders, especially if their names are Shaw and Genter, the Greens will belong to whoever offers them the best deal.
So long, Russel – you’ll be missed.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Friday, 30 January 2015.


Anonymous said...

"Under its next set of co-leaders, especially if their names are Shaw and Genter, the Greens will belong to whoever offers them the best deal."

And isn't this essentially what went wrong with Labour over the last two decades?

Unwilling to fully repudiate Rogernomics with a return to the core values of Labour's historical constituency, they became simply about whatever it took to be/stay in government -- the descent to the nothingness of the so-called centre.

If the Greens compromise enough on the essence of what they have always stood for -- enough to be in coalition with National?!?! -- what the hell will be left?

Seems Eleanor Catton was right on the money.


Wayne Mapp said...

A very interesting item. When Russel Norman announced he was stepping down, I presumed it was in part because he could see Labour was leaning to NZF, which is much more apparent with Andrew Little than it was with David Cunliffe.

But how likely is it that the Greens want to position themselves to the centre so they can go with either Labour or National? Now as the former MP in North Shore, I met quite a few Greens who are of that view, and they typically split their vote, Green for Party, National for candidate. But I never had the sense that this view was widely shared among the Greens. But of course your wider political contacts may will give you a broader insight on this.

Certainly Metrira never gives a sense she could really work with National. But maybe a complete new leadership package could. Of course the risk is similar to that endured by the Maori Party, substantial faction of the party will leave, because they cannot tolerate that outcome.

A more subtle approach is to seek specific deals, like the Greens did in 2008, but that does require the party to moderate some of the criticism of National. The main reason why John Key and the Nats now reject such overtures now is that the Greens comments about National are just too personal. Both Metiria and Russel have regularly referred to John Key as dishonest, as lying, as completely indifferent to the poor etc, and they say it with such vehemence that it puts the Nats off completely.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Interesting how everyone has traditionally castigated the Greens is raving lefties, when all along I've been saying that they are mostly middle-class with all the attitudes of small business owners. The very small left element has never been particularly influential, even with Russell Norman in charge. And it's been gradually squeezed out. So now perhaps you can castigate them as right-wing loonies :-).

manfred said...

This is the instinct I've always had about the Greens.

Now a lot of people would ridicule this kind of talk, but this is what Marx and Lenin were referring to when they talked about 'petit-bourgeois radicalism'.

The sort of person that makes up the Green membership is exactly this kind of petit-bourgeios type.

People on the left that don't know their politics often mistake such radicals vehement anti establishment rhetoric for genuine Left wing politics.

Another hallmark of petit bourgeois politics is wild utopian schemes - the Greens are famous for this sort of thing.

If the Green party's environmentalist agenda was fully realised it would destroy the economy and kill the industrial working class.

It really pisses me off what passes for Left wing thought in a lot of circles these days.

Some people just don't know their politics and don't have their left wing values together.

Victor said...


I agree that the Greens have long shed both their infantile leftism and their cultural oddness.

Over the last several years, they've been at approximately the same point as Labour on a left/right axis (viz broadly social democratic), albeit with differences of branding, tradition, ethos, emphasis and rhetoric.

I voted for them last year because, unlike Labour, they appeared professional, cogent, well-briefed, disciplined, responsible and (that rare thing in New Zealand public life) fun.

And, yes, I also agreed with them about climate change. But that's not what determined my vote.

I would certainly regret it if the Greens now degenerated into little more than a lobby for yoghurt-eating, cycling corporate types from Mount Eden.

But the upshot might be that I (and others like me) would then go back to voting Labour, whilst the Greens would attract votes from elsewhere on the spectrum.

Now, ask yourself, how likely, (given the normal left-right swings of the electoral pendulum and given the probability of a worsening economy) a more centrist Green Party would be to support a fourth term National-led government?

It's, of course, too early to say but my guess would be 'not very likely'.

So the Greens edging rightwards might not be such a terrible thing for the Centre-Left as a whole.

What will be a sad loss, though, is the disappearance of Russel Norman from one of the top slots.

To my mind, he's way above average in terms of intellect, strategic grasp, economic understanding and political skills. I don't think we can afford to loose too many of his ilk.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I'm not sure I can forgive the Greens for their anti-science attitude, although this seems to be changing – though I think that might have been Russell Norman. Possum peppering indeed. But they've never been a truly left-wing party and as such I couldn't bring myself to vote for them anyway. I'm not sure why you would characterise their alleged leftism as "infantile"?

Victor said...


What you call "alleged", I call "infantile".

Perhaps "self indulgent" is closer to the mark. But it was all a long time ago.

pat said...

if as you suggest even the Greens compromise their beliefs into the political centre then the neo/lib corporates have truely won.....for our children's and grandchildrens sakes I hope you are very wrong.

Victor said...

One further thought.

If the Greens head to the centre and are suddenly open to overtures from either larger party, then that middle ground becomes very crowded, unless either NZ First, United Future or the Maori Party disappears entirely (which might, of course, happen).

And then there's no knowing whose votes the Greens would pick up. The suddenly popular UK Greens seem to be leeching votes away from UKIP at present.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I think people in Britain are looking for a fresh face. And whatever you say about the greens they do have some sort of vision. UKIP certainly doesn't. Apart from immigration it's just same old, same old neoliberal crap from them. I think it's becoming accepted gradually, that there must be another way. God help us, when the governor of the Bank of England comes out against austerity, we know something must be wrong somewhere :-).

Victor said...