From The Left: For the first time in their history, the Greens have used a leadership election to shift their party to the left, not the right. Marama Davidson’s defeat of Julie Anne Genter by 110 votes to 34 would have delivered an important message to the electorate even if the Greens were still in opposition. Sent at a time when the Greens are in government, the signal to voters is potentially catastrophic.
“THIS IS WHAT you get when the Greens are in government.” In the mouth of the Greens’ male co-leader, James Shaw, it had the unmistakable ring of a campaign slogan. A good campaign slogan, which would have fitted Julie Anne Genter like a glove. Whether it can be worn by the Greens’ new female co-leader, Marama Davidson, remains to be seen.
For the first time in their history, the Greens have used a leadership election to shift their party to the left, not the right. Davidson’s defeat of Genter by 110 votes to 34 would have delivered an important message to the electorate even if the Greens were still in opposition. Sent at a time when the Greens are in government, the signal to voters is potentially catastrophic.
That the Green Party was returned to Parliament at all in 2017 was in no small measure due to those New Zealanders who would otherwise have voted Labour casting their Party Vote for the Greens – just to keep them in Parliament. In this rescue effort, the steady, back-to-basics leadership style of James Shaw was crucial.
Implicit in Shaw’s moderation was the clear acknowledgement that Metiria Turei’s radicalism had hurt the Greens much more than it had helped them. Without that acknowledgement and unaided by the Centre-Left’s strategic voting, the party would have struggled to clear MMP’s 5 percent threshold.
The decisive margin of Davidson’s victory over Genter indicates a rank-and-file membership that is either unable or unwilling to accept that turning their party sharply to the left is an extremely risky electoral gesture.
In 2017, the parties of the left fell well short of a parliamentary majority. They are only in government because NZ First’s conservative nationalists were unwilling to entrust the fulfilment of their populist agenda to Bill English’s National Party. The political significance of Peters’ decision to exclude the Greens from the Labour-NZF coalition appears to have eluded Davidson’s supporters entirely.
The coalition partners will now be watching anxiously as the full implications of Davidson’s decisive victory begin to manifest themselves in the Greens’ parliamentary caucus. Its two young firebrands, Golriz Ghahraman and Chloe Swarbrick will draw considerable satisfaction from the result. With Davidson’s election as co-leader offering incontrovertible evidence of the party’s radical aspirations, they will feel emboldened to (in the words of Davidson’s acceptance speech) “go even further, be even bolder”. Neither Peters nor Prime Minister Ardern will be looking forward to discovering exactly how far, or how bold.
That the Green Party’s 144 delegates chose to cast their votes the way they did reflects the “mood” of the Left both locally and internationally.
At the heart of that mood lies a deep-seated antagonism towards power-structures seemingly resistant to all but the most intense political pressure. Be it Harvey Weinstein in the US, or Russell-McVeagh in New Zealand, the effort required to sensitise powerful individuals and institutions to public outrage is enormous.
Right alongside this antagonism towards the elites, however, is a growing sense of alienation from the restraints of democracy itself. Young activists in particular find it less and less acceptable that numerical majorities have the power to over-ride and/or set-aside their demands. Why should old people, white people, straight people and male people be permitted to thwart progressive change? Why should a majority so egregiously in the wrong be able to defeat a minority so manifestly in the right? If that is all that democracy has to offer, then what, practically-speaking, is its political value?
Isolate these sentiments in their own self-reinforcing social-media bubble and the result is often a ferocious up-tick in self-righteous intolerance. Far from being perceived as virtuous, the democratic politician’s admonition that ‘we must take the people with us’ is derided as proof of political weakness and moral cowardice.
It would be interesting to discover how many of the Young Greens who threatened to quit the party if Davidson was not elected female co-leader would respond to Senator Barry Goldwater’s in/famous assertion that: “Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”, by clicking “Like”.
Few, if any, however, would object to the passage in Davidson’s acceptance speech enjoining her parliamentary colleagues to rise as one and “turn our faces to the streets”. Not, presumably, the streets of the leafy suburbs where the Greens get most of their votes, but the mean streets of Manukau East and Mangere – where they attract the least.
Those Green voters from the leafy suburbs would likely have responded positively to Julie Anne Genter when she pointed to her own and her party’s ministerial achievements and told them: “This is what you get when the Greens are in government”.
Whether Marama Davidson’s “green shoots of hope” grow into a bumper harvest of new voters in 2020 is considerably less certain.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 April 2018.