IF THE GREENS proceed with the constitutional changes mooted by political commentator Matthew Hooton, then their electoral future is bleak. The public has learned to live with the Greens’ male and female co-leaders, especially after the rule was adopted by Te Pāti Māori. Doing away with the male co-leader position, however, and replacing it with a co-leadership position open to “any gender” – Hooton’s prediction – will likely strike a great many Green Party supporters as both self-indulgently radical and blatantly unfair.
If Hooton’s second prediction, that the Green constitution will be further amended to require at least one of the party’s co-leaders to be Māori, also proves accurate, then the loyalty of Green voters will be tested even more strenuously.
The reasons for this are fairly straightforward.
The Greens are engaged in electoral politics: being so, they are bound by the rules of the New Zealand electoral system. The most relevant of these for any party promoting radical policies is that they must attract more than 5 percent of the Party Votes cast (or win an electorate seat) to gain a seat or seats in the House of Representatives. Crossing that 5 percent threshold in 2020 meant attracting somewhere in the vicinity of 145,000 votes. With 226,757 votes (7.8 percent) the Greens easily made it into Parliament.
The question to be answered, then, is a simple one. If the mooted constitutional changes proceed, how many formerly Green voters is the party likely to lose? If the answer is greater than 81,000, and Chloe Swarbrick fails to hold Auckland Central, then the Greens will cease to be a party represented in Parliament.
Eighty-one thousand votes may sound like a lot, but consider the fate of the Alliance – a coalition of radical parties of which the Greens were once part. Between the 1999 and 2002 general elections, 133,971 of the Alliance’s party voters took their support elsewhere. Its share of the Party Vote fell from 7.7 percent to 1.3 percent, and it ceased to be a parliamentary party.
Such is the fate of political parties which, for one reason or another, forfeit the trust, confidence and respect of their supporters. The transition from hero to zero can be brutally quick.
All too often the risk of alienating a critical number of party supporters is seriously underestimated by party members. The latter are dangerously prone to believing that their electoral support base is, in all practical respects, indistinguishable from themselves.
Except, this is almost never the case – especially for those parties capable of cresting the 5 percent threshold. Support is won on the strength of a great many considerations – and sometimes for the party’s position on just a single issue. Voters are not required to be either rational or consistent, and an alarming number of them are neither. Party members are almost always more ideologically consistent than party supporters.
All of these factors are acutely relevant to the Green Party.
A large chunk of its support (perhaps most of it) is based upon the perceived urgency of state action to combat Climate Change. Other voters’ will back the Greens for the party’s original commitment to social justice (long since attenuated to “social responsibility”). Some will back the Greens on account of their pacifism and because the party is committed to an ethical foreign policy. Many more will vote Green simply because they are in favour of decriminalising cannabis.
The number attracted to the Greens because they have altered their constitution to reflect their opposition to binary, heteronormative gender relations is likely to be considerably smaller than any of the groups of voters mentioned above. Outside of a very small fraction of the highly-educated professional middle-class, and a similarly modest percentage of their offspring studying at university, such matters display something pretty close to zero political salience.
Certain to display much greater salience with progressive voters will be the obvious disdain evinced by a large number of Green Party members for the political performance of their male co-leader, James Shaw, along with their equally obvious determination to remove him from his position.
While a great many Green voters are dissatisfied with the current government’s performance on Climate Change, this does not necessarily mean that they are dissatisfied with Shaw’s handling of the Climate Change portfolio. Most will realise that the Greens exercise very little influence over the behaviour of the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Government, and more than a few will applaud Shaw for having parlayed the very weak hand he was dealt to such good effect and with such political skill.
The idea that he is being eased out of his male co-leader’s role by means of a transparent piece of constitutional revision may not sit well with these voters. By them the manoeuvre may be judged both cowardly and dishonest. Many will feel unable to go on supporting a party that is prepared to countenance such shabby political tactics.
Other Green supporters will attempt to match up the proposed constitutional changes with the four core tenets of the global Green movement: Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice, Grassroots Democracy, and Non-Violence. They will struggle to see very much in the way of wisdom, justice, or democracy in any of these proposals. But, they will not miss the venomous emotional violence inherent in the execution of a political manoeuvre that protects the jobs and careers of some politicians while ruthlessly sacrificing those of others. These supporters, too, may feel unable to go on voting for a party capable of deploying such toxic levels of passive aggression.
Finally, there is the crucial question of political perception. What do these mooted constitutional changes make the Green Party look like?
Do they make the Greens look like a political organisation welcoming to all New Zealanders?
Do they make the Greens look like a group of politicians capable of prioritising the environmental, economic and social outcomes that New Zealand and the planet so desperately need?
Do they make the Greens look the way they used to look, back in the days of Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sue Bradford, Keith Locke, Sue Kedgley and Nandor Tanczos: like a group of people who both like and support one another in the promotion of causes no rational voter can fail to acknowledge?
Or, do they make the Greens look like a political party that would rather be politically correct than politically successful?
A party on course to lose a great deal more than 81,000 votes.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 April 2022.