The Labour/Green Relationship
Robert Winter is a thoughtful and informed, Labour Party supporting blogger whose opinions I respect and when he describes some potential barriers to a future coalition with the Greens I pay attention.
In response to a post from Eddie on The Standard blog, Robert identifies four areas that he thinks reflect some of the thinking within the Labour Party in relation to a possible coalition with the Greens:
- The Greens may challenge the ambitions and career pathways for Labour high fliers.
- The more right-wing elements within Labour find Green policies too radical.
- The Greens are the "new kids on the block" who are having ideas above their station and demonstrating a level of "upstartism".
- Both Labour and the Greens are moving at a glacial rate to develop ways to work together.
Before I respond to Robert's points I would like to say that I think the major stumbling block to the relationship is history. Robert also refers to history but only in reference to the fact that there should be some recognition or respect given to the institution that has been around the longest (Labour is New Zealand's oldest existing political party). However the fact that an institution has existed for a long time doesn't necessarily establish its relevance today.
Labour's history and foundation is based on early 20th Century socialism and unionism, while the Greens have developed initially from the amalgamation of the environmental and progressive social movements of the 60's and 70's (The Values Party) and more recently from sustainable economic thinking. I understand that Labour are still trying to bring their historic structures into the 21st century and have a number of philosophical factions to pull together (including still some from their Neoliberal Douglas era).
The Green Party has a holistic approach to governance (approaching economics through both social and environmental lenses) and systems and structures that are inclusive and reflect new thinking. Possibly due to its size, the Green Party is also more flexible and proactive in dealing with a changing political environment.
The Labour Party tends to use a silo approach to policy rather than taking broader views that integrate areas of policy. In the last election the Greens campaigned on three key themes (rivers, jobs, children) while Labour did policy announcements that focussed on narrow issues like asset sales and a capital gains tax.
The Greens have principles developed from the Values Manifestos of the 70s that are still regarded as iconic documents (especially the 1975 manifesto Beyond Tomorrow). While the Values Party struggled in the political arena (it was ahead of its time but lacked political pragmatism), its view of the world shifted thinking for all who were involved in politics at the time. Even now Beyond Tomorrow is seen as a foundation document for Greens globally and is still found in the bookshelves of progressive political thinkers.
The Green Party's principles are philosophical overviews that provide guidance to the party's operations as well as policy development. The Green Party also has vision statements, value statements, mission statements, success criteria and long term goals for internal operations as well as the work of the party and this means the party is very clear about its direction. As an institution the Green Party functions using contemporary management models that many successful organisations and businesses use. The inclusive, consensus approach to developing all of these principles and statements generally ensures that both the parliamentary caucus and the membership sing from the same song sheet.
Labour’s principles appear reasonable and do cover similar themes to the Greens, but they read more like a list of human rights rather than a blue print for governance. What does "Democratic Socialist" really mean? Even Wikipedia struggles to define the term, and states "...groups of scholars have radically different definitions". I also can't find anything on the Labour Party website that clearly describes its political philosophy or broad priorities and the Party relies on its leadership to articulate and define what these are. This puts a huge weight onto the shoulders of David Shearer who is expected to provide the vision that the rest of the Party will follow. When the likes of David Cunliffe attempts to fill the void with a vision of his own, it is seen as a leadership challenge. Despite the size of the Labour Party it relies too heavily on the abilities of its leadership rather than a widely understood political philosophy and established policy and the National Party are easily able to exploit this weakness.
Labour struggles with how it engages its members in both policy development and internal governance. It has given up an attempt to involve the membership in developing policy through their website and is currently attempting to involve the membership in electing the Party's leader (currently the responsibility of their caucus). Even elections for electorate candidates are not as democratic as National's, with electorate committees able to overrule a majority vote from the electorate membership. The way Labour has managed criticism from writers in The Standard Blog demonstrates there must be limited internal systems to allow members to debate and question the party's direction and operations.
At this point I will attempt to address the coalition barriers mentioned by Robert:
- As stated above, Labour is a personality rather than a philosophically driven party and obviously personal ambition will be a major influence on any coalition discussions rather than policy.
- Labour does not have such a clearly defined philosophical base as the Greens and there are possibly many still in the Party who support the 1980's dalliance with Neoliberal economics. Shane Jones, once actively touted as a future Labour leader openly attacks Green policy in a manner that would be more in keeping with a National MP. The fact that the Party allows him to do this without censure points to a weakness in an important area of policy and an absence of strategy.
- Regarding the Greens as "new boys on the block" is nonsensical when you think that the party has been around for over forty years (if you include the Values Party it emerged from) and we have had 22 MPs represent us since 1996. The Labour Party first became the Government only 16 years after its formation. The fact that the Greens have largely led the CIR asset sale campaign and the manufacturing inquiry is not "upstartism" but just doing what politically needs to be done while Labour is distracted by an internal review.
- The perception of a glacial learning process to a working relationship is more to do with the fact that Labour is not yet ready to engage. It is still trying work out what it really stands for and how it should operate in a truly MMP environment. I feel that the Greens are ready and prepared to start discussions around a potential governing coalition and, because we don't have a prescriptive constitution like most nations, the nature of the relationship could be quite new and innovative.