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:
  1. The Greens may challenge the ambitions and career pathways for Labour high fliers.
  2. The more right-wing elements within Labour find Green policies too radical.
  3. The Greens are the "new kids on the block" who are having ideas above their station and demonstrating a level of "upstartism".
  4. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Sanctuary said…
As I see it, the threat to a stable relationship comes on one side from Labour's parliamentary old-guard neoliberal rump. who cling to the failed economic dogmas of their political youth and who wed a monumental sense of entitlement to outdated FPP political thinking. The Labour R&F are much more at ease with the idea of a coalition with the Greens. Conversely, from the other side the biggest threat to a stable coalition of labour and the Greens is the green support base, which to often welds together a snarky middle class exceptionalism and over-weaning arrogance that really grates on supporters of other parties.
Gabrielle said…
Sanctuary I don' recognise your description of Greens supporters. Perhaps you would like to elaborate on what you are talking about here or are they just put downs without substance?
robertguyton said…
I'll put my hand up for 'over-weaning arrogance'. I find that a 'born-to-rule' public presentment really annoys those who believe they were born to rule. Annoying is, in my view, a useful lever to gain attention and unsettle old crustily-held positions.
bsprout said…
Sanctuary, you make some valid points, but I'm not sure if I accept the "snarky middle class exceptionalism" and " overweening arrogance" description of our membership, though obviously this is a perception you have formed as an outside observer.

As a Green I am able to recognise that we have a few passionate, one issue members who struggle to see the big picture and it was a split between the environmentalists and those who had a greater focus on social justice that apparently caused the demise of the Values Party. I can also accept that those who have strong convictions may come across as arrogant to those who have opposing views. I would have to say that I am more aware of snakiness and arrogance coming through many levels of the National Party. I would be interested to know where you have witnessed this from the Greens (perhaps one or two who frequent the blogosphere?).

All parties have to accommodate members who may not always follow or accept the majority view and with Labour and National this often results in internal disharmony and leadership coups. This is especially apparent when there is a great reliance on the leadership to determine the direction of the Party.

While any organisation that involves people has the potential for disharmony and fractious behaviour I think that the Greens have developed strong systems of governance and internal management that encourages participation while achieving a reasonable level of harmony. This will need to be strengthened as our membership grows but I don't see other parties having this approach to deal with diversity of membership and opinions.

National has a very autocratic style of leadership that suits its largely compliant authoritarian membership (I didn't hear of one bleat from the Blue Greens when the Government watered down the ETS or withdrew from Kyoto).

Labour is sort of a lumbering amalgamation of different philosophies that appears to muddle along in a manner that it hopes will not challenge its membership too greatly nor frighten the voters. I do get the impression that they let the Greens test the water on any initiative or policy and if it is successful they jump in with their own version and claim it as their idea.

I think Robert and yourself are right about the rank and file, I have an excellent relationship with Labour supporters in Invercargill and even get on with many who support National. I just hope that Labour and the Greens can eventually work harmoniously without too many complications because of individual ego's and patch protectionism.
Robert Winter said…
A comradely response:
bsprout said…
Thanks Robert, I have continued the discussion on your blog :-)
Robert Winter said…
And in a most reasonable fashion - were it the case always and elsewhere!
Shane Pleasance said…
Can you point me to the right wing elements in the labour party? Are they people or policies etc? Cheers.
bsprout said…
Shane, possibly a little bit of both. I am not a Labour member and am just guessing, but when there are still Labour MPs who were part of the 1980s Labour Government and a reluctance to totally abandon some of the neoliberal thinking from that time then right wing elements must still exist.
Shane Pleasance said…
So, would you agree that the greens follow the 1975 manifesto 'beyond tomorrow'? and are they politically more 'pragmatic'?
bsprout said…
Shane, Beyond Tomorrow shifted thinking from the idea that market forces will always provide the right outcome and that our planet had limitless resources. The ideas, concepts and broad philosophies are still current but it was written 37 years ago and the Green party has developed its own charter and policies.

This paragraph from the introduction of Beyond tomorrow probably still sums up our thinking however:

"The Values Approach is positive. This manifesto shows how we can regain control of the system and reshape it to work for us. It shows how we can exploit less, consume less, pollute less, plan more, share more and conserve more. Our goal is to lay the foundations for a country which our children will find worth living in."
Shane Pleasance said…
Which system is it you wish to gain control of again?
bsprout said…
In reality it is probably both the political and economic systems, both need to work for the people not just those who manage it. Banks should not be dictating to us how the world's financial systems should work, they should be working for those who bank with them.

How can New Zealand really be a democracy when once elected the Government ignores submissions to select committees, ignores it's own advisors and refuses to properly consult with those who bear the brunt of ideological change. There also needs to be some long term planning to make our country resilient into the future, not short term expediency that our children and grandchildren will have to pay for.
Shane Pleasance said…
So the greens plan to get control of the political and economic systems. You would be dictating to the banks how to run their businesses, as well?
bsprout said…
Sort of, isn't it the banks that largely caused the financial crisis because they weren't monitored and there was a lack of regulation and oversight?
Shane Pleasance said…
No, and lets ask the people who predicted the collapse, long before it happened.

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