GUEST BLOG: Ben Peterson – Unwilling Watermelons



Russel Norman stepping down as Greens co-leader has spawned a leadership contest. So far four contenders have come forward. The contest is more than just a contest of names and personalities. The candidates are putting forward their strategic vision for the direction of the Green Party into the future. The key question that seems to be being debated so far by contenders is the relationship with the National Party. The general trajectory in the Greens with Russel Normal as co-leader has been open the door to a closer a working relationship with the National Party (co-Leader Metiria Turei seems much more resistant to this course of action).This strategic direction is normally justified as a way to increase the Greens vote in two ways.

1- By signalling to more conservative voters that it is ‘safe’ to vote greens, thus increasing the green vote with ‘blue greens’.

2- The belief that if the Greens reach government they will shed the outsiders label, and by being seen as responsible actors in government, they will be able to ride that respectability to a higher vote.

Unfortunately for political operators in the Greens machine, international experience indicates that this strategy not only fails to increase the green vote, but can lead to dramatic setbacks.

Case One- The Tasmanian Greens

A clear example of the failure of this dynamic can be seen in the heartland of the Australian Greens in Tasmania. The Tasmanian Greens were the founding section of the Australian Party, and grew out of various popular protest movements against environmental destruction in that State. Here are their results from 1982-2014.

1982: 1.7%
1986: 5.6%
1989: 17.1%
1992: 13.2%
1996: 11.1%
1998: 10.2%
2002: 18.1%
2006: 16.6%
2010: 21.6%
2014: 13.8%
There are two noticeable drops in an otherwise positive trajectory. In 1992 the vote drops by 3.9%, and in 2014 an even sharper drop of 7.8%. In both cases these drops followed green support and participation in government.

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The popularity of the government doesn’t have an impact on this dynamic. In 1992 the Labour led government was returned with an increased majority, in 2014 an unpopular government was turfed out. The point that is clear is that there is very little benefit for a minor party in entering cabinet. If things go well and the government is popular, support will flow to the major government partner. If the government is unpopular, then the minor party will be punished alongside the key party of government.

What seems clear from the Tasmanian example is that the Green vote actually build in times of opposition. entering the political mainstream actually alienates it from its support base, and undermines the organisation’s strength to fight for changes in the longer term.

Case Two- the Irish Greens

The case of the Irish Greens is even more telling. In 2007 the Irish Greens recorded their best result, winning 4.9% of the vote. They followed this success with entering government as the minor partner in government.

From government the Irish Greens found themselves increasingly alienating their roots by participating in a government that was,among other things, involved in the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Further their vocal support for several grassroots campaigns, where they had built their support, became muted.

By the 2011 election the Greens vote had collapsed. They polled only 1.8% and didnt return a single MP. Interestingly, there was an directly related relationship between the collapse in the Greens vote, and the vote for other left parties. Where the Greens lost 7 MP, the United Left Alliance, an alliance of socialists, activists and trade unionists, picked up 5 seats in their wake.

Inescapable reality

This relationship between the collapse of the Irish Greens and the rise of left alternatives points to the inescapable reality. The Greens (at least in of the beliefs and ideas of its supporters and volunteers) are a left wing party. Attempts to water down the leftist character of the Greens can only alienate and undermine its base, as seen in international examples.

This dynamic is further shown by where Greens Parties are and are not strong. Greens parties exist in most countries, but noticeably have the strongest following and impacts in countries where there is no other left alternative to traditional social democratic parties (Australia, America, New Zealand). In countries with strong and established left wing parties, such as France and Greece, Green Parties has struggled to build a significant base.

This logically should be cause for some skepticism on the myth of the blue-green voter. If there is a significant demographic of conservative ecologists who are scared off Green politics by its association with the left, then in these countries Green parties should be able to pursue these voters unencumbered by leftist associations. The failure to build significant impacts on political discourse suggests that this layer is small, if it exists at all.

Alternative road forward.

Viewing Green parties as parties of the left does help to suggest an alternative course of action. Looking internationally shows that unprincipled deals with establishment parties to reach government, but it doesn’t need to be that way.

The meteoric rise of the Syriza party shows that it is not necessary to shed leftist heritage to grow, and even to reach government. Syriza has not grown via a savvy media strategy or a slick appeal to slightly more conservative voters. Its rise has been directly related to the roles its activists have played in various social movements rejecting austerity politics. Being the unequivocal supporter and ally of the many and multifaceted union and community actions and protests changed the political discourse of the country, and made the election of Syriza possible.

A similar process could be possible in New Zealand/Aotearoa, but not on the Greens current trajectory. extending olive branches to the nationals not only won’t bring in new supporters, but it actively drives a wedge between the Greens and those groups of activists who are fighting today. Any alternative vision of New Zealand needs to be driven by these struggles, and the Greens getting further away from these struggles makes change less likely.

The Greens don’t need a new leader to continue current trajectories. For the Greens to grow and to create change they need to learn both the positive and negative lessons internationally. A turn to community and union organisation, and building up a new generation of activists can drive progressive politics forward, a John Key handshake never will.



Ben moved to Christchurch in 2014 to work for Unite Union on the South Island. He’s a long time socialist and a member of the Mana Movement.



  1. The Greens are actually a party of the centre. But the corporate driven anti-democratic parties – ACT, the Gnats, and PDH (Peter Dunne’s Hair) are dragging NZ well to the right of the median preference. The Greens naturally support a move towards equilibrium.

      • well..greens 2014 were ok with drilling/mining..

        ..ending cannabis prohibition not on their ‘to-do’-list..

        ..and no real challenges to the neoliberal-paradigm supported by both the tories and labour..

        (just a seeming overwhelming desire to be ministers..) much more ‘centreist’ could they be..?

        ..and what ‘statistical-evidence’ do you have that overturns those realities/facts..?

        a short quizz:..who is the greens spokesperson on cannabis law reform..?

        answer:..kevin hague..(betcha didn’t know that.!..)

        ..and in a time of rolling legalisations of pot/mounting evidence of multiple possible health/salve-benefits from the drug..

        ..what we get from hague/the greens is a solid-silence on the topic..

        ..hague won’t even pipe up to counter the serial prohibitionist/lies/bullshit fron dunne on this issue..

        ..has the cat got his.their tongue/tongues..?

        ..the greens – putting the ‘centre’ in ‘centrist’..

        ..for far too long now..

        • Sure, I agree that that is happening, but my point is that this is not supported by the members and supporters of the party, and such policy changes actually undermine the Greens.

  2. Yes….while I proudly voted for Mr Hone Hawera and Mr Kim Dotcom and Lady Laila – and would have no hesitation to do so if they were all still active again …

    I have always respected the Greens – they have a lot of good policy’s and people …..but I am afraid that … by drawing too close to the right wing neo liberal’s….

    Something awful will taint them….and they too will start to reek of the same odious stench…

    Despite Labours….1980’s neo liberal’s still trying to influence Labour towards the horrific and appalling odor of neo liberalism…

    I still hold hope for the commonsense people of the Labour party to finally rid themselves of that gangrenous leg…to cut it off and be done with a lethal dead limb that will poison the whole body if left unattended.

    If you really want to be a maggot rolling around in the fetid , purulent , hideous corpse of neo liberlalism…..knock yourself out….but do not EVER , EVER …….I repeat EVER – EITHER ASK FOR MY VOTE OR COME TO MY DOOR.

    It would be safer for you not to.

  3. I really can’t see how you can honestly be both green and right wing. They are two mutually exclusive ideologies. Right-wing ideology is all about greed, more more more for me! Green ideology is about using less so that everyone can have more in the long run. Can you fit these two together. Answer: hardly! Oh yes, we once had a political party that called itself the Progressive Greens and ostensibly tried to reconcile the two, but didn’t last long. They were really just the ACT party with a green tinge. For the political right to be truly green they have to accept the fact that their own wallets will be a bit lighter, at least for a while, and they will never accept that.

  4. Yep, I agree with the broad thrust of your argument, Ben.

    I’d make the following points:

    (1) The Blue-Greens are very thin on the ground.

    (2) Colmar Brunton’s 2014 Vote-Switching Data suggests far greater transfer of support between Labour and the Greens has taken place over the last few years than between the Greens and the Nats.

    (3) The New Zealand Election Study Data over the last 15 years suggests most Green voters are decidedly Left-leaning. When asked to place themselves on the ideological spectrum, most opt for a position a little to the left of most Labour voters and pretty similar to Mana/IMP voters (and, before them, Alliance voters). Which isn’t, of course, to deny that there isn’t a Blue-ish sub-group within the Greens’ membership, voter-base and (to a lesser extent) activist base.

    (4) The idea that the most affluent areas comprise the Greens core constituency is a bit of a myth (but still popular amongst certain leading journalists). Green support is rather more multifaceted than that – strong in some affluent areas, weak in others, strong in some poorer suburbs, weak in others. (but probably strongest in middle/lower-middle income, multi-ethnic inner-city suburbs).

    (5) It’s clear that the major swings to the Greens in 2008 and 2011 involved Labour voters looking for a Left alternative (particularly so in Greater Wellington and Dunedin).

  5. Another great post by Ben Peterson.

    Russel Norman was praised by the establishment (particularly the NZ Herald) for his “pragmatism”.

    Particularly his preparedness to forgoe principle to get a ‘a seat at the top table’.

    This was most glaringly obvious in Norman’s preparedness to not oppose deep sea oil drilling to get a deal with Labour.

    Watch the following link and prepared to be apalled at the evasiveness and slipperyness as Norman tries to justify his position.

    When so many Green Party rank and file are involved in the on the ground campaign to stop deep sea oil drilling, Russel Norman’s preparedness to drop Green Party opposition to deep sea oil drilling would have rung in a collapse in Green Party voter support.

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