THE GREENS’ DRAMATIC FALL in the latest Colmar-Brunton should be a matter of considerable concern to the whole party. If it continues, then we may see the Greens fall victim to the same political phenomenon that led to the demise of the Values Party.
Voting for Values peaked at the General Election of 1975 when it attracted 5.19 percent support. Not surprisingly, its members were ecstatic. Anticipating an even bigger surge of support in 1978, they began the process of firming-up and paring-down the policies contained in their extremely popular 1975 Manifesto, Beyond Tomorrow.
This turned out to be an unexpectedly fraught process. A large and well-organised fraction of the Values Party argued strongly that the system-changing objectives set forth in Beyond Tomorrow would never be acceptable to New Zealand’s ruling-class, whose power would have to be substantially diminished if the party’s core environmental policies were ever to be implemented.
This eco-socialist position did not sit altogether comfortably with the party’s pure ecologists, who believed that once people understood the scientific rationale for radically reorienting Western values, then radical change would follow naturally – and without the class conflict predicted by Values’ eco-socialist wing.
Better organised and superior in debate, the eco-socialists gained the upper hand, leading Values into the 1978 General Election with one of the most radical manifestos ever presented to the New Zealand electorate. The votes they hoped to plunder with this document were those of Labour’s more left-wing supporters. On paper, it seemed like a winning strategy.
What the eco-socialists hadn’t counted on, however, was just how fed-up the non-National-Party-voting half of the New Zealand electorate had become with Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. Under the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, the sort of oppositional vote-splitting which Values was advocating almost always ended up advantaging the incumbent government.
Recognising this, the left-wing idealists who had flocked to Values banner in 1975 underwent a decisive change of heart. In the name of getting rid of “Piggy” Muldoon, they were willing to abandon the idealistic dreams of Beyond Tomorrow. Accordingly, in 1978, the Values Vote almost exactly halved: falling from 83,241 to 41,220 – just 2.41 percent of the votes cast.
The eco-socialists’ strategy of taking on Labour had failed dismally. The pure ecologists rallied their supporters and drove the eco-socialists out of the party. But, if they were hoping that a Red purge would recover their fortunes, they were wrong. In the General Election of 1981, Values was more-or-less wiped out. From 41,220 their vote fell to a risible 3,460. In 1984, the party attracted just 0.20 percent of the popular vote. Game Over.
Values’ rebirth, as the Green Party, in 1990, saw it win an impressive 6.85 percent of the popular vote. The old FPP realities remained, however, and they were forced to join forces with the left-wing NewLabour Party in 1991 under the rubric of Jim Anderton’s “Alliance”. With the introduction of proportional representation in 1996, however, all the old FPP rationales against vote-splitting became redundant. In 1999, the Greens stood under their own banner and received 5.16 percent of the Party Vote – just enough to secure them 7 seats in Parliament.
Between 1999 and 2008 the Greens’ Party Vote fluctuated between 5.16 percent and 7.0 percent. With the defeat of Helen Clark’s Labour-led centre-left government, however, and the onset of what would be six years of internal conflict and lacklustre politics from Labour, the Green vote soared: from 157,613 Party Votes (6.72 percent) in 2008 to 257,356 Party Votes (10.70 percent) in 2014. It looked as though the old eco-socialist strategy of luring away Labour’s left-wing voters was on the point of being vindicated.
And then, in February 2016, Colmar Brunton’s pollsters registered a drop of 4 percentage points in the Greens’ numbers. The party had shed one third of its support: falling from 12 to 8 percent.
Is it possible that the same reckoning that caused Values supporters to return to the Labour fold in 1978 is at work again? Even in the era of Mixed Member Proportional Representation, have the supposedly redundant arguments of FPP reasserted themselves? Have centre-left voters come to the realisation that, if they want to get rid of John Key’s National-led Government, then they are going to have to push Andrew Little’s Labour into a credible second place – i.e. somewhere closer to 40 percent of the Party Vote than 30 percent?
If the answer to all these questions is “Yes”, then the Greens had better brace themselves. They have a lot further to fall.