Labour/Green relations: don’t weaken the independent Green voice

Keith Locke - Legendary Former Green Party MP

There has been much discussion about how the Greens should position themselves now they are not needed by Labour to form a government.

The proposals range from no formal Labour/Green agreement to the Greens having Ministers in the Cabinet.

Having Cabinet Ministers has the obvious plus of Greens being able to initiate and guide progressive reform in their portfolio areas.  But it also has a big downside in that Green Ministers can only work within the limits of what the Labour Cabinet will allow, and Labour’s perspectives are, overall, a lot more constrained than those of the Greens.

Another downside of having Green Cabinet Ministers is that the party’s ability to criticise the policies of Labour Ministers is inevitably constrained, to one degree or another.  We saw this happening in the last term when the Greens gave away the opportunity to ask critical questions of Labour Ministers during Parliamentary Question Time.  Worse still, the Greens handed over their allocated Oral Questions to National.  This was shocking to me, and contrary to the Green practice, during the Clark government (1999-2008), of using Question Time to hold Labour Ministers  to account.  I was a Green MP during that time and every Question Time we were asking hard (and  often embarrassing) questions of Labour Ministers.  We didn’t hold back on our criticisms of Labour even when in 2005 two of our MPs (Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford) were given government spokesperson roles in the  areas of Energy Efficiency and Buy Kiwi Made, respectively, as a result of a confidence and supply agreement with Labour.  Outside of those two policy areas we were able to challenge Labour  as much as we liked,  and put up alternative policies.  It should be noted that in 2005 Labour needed the Greens’ confidence and supply agreement as an insurance policy, because its government, which excluded the Greens, only had a one seat majority.

The Green Party (like the Values Party before it) represents a radical alternative to both Labour and National’s promotion of growth-oriented capitalism, which in recent times has taken on a neo-liberal form.   Labour, with a voting base among the less well-of, is more oriented to progressive reform than National, but it is reluctant to go too far, lest it upset the big end of town.  That was illustrated in the election campaign when Jacinda Ardern said she would resign before she would take on board the Green’s proposed wealth tax.  She even said it was off the table in any post-election negotiations.

Now that Labour doesn’t need the Green votes to govern, it will probably be even less accommodating to the Greens.  But there are still ways the two parties could work together, perhaps with a cooperation agreement. This could facilitate Green access to Labour Ministers, the spelling out of certain areas of joint work, cooperation in the House and Select Committees, the  promotion of private members bills, etc.

Of course, the Greens should support all the good Labour reforms, and try to push Labour to go further, helped along by the Green MPs  tapping into community campaigns, as they have always done.  But this also means working with the grassroots to oppose Labour when it is wrong.  Some of these issues are tough for us, because Labour, like National, is wedded to the US-led global capitalist order.  In this respect, for instance, the Greens should continue to campaign strongly  for New Zealand to be more independent and to withdraw from the Five Eyes military/intelligence alliance. The Greens should also be telling the public that dealing with the climate crisis requires radical change, well beyond the largely business-as-usual Labour approach.

We shouldn’t fall into a trap of thinking that the Greens can always do more from the inside, with a Cabinet post, than from the outside, helping to lead a popular campaign.  Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t.  I’m thinking, for example, of new Green MP Ricardo Menendez March,  fresh from leading the Auckland Action Against Poverty activist group.  He would probably get more change by linking as a Green MP with various welfare lobby groups, and using Parliament as a platform, than he would as Social Development Minister starved for cash by the Finance Minister, as has been the case with the current Social Development Minister, Carmel Sepuloni.

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Getting enough money would be a problem for any Green Minister.  While the Labour government has been splashing the cash to deal with the economic impact of Covid-19, it will still be operating within neo-liberal austerity orthodoxy for most departmental spending.

That is one of the reasons why, in the current circumstances, the Green caucus should not do any deal with Labour that limits its MPs’ ability to criticise Labour and promote the Green alternative. That probably means foregoing the opportunity to have a Green Minister or Ministers.

We should celebrate the Greens election result.   And one conclusion we can draw from Chloe Swarbrick’s victory  in Auckland Central is that it is possible, in the right circumstances, to prevail over both Labour and National.  The Greens are not an “ad-on” party for Labour.  I’m worried that  pushing for Ministerial positions, when the Greens haven’t got any leverage with Labour, makes the Greens look like an “ad-on” party, and a bit desperate.


  1. And Keith, we have seen what happens to smaller parties that want seats at the big table, N.Z First, United Future and previously Maori party. ACT only a safe seat because of a dodgy deal, I say dodgy because Collins must be ruing Key’s decision all those years ago.

  2. Well put Keith. You covered a lot of ground, without closing the door totally on certain Labour/Green cooperation.

    Labour’s new found Tory switcher voters could drop them just as easily!

    Really, the Greens would be better out of this Govt. and participating in a community class left movement for retiring neo liberalism once and for all in 2023, via community organising and direct action including Climate Strikes, Iwi occupations, and organised worker campaigns.

    • Were you asleep Tiger Mountain!
      “and participating in a community class left movement for retiring neo liberalism once and for all in 2023, via community organising and direct action including Climate Strikes, Iwi occupations, and organised worker campaigns.”
      They were….hell they even took over the Chch massacre to blame the white man/colonialism!
      The Greens a surplus to requirements and should accept the crumbs from Labour’s table graciously, or do not form a govt with them and just have a supply and demand agreement….but the Greens seem to want it both ways and love the baubles of office.

      • You’re right on this one. But don’t blame the Greens per se, it was a cluster of females behaving badly.

        There is a wisdom in Shaw handing the Greens’ questions elsewhere. It may well have been in the interests of the Party, and of protecting it’s professional reputation.

        Sue Bradford, and the late Jeanette Fitzsimmons, were high calibre politicians, and talented women, and both so very much missed.

        To have the public exposed to the peculiarities and perpetual victimhood of successors – tax is love – embrace the cunt – white is bad – is dubious pr. Don’t forget their current success is due to one Auckland politician arguing cogently in favour of legalising recreational marijuana – not the greatest outreach in terms of impact upon the planet, or upon poverty. They may need more terra firma.

  3. Very well said Kieth you hit it right there. was a Green party member then and well before you and other high level Green Party members left as the ‘modern Green Party’ of the younger set became more radical and belligerent. When the last remaining members Kennedy Graham and Kevin Hague went then the party was finally changed forever for me.

    They want to be independent now for sure and fight till the end for their new style of leadership.

    I do not like what I see.

    We joined as the first group in 1999 when sue kedgley, Rod Donald and Jeannette Fitzsimmons got it going and we were ‘real environmmental warriors’- not political scrappers as we see today.

  4. Spot on Keith would that the current leadership of the Greens had an iota of your nous. Sigh!
    To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson “…outside the tent pissing in… far more effective than inside the tent pissing out!”

  5. The Greens would most likely become proxies for Labour policy if they got involved with a majority Labour govt. They have no real bargaining power. Less than they had last time which as we saw in practice was not a lot.

    Their best bet would be to keep their distance, support decisions that reflect their policies (if any) and act as a voice for real Socialism and change in the face of neo liberalism.

    • And right there is your problem, all you Greens fans!!! There we all thought it was an environment party – not so.Now you know why most the country threw there votes at Labour!
      Good on Jacinda for respecting that and not offering a coalition. We couldn’t handle another three years of that Shmarmy Armani Shaw as a minister – he’s gotta go.

  6. Sorry Keith and I really respect you but If the Greens are offered environmental roles in a parliament with the highest mandate for environmental reform ever and policy concessions and the greens refuse then I’m sorry but change your name to the Left party like Die Lenk in Germany because it’ll really be the end of any credibility the Greens have as an environmental movement if they once again turn down having influence on environmental policy to satisfy the Ricardo Menedez’s of the party. Having ministerial portfolios means you get to lead the change in that agency and you get to train up your party’s mps as ministers with real experience so that in 2023 Labour has a bunch of experienced Greens to chose from for cabinet roles that won’t spook Labour. it is much better in the long run to get as much experience for your party in government for future leaders and to run the agencies where you get policy concessions rather than have labour run them and actually Green voters want the Greens to work with Labour no matter what the internal membership thinks, also in 2023 when labour may need the Greens if the Greens spend three years attacking rather than working with the Greens will only get the kind of deal labour will be offering now because they will be apprehensive of being able to trust Greens in cabinet. So if Labour offers a confidence agreement and ministerial roles and policies the Greens should take it because Labour would be more likely to offer cabinet roles to the Greens in 2023 if the Greens are proven to be reliable, a hugely experienced team, otherwise you’re just delaying the deal you’ll get now by three years

    • The Greens should get the ACC portfolio and environmental portfolio’s along with the Pharmac review.
      Of all four major parties the Green Party is the only one to take the bull by the horns and create an entirely new medicare agency fit for the 21st century in their Election policy document.
      What we have now is the worst in the OECD and Ranked worse the the USA and Cuba by the World Health Organisation.
      I lay odd’s on Labour won’t have the balls to do that though they would rather carry on with the bullshit neo liberal; health system we have now screwing it up trying to put out fires in it’s individual silo’s as the whole system carries on going down in flames.

  7. Thank you for your input Keith. It was also baffling to me that the Greens handed their oral questions to the nats. Sometimes I question their strategy. The Swarbrick factor seemed evident at party hq on Saturday night which makes C.S. as valuable if not more so than J.A. is to Labour.

  8. Where there is policy agreement Greens could seek to be be Ministers outside Cabinet.

    In all other policy areas Greens could still be be part of the opposiiton.

  9. I think the Greens would be wise to stop begging. It will end up badly for all. If Labour bring them in, it will be a declaration of war for the next election! That’s it for the switch voters who will all go back to National – see ya later!!!!

    Sometimes I wonder about Shaw and Marama? Can’t they read the mood? Do they not get the message? Did they not see what happened in the South Island? Do they think they are entitled to anything – they sound like they think they are.

    • Those National voters will move back anyway once National/Act moves back to 40%+ support. They will figure that the best way to keep the Greens out of power will be to vote in a National led government.

  10. An excellent piece Keith I would much rather the Greens stayed out of the tent frankly.
    Interestingly having talked recently to Russel Norman he said that the Maori party had the best Climate Change policy of any party.
    I am concerned about the legislation that James came up with it simply does not go far enough and allowing agriculture to be left out for a couple of years is a complete con.

  11. Now the Green are actually in the house and free from Labour then they can spend a bit of time consulting with the Green people and solidify a strategy that will build a stronger voice on both environmental restoration and social restoration and development.
    Democracy in the work place may not be too frightening for Labour as Jeremy Corbin has already blazed the trail for workers to have first right of refusal to purchase a company if it is to be closed or floated. Cooperatives are not new and very successful changing the relationship within capitalism.

    Iwi have run many enterprises in a cooperative framework.
    Well suited to our Kiwi psyche.

  12. Kia ora Keith, Your analysis is right on the money.
    Parliament needs a Left opposition able to challenge the government.
    Being in the cabinet Green MPs would be a minority, as a minority they would always be outvoted, but under the rules of cabinet collective responsibility they would then be bound to carry out the majority decisions of cabinet, ending up finding themselves in the unenviable position of having to whip the rest of the Green Party caucus to support conservative and even unpopular Government policies.
    Joining the government and having Green MPs in the Cabinet will end any chance of the Green Party being an independent Left opposition to government, to being a satrap of the government.
    This has been the death of small parties, preventing their independent development and identity and growth.
    If Prime Minister Ardern offers any Green Party MP a post in the Labour cabinet it should be (politely) turned down.

  13. It has been called the covid election.

    The stated covid policy of the Labour Party and the Maori Party is elimination.

    The stated covid policy of the National Party, and the New Zealand First party, is to put the economy before the elimination of the virus. In shorthand prioritising private wealth creation over, public health protection. National and NZF were punished by the voters for this Trumpian policy. To put it bluntly, it seems Kiwis would prefer to be poor and healthy, than rich and sickly. 
    This analysis explains why many previous National voters voted Labour,

    This analysis also explains the Act Party’s rising fortune, as the more venal National Party voters gave their vote to Act who were even more pro-market and less for covid-elimination than National.
    This analysis also explains the return of the Maori Party back from the political wilderness.

    One of my concerns about the Green Party leading into this election, was that the Green Party did not campaign on the pandemic, whereas every other party clearly did. it was like the pandemic, which is the burning issue of the day, wasn’t a Green Party concern.

    The Green Party are still operating as they were in a pre-pandemic world.

    Covid has changed everything.

    Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the Green Party’s concentration on poverty elimination and environmental protection.

    But prioritising these two things ignores the reality that social justice and environmental protection are closely linked to a party’s pandemic response. How a political party responds to the pandemic crisis is front and centre on the political stage right now.

    The Green Party, (and the Maori Party) as the putative Left opposition in parliament, need to be more covid eliminaton than the government.

    Case in point;

    I detect rising public anger, even outrage, that after all the sacrifice that has been made, and just as we were about to reap the reward of a covid free summer the government in bowing to Sealord’s demand for migrant Labour has put this nation’s covid free status in jeopardy.  

    The Green Party as the Left opposition in parliament need to give voice to this public anger.

    This is an issue where environmental protection and public health coalesce.

    Globally, (and here), the fishing resource is under extreme threat from industrial scale over fishing.

    Rather than importing migrant workers, under dodgy conditions of employment, to continue the rape of our fisheries….

    The Green Party should be holding the government to account, and demand that our fisheries be given a break and a needed chance to recover at least until local seafarers can be trained up to harvest this resource sustainably.

    The protection of the seabed and foreshore and our covid free status both need a political champion in parliament.

    The Green Party, in alliance with the Maori Party, need to be that champion.

    The political demand the Green opposition need to raise in parliament;
    ‘Stop the importation of migrant fishery workers for Sealords,
    Give the fisheries a break from industrial harvesting,
    Protect our covid free status.

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