The Greens as a political party, a social movement, and an electoral block, constitute three very different groups. Metiria Turei and her party comrades, by failing to balance the respective claims of each group, have plunged all three into a potentially terminal political crisis.
David Clendon and Kennedy Graham have assessed their co-leader’s conduct against what they perceive to be the moral expectations of the people who actually vote for the Greens.
As numerous political scientists and journalists have pointed out over the 28 years of the Green Party’s existence, its electoral base is overwhelmingly middle class. “The wives of doctors, lawyers and architects from Wadestown and Mount Eden”, as one press gallery pundit put it.
Putting to one side the sexist over-simplification, the raw electoral data shows him to be more right than wrong. Nandor Tanczos, Sue Bradford and Keith Locke the so-called “Red Greens” may have captured the headlines when the Green Party first squeaked into Parliament back in 1990. The MP who most resembled the typical Green voter, however, was the very middle-class Sue Kedgely. Close behind her was the irrepressible Rod Donald. As the former manager of a small business, he, too, represented a good-sized chunk of the Greens’ electoral base.
If one listened only to the rhetorical sallies of Sue Bradford, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Green Party was chock-full of eco-socialists. Well, it is not necessarily so. For the voters concerned about dangerous food additives, genetic engineering and climate change, the Greens were neither left nor right. The Greens were in front.
Metiria Turei’s sudden and dramatic elevation of issues relating to the poor and marginalised shocked and surprised many of the Greens’ middle-class voters. Their astonishment turned to alarm as the political implications of her defiance of Winz acquired greater clarity. The Greens’ co-leader obviously regarded the laws surrounding the administration of social welfare as unjust manifestations of one class’s determination to limit the life chances of another. That their own social class was being cast as the villains of this I, Daniel Blake drama did not make the acceptance of Ms Turei’s radical welfare policies any easier.
Given that the rhetoric of open class warfare has not been heard on the New Zealand political stage for many decades, the public’s (including 51% of Green Party voters’) largely negative reaction to Ms Turei’s intervention is hardly surprising.
That Labour voters enthusiastically celebrated their early leaders’ run-ins with the authorities including their imprisonment reflected the extent to which class-based political ideologies had seized the imagination of the New Zealand working-class. Labour’s formation in 1916 came barely three years after the great strike of 1913 generally accepted by historians as the closest this country has ever come to open class warfare.
As late as 1932, it was still possible for the use by unemployed rioters of the Auckland Methodist Central Mission’s picket fence against the police to be described in the most positive terms.
“If what happened last night makes authority act to help desperate people obtain the justice they deserve,” Colin Scrimgeour said in his guise as the broadcaster Uncle Scrim, “the pickets torn off the fence of the Methodist Mission in Airedale Street will have caused this church to give the people the most outstanding service of the church’s 100 years of history.”
Three years later, however, Labour’s new leader, the avuncular Mickey Savage, was already taming the fiery class rhetoric of his party. To extend the appeal of Labour beyond the militant trade union movement from which it had sprung, Savage required his comrades to master a more inviting and inclusive political language.
Herein lies Ms Turei’s error. To ask a political party to embrace the uncompromising goals of a social movement, in defiance of the moral expectations of at least half of that party’s electoral base, and without the lengthy preparations necessary to modify those expectations, can only be described as the purest political folly. It is all very well to celebrate the spirit of Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, hero of the 19th century novel, Les Miserables. But only after a majority of your fellow New Zealanders have been made familiar with the plot.
The wonder is not that Ms Turei’s radicalism has burned off Messrs Clendon and Graham, but that defections from the Green caucus have been so few.
Chris Trotter is a left-wing commentator.