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Gordon Campbell on the Greens’ new co-leader, James Shaw

Gordon Campbell on the Greens’ new co-leader, James Shaw

No doubt, the new Green Party co-leader James Shaw will be on the receiving end of a ton of advice in the coming weeks about what he ‘needs’ to do (and not do) in order to become more ‘credible’ – presumably, without losing any of the 257,000 voters who already have no problem with the Greens on that score. The alleged ‘ problem” facing the Greens is that it has allowed itself to get boxed in on the political spectrum as a virtual captive of Labour, when really – if only it played its cards right (literally) - it could (a) grow its vote by poaching centre-right voters (b) become a potential handmaiden for a National-led government or at least be able (a) to somehow play the two major parties off against each other more successfully.

In fact, I’d argue that such a course of action would do lasting damage to the Greens core identity, in the pursuit of only illusory gains. It would also compound the prevailing mis-diagnosis of what caused last year’s disappointing election outcome, which saw the party surprisingly fail to build on its 2011 results. A whole narrative about the Greens’ supposed ‘natural’ level of support has been built around what happened last September, and much blame has been attached to the attacks made by the Greens on National’s social and economic policy. This diagnosis conveniently ignores the fact that the Greens’ relatively poor showing on election day was more a direct product of Labour Party attacks - via its deliberately misleading “Only Labour Can Change The Government “ messaging – and a related whispering campaign about the Greens’ alleged readiness to become a coalition partner for National.

The Greens proved themselves unable (or unwilling, due to a foolhardy faith in positive campaigning) to tackle this perception head on during the crucial last ten days of the campaign. On a purely anecdotal level, the main question I was being asked over the last week of the 2014 campaign was why were the Greens going with National, and how disappointed they were with Russel Norman after all the good work he’d done. As a result, a sizeable chunk of Greens’ support either went to Labour, or stayed home. Point being : given that a perceived compatibility with National was poisonous to the Greens in 2014, why would further doses of the same potion be desirable in future ?

Such a seismic shift would only be desirable if the theoretical gains from the centre-right did in reality outnumber the far more palpable losses among the party faithful. Parties that base their identity on a core set of values – rather than political expedience – have very little room for these kind of experiments, and history indicates they do get hammered by the electorate if they start messing with their brand in a bid for enhanced ‘credibility’. The decimation of the Liberal Democrats in Britain, the extinction of the Democrats in Australia and the erosion of support for the Maori Party all show what happens to ‘values-based’ parties when they engage in wholesale political horse-trading. Any such engagement has to be precisely targeted and managed in a way that doesn’t convey an endorsement of the government’s wider agenda.

James Shaw knows all this. Which is why he’ll probably ignore the calls in the mainstream media for him to pimp the Greens’ ride to suit the tastes (and the superiority complex) of the centre-right. The perception that Shaw will be more “flexible” on core principles is misguided, but entirely understandable. Unwittingly, Shaw’s successful background in business – at age 42, he has worked overseas as a manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers, and co-founded a successful Third World development agency – has created a perception that he’s really a closet conservative willing to give the Greens a makeover to render it more congenial to centre-right voters. That’s not the case, although the choice of Shaw to replace Russel Norman as male co-leader is entirely in line with the Greens’ historical inclination to reject the safe and easy options. Ultimately, Shaw was viewed as the candidate best able to broaden the Greens’ vote, and to put some momentum back into the party.

Pandering to the centre-right though, isn’t the game-plan. As Shaw has been at pains to point out, his familiarity with the rhetoric and practice of market economics doesn’t mean the Greens are going to shift towards the centre. Instead, his elevation as co-leader is meant to make the centre feel more comfortable about shifting towards the Greens. Essentially, it should be harder to stigmatise the Greens as loony left when the guy co-leading them has had a more successful business career than half the National government front bench.
That ‘crazy Greens’ stereotype will die hard, though. In the UK, the Conservatives have just demonstrated how tactically rewarding it is to demonise the likely junior partner of any future Labour government. The depiction of the Greens as ‘hippies and Treaty activists’ - to use Metiria Turei’s recent, entirely ironic phrase – ignores a reality whereby on climate change, on an effective capital gains tax, on affordable housing and on the need to alleviate child poverty, the Greens have consistently staked out positions that the centre has eventually come to embrace. Time and again, yesterday’s ‘crazy Green’ proposal has become the new normal. As a no less articulate but softer-edged version of Russel Norman, Shaw has been elected to speed up more of those kind of transitions.
The ultimate challenge facing Shaw will be to shift the debate on economic policy. No small task, in a country where only the status quo has been deemed credible for the past 30 years, despite failing to deliver economic wellbeing or job security to the vast majority of the electorate. There is nothing to gain – and much to lose - for the Greens in tempering its criticism of the current economic settings. In any case, there’s no room for it on that track. Labour is already preaching a form of National Lite. Labour has already for instance, tacitly embraced the government’s pursuit of fiscal austerity and budget-balancing. Bizarrely, Labour has even criticised National for failing to achieve a budget surplus on time as promised, a criticism that only serves to validate the attempt.
The Greens should be willing, when appropriate, to call out Labour and repay it in kind for its actions last September. Ultimately, the Greens need to continue on their own course – as a radical voice on the centre left that is faster on its feet and less ideologically hidebound than either Labour or National. Ultimately, the Green have chosen Shaw not because he looks and sounds Nat-friendly – but in the belief he can re-assure the voters that there is, in fact, little to lose and much to gain from embracing an approach to the economy that’s more sustainable : socially, economically and environmentally.
That needn’t involve selling out - or dropping or soft pedaling the social justice issues basic to the Greens’ agenda. In an interview last November

Shaw pointed out an interesting facet of party activism : that it is largely work done by the very young ( university students) or by the very old (retirees.) Few other people have the time for it. What he’d noticed about the Greens’ retirees was that they tended to be a Vietnam-era, sharply ideological generation. His own generation and younger, he felt, were tired of ideological gridlock and were more solutions-focussed, and far less ideological. Thus, Shaw has invoked Margaret Thatcher, if only to remind National that one of its icons took the environment seriously. Plus he’s extolled the free market, if only to remind free market zealots that regular intervention and regulation are essential if the market is to run freely and efficiently. It makes tactical sense :

… James Shaw we’re dealing with someone smart enough to fight fire with fire. He plans to use the centre-right’s strategies and arguments against itself, if only because in the current climate, it is essential to do so: “Because over on the right, they don’t give any credibility to left wing arguments. You can’t use left wing arguments to reason with them. You’ve got to go into their territory, to engage with them.”….

The Greens being in government though, is a goal that matters to him : .

“ If we remain outside of government permanently,” [Shaw said last November] I can’t see why anyone would want to continue voting for us. Like, I think it is now getting to that point.” Where the Greens are only a permanent party of opposition, serving only some vague, self-flattering role as the moral conscience of Parliament?

“What I think,” Shaw replies, “ is that there are a bunch of people who have continually voted for us because they want our agenda implemented, and who are maybe getting bored with us being a party who are never in a position to ever do anything about it. I think we will be losing people for that reason, too.” So the long march is proving too long, for some? “That’s right. And some people may be thinking you know what? I may just vote Labour, because at least they’ve got a chance of doing something, or even in some cases they may vote National because hey, they’re the government and can actually do some stuff, if only along blue/green lines.”

Capitulation to National is not an option for him. Neither is getting into government at all costs. For Shaw, the path into government will still involve putting up characteristically Green solutions, and getting a buy-in for them from the public, and eventually from governments of whatever hue. So far, as he readily conceded in that earlier interview, the minor gains that the Greens have won from National (eg over home insulation) have tended to be merely “add-ons’ in line with the Blue/Green agenda ie. they’ve been deemed affordable by the Key government only if they don’t interfere unduly with business-as-usual. The aim, he believes, has to be higher than that. “I think Metiria [Turei] is right. Our job is to move the centre towards the Greens. And part of the reason why I chose to focus on Thatcher and my corporate experience is to go : its OK, and what we’re advocating is not that weird.” Meet James Shaw : Green, Not Too Weird.

Green marketing
Oh and James Shaw, take note. Here’s an example - from Clickhole, so its satire – of using modern marketing techniques ( ie, a thumbnail clickthrough of an attractive woman) to get across an environmental message….


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