The Green Party membership have voted resoundingly to take the party in a more left-wing direction by selecting Marama Davidson as the new co-leader. That’s the consensus amongst commentators analysing the announcement. Of course, commentators differ over many other elements of the result – for example, whether it is progress, or a step backwards – but no one suggests that the landslide victory for Davidson is anything other than a resurgence of radicalism in the party.
This co-leadership contest was about more than individual leaders. According to today’s Herald editorial, the contest represented the ongoing ideological tension in the Greens that sees the co-existence of the red element of the party (emphasising left-wing and social issues), and a focus on a green agenda (environmentalism).
The Herald points out that the co-leaders of the party always personify this green-red dynamic: “Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald seemed equally red-green but Russel Norman was more green, Turei more red. Shaw is definitely more green. The portfolios Greens have gained in this Government (climate change, conservation, associate transport) suggests Labour wants them to stay in green territory. Clearly the party members have other ideas.”
With the recent dominance of green priorities, the members have fought back: “Their choice of Marama Davidson over Julie Anne Genter is a statement from the members that they do not want the Green Party to be less red”. The Herald says “Davidson represented a reinforcement of social priorities.”
For some time now, the Greens have been shifting towards political centre, becoming less radical under all the previous co-leaders. What’s more, until now, the more conservative candidate has normally won these co-leadership elections – which is why some commentators were insistent that a Genter win was more likely. Davidson’s win is a break with the past according Newsroom’s Thomas Coughlan, who points out the role Norman, Turei, and Shaw played in making the party more green than red.
Coughlan says “Davidson is seen as a return to the more radical past of the Greens. This side of the party has been shut out of the leadership for nearly a decade.” And, he points out that the new co-leader will push for more progressive tax policies, for the Greens to dump the Budget Responsibility Rules, and will focus the party more on minorities and the marginalised.
Henry Cooke argues that, although appearances might have suggested Davidson and Genter shared the same policies, “In tone, tactics, and perception, however, Davidson was always the left candidate, even if she prefers to say ‘progressive’.”
Cooke paints a picture of the Green activist base wanting to see a more radical and leftwing leadership than is currently being delivered by Shaw, or would have been provided by Genter. And as an example, he refers to Genter’s infamous desire to replace “old white men” on corporate boards, saying that, in fact, “Many Green members don’t want to put more women in the boardroom, they want to destroy it.” He sees Davidson’s election as a rejection by the membership of the more moderate approach advanced by the current Green ministers.
The left of the party is in the ascendancy, and their “feeling of strength is now concrete.” By voting 110 to 34 in favour of Davidson, the membership has been determined “to keep the party true to its activist roots.” And they’re confident, according to Cooke, that a more radical Green Party can resonate with the public at the moment: “The wider bet is that there is a decent chunk of the electorate keen on more than just the pendulum swing back to the left Jacinda Ardern has ushered in, keen on stuff the elite commentariat will never see as viable.”
The margin of Davidson’s victory “suggests that what the members want is a more radical party” according to Richard Harman, who says that the vote “sends a very direct message from the party’s activist base to its MPs, particularly its Ministers”.
Harman sees the Greens shifting left as a result: “Davidson’s election will strengthen the Greens’ position on the left of New Zealand politics allowing Labour more latitude to occupy the centre.” He thinks that Labour will be happy with this.
According to Isaac Davison, Labour won’t be particularly happy with the outcome, and nor will New Zealand First. Apparently, “Some within Labour and NZ First were concerned that the three-party coalition was already vulnerable to being called disjointed, and that the more unpredictable Davidson would be more likely to create instability.”
Heather du Plessis-Allan has a pessimistic outlook about the sustainability of a more radical approach for the Greens, and argues that this contest has shown the public how bad the red-green split in the party is.
Of Davidson, du Plessis-Allan says: “She’s the darling of the far-left social justice warriors, her fans are the same people who loved it when Metiria Turei openly admitted beneficiary fraud and you get the feeling the environment isn’t Davidson’s top priority. This leadership battle was really a death match over which is more important to the Greens: the environment or beneficiaries. And the fight got heated.”
Ultimately, “The split personality can’t go on living together. Not only is the animosity in the party too great, but not all voters who care about the environment also want to give hand outs to beneficiaries.”
Kate Hawkesby writes that “Davidson represents a further lunge to the left” in the party, and “disharmony and dissension” could result.
Hawkesby describes the new co-leader as “Metiria Turei 2.0. She’s a new version of the same sentiments: a radical social justice warrior, focused on poverty, inequality and the plight of beneficiaries.”
A case could also be made that, in picking Davidson, the Greens have actually avoided much greater destabilisation, because a Genter victory would have caused a revolt in the party, and Davidson is particularly determined to unify the factions and draw the activists more into decision making – see Isaac Davison’s Greens pick stability over broad appeal.
More generally, Isaac Davison says, the result “will heal some of the wounds left by Turei’s resignation. Some Green members are still upset about Turei’s treatment and have been concerned about the absence of a strong Green voice on social issues in the Labour-led coalition.”
There are certainly many on the political left who are ecstatic about Davidson’s victory. This reaction is epitomised by blogger Martyn Bradbury, who argues New Zealand now has a political leader equivalent to the radical Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, saying “Jacinda is our Trudeau, and Marama finally gives NZ its Corbyn and Bernie”.
Finally, for a more colourful view on the state of the Green Party that Davidson is now co-leading, see my blog post: Cartoons about the Greens, since the election.