How to make the Greens sustainable

The issue for the Greens is sustainability — of the human race and of ecosystems, of course, but also of themselves.

Co-leader Russel Norman’s answer is to get bigger. His “realistic target” is to get over 10 per cent in the next election. To make the point he wore a bland suit, with pale green tie, to deliver his formal speech at the conference on Sunday. That was so what he wore would not obscure his message.

Recent polls have been encouraging. Greens in Australia got 16 per cent in a poll last week as Kevin Rudd’s policy somersaults cost Labor. A Green now sits in Britain’s first-past-the-post Parliament.

Mining in national parks is Green territory. So are water troubles in Canterbury. And Phil Goff can’t get Labour out of first gear.

But it is Labour that is the key to the Greens’ sustainability. And that key turns both ways in the lock.

A small party has two ways into the history books.

One route is to grow into a big party, as Labour did in the 1920s-1930s, supplanting the Liberals — and as the Alliance vainly hoped to do in the 1990s, supplanting Labour. But even 10 per cent-plus leaves a wide gap between small and big. Social Credit got 21 per cent in 1981.

The other route is to nudge a big party to do bits of what the small party wants done. Even at 13 per cent New Zealand First had only limited success with National after 1996 before a National bluebloods blowback cooked that coalition and New Zealand First split in two. Norman’s “realistic” 10 per cent is not a realistic path to a green and just Aotearoa.

Getting big gives a party the capacity to get most of what it wants but at the cost of diluting the message as the range of members and voters widens. Influencing a big party succeeds only to the extent that a big party feels it can safely make concessions — also a dilution.

National knows, for example, that to give Rodney Hide too much of what he wants in regulatory reform or state spending cuts would cut National’s appeal to middle-ground voters. And the next Labour-led government would reverse it.

So over-reach by the Greens in the next Labour-led government would be overturned by the following National-led one. Some of Jeanette Fitzsimons’ successes with the Clark cabinet in 2005-08 were quickly undone by National (though a less ambitious version of state-funded home insulation was brought back as a recession-fighting measure).

But if a small party supports a big party in government and too much of its programme gets watered down, core supporters get sad and angry. They get sadder and angrier if, in addition, the big party’s programme is at odds with the small party’s.

The Alliance split in 2002; its Menshevik wing, Jim Anderton’s Progressives, has now folded into Labour. United Future split in 2005 and again in 2008 and is down to one seat.

Partial wins have left ACT activists hungry for more. The Maori party votes against more of National’s contentious law than it votes for, as it tries to balance doing the bidding of iwi leadership groups, which are closer to National than Labour, and meeting the Labour-ish needs of its mostly not-well-off voter base.

The Greens are older and bigger than ACT and the Maori party. ACT’s conference fits in a shoebox. Maori party members’ asubscription income is tiny. The Greens go back 38 years to the Values party. They raised around $1 million in 2008 and have around 4000 members and a steady income.

That still does not guarantee sustainability — 5 per cent — every election. But there are three reasons for Green optimism.

* They have a durable brand and the issues they bother about are likely to become more prominent, not less. They appeal to younger voters, which is good for future prospects. Electing 25-year-old mother-to-be Georgina Morrison co-convener on Sunday is an affirmation of youth.

* Norman has recast the Greens’ environmental message as in essence also an economic message. He underlined that again on Sunday. Examples: “It’s smart economics to have clean water for the long term”; “50 per cent pure does not cut it as a global brand”; “the next economic wave is a green economic wave”.

* Greens have so far been faster than other parties to exploit digital and internet techniques for communication and campaigning. Doing that in 2007-08 enabled Barack Obama to outgun older, richer and better-connected opponents.

Next year, if voters conclude there will be a National government, some are likely to go Green because Greens might be able to do small deals and Labour will just be in opposition.

But when Labour’s key turns the other way in the political lock, what then? In a crunch election the Green vote is likely to contract. So when/if at long last the Greens have real leverage over a Labour-led government they are likely to be far below Norman’s 10 per cent-plus.

Going Green and green is a long march.