June is the Greens’ usual conference month. These days they are more than a curiosity. Eighteen months from now Greens might be in a cabinet for the first time.
That is not a forecast. There is a long, winding, bumpy road between this halfway point in the parliamentary term and the election, probably November 2014. If National can fix its political management, it still has the advantage.
But there are glimmerings now of an alternative government. In April Labour and the Greens joined in a piece of theatre promoting a state buyer of electricity, which undercut the Mighty River Power share float.
National framed that government-in-waiting look with a reaction that built the policy up as a serious threat. If National continues in that vein, voters are more likely to think Labour-Greens is a credible alternative and, some of them, to vote that way. In 2011 there was no credible alternative government.
But both Labour and the Greens still have much to do before they are a genuine government-in-waiting.
That doesn’t require identical policies. It does mean narrowing their differences so they not appear so big as to hamper them working together. This is what Labour and the Alliance worked up in 1999 on the way to power.
Voters also need a gauge of the numerical balance: is it two-to-one Labour-Greens, three-to-one or four-to-one. The balance in recent polls has been about the middle of that range.
The smaller Labour’s margin over the Greens, the more potency in National’s scarifying about “extreme” policies. Again, 1999 is a pointer: the Labour-Alliance ratio was around four-to-one and voters did not buy dire warnings of socialism.
That’s not just a Labour issue. It is a Greens’ issue, too. The party has been pumping supporters for money to climb from 11 per cent to 15 per cent with the explicit aim of being in government.
If the Greens were to get 15 per cent, Labour could not hope for much above 35 per cent, if even that. The Greens would be a powerful influence in the cabinet. And, though the Electoral Commission declared them in 2011 a distinct second-rank party above the minors, they are not yet mainstream. Centrist voters might hesitate to shift over.
This is the Greens’ conundrum. They want to supplant Labour, not to marry it as a permanent junior partner. Many Greens — and greens — see Labour as old hat, different from National in detail more than in substance, wedded to old thinking about society and the environment.
But for now the Greens have to work with the bigger, older and battle-hardened Labour party. That would be to tacitly accept, and in effect maintain, Labour as the major, mainstream party.
In the early 1930s Labour was cleared to climb out of the second rank when the major party it supported coalesced with the other major party under the pressure of the depression. That is not in prospect at this time.
In Germany the Greens have been in a number of governments and last year had some big state elections successes but they are still No 3.
Russel Norman has nudged the Greens nearer the mainstream by injecting economics into the policy core. He has since made a couple of gaffes, which have been the subject of internal debate. His issue now is to fashion a distinct economic policy that is mainstream enough not to discourage centrist voters but does not look too like Labour’s.
And all the while, Labour’s aim, and need, is to keep the Greens at No 3, preferably with a sub-10 per cent vote in 2014, while at the same time building them up as a partner in a coalition-in-waiting.
And that’s the easy bit. What if un-green Winston Peters is needed in the mix? It’s not easy being Green, as Kermit the Frog used to sing.