The Green Party are, at this time, the largest minor party in parliament. Rising triumphant from the ashes of the Labour Party in 2008 and 2011, Green have come to be recognised as a sleek and professional party with alternative views on important economic issues that they can bring to the political stage along with their signature environmental concerns. Many predicted that their popularity would wane when Labour started to get its act together again, but after two successive polls in which Labour have begun to fight back, Green have either also made gains or remained comfortably polling at about 10%. So how have the Green Party managed to defy conventional expectations of a minor party? I’ll make some quick observations into what I see to be the main areas that cause minor parties to collapse, and measure the Greens against each of them.
To start with, minor parties are highly volatile. This could be because they tend to be based around one leader, or one ideology, or because they don’t have the long history and tradition of Labour and National to prop them up, but small parties are prone to all matter of things. The personification of this is Winston Peters, who led most of New Zealand First out of government in 1998 after a dispute with Jenny Shipley over the privatisation of Wellington Airport.
Because of this, they are prone to collapse. Ideology plays a big role in this too. Because minor parties occupy ideological niches, their traditional voters and representatives are generally very passionate about a particular issue or set of values. This means that disagreement within the party is much harder to reconcile than within the broad churches of Labour and National. Take for instance the Alliance, who split over their inability to find a common ideological direction, or ACT, who couldn’t reconcile the neo-liberalism of the traditional voter base and the populism that Rodney Hide brought to the table.
Lastly, being in close proximity to government is REALLY bad for minor parties. This sucks for everyone, because major parties need minor parties to be able to govern under MMP, and obviously minor parties want to be in government. This is largely to do with ideology as well. Minor parties, once in government, are inevitably drawn towards their senior governing partner, moving further left or right than many party faithful would like. This is also one of the reasons for the electoral collapse of ACT, who were supposed to bring National further right but ended up being drawn into a bland grey area. Mana also formed from the Maori Party being perceived as selling out their constituency to be in government. Similarly, Peter Dunne has been in so many different governments that no one actually even knows what United Future stands for any more. Unfortunately, the mere act of being in government is enough to stop minor parties from staying in government.
So what have the Greens done right that the others haven’t? First up, they’ve efficiently prevented any danger of volatility, by creating a party organisation that is very smooth, very streamlined and very professional, but still revolves around the members. They have also made sure that the party isn’t defined by one person, like New Zealand First, the Progressives and United Future have all been. In terms of ideology, they’ve managed to move into the mainstream economic discussion with policies that still entirely reflect their values, which is partly also due to the membership oriented organisational process.
However, unlike their minor party peers, the Green Party have never been in government properly. They’ve never had a chance to test their member-driven ideological process in government with a party that may draw them into the centre and alienate their voter base. This should be something that the Green Party remembers when they go into coalition with Labour, and potentially also something Labour need to be aware of for the sake of preserving their alliance. Labour have broken left wing minor parties before (Progressives, Alliance) and it would be a shame to see as promising a party as the Greens go the same way. I think that Green can avoid this happening. They bring a well formed and strong organisation to the table, and don’t have a history of governmental failure to besmirch them like Winston Peters et al do. It could just be that the secret of minor party success under MMP is careful organisation and patience, not jumping the gun and running away with power, leaving your membership behind. MMP was designed so there could be strong alternative voices in our governance. Let’s hope that the Green Party are going to show us that it is possible to be small, organised, faithful to your values and your members, and in government.