If James Shaw walks, so does the Greens' biggest political asset

Green MP James Shaw, with Marama Davidson on the tiles at parliament on Saturday.
Monique Ford/Stuff
Green MP James Shaw, with Marama Davidson on the tiles at parliament on Saturday.

OPINION: The Green Party was doing its level best to ruin its chances at the next election, when on Saturday afternoon more than 25% of its delegates chose not to re-elect James Shaw as the party’s co-leader.

With no-one openly running against him, nominations were nonetheless reopened. Under Green Party rules the nomination will be reopened for a week and a vote will be held within the next four weeks.

A clearly deflated and ashen-faced Shaw wandered down to the black-and-white tiles in Parliament with Marama Davidson – who was re-elected as co-leader – as the sun was setting on Saturday evening.

Shaw said he wasn’t sure if he would run for leader again. He used some of the press conference to pitch for why he had done a good job. And he has.

READ MORE:
* Surprised James Shaw not reconfirmed as Green Party co-leader, nominations to be reopened
* Greens, National weigh in on waste-to-energy plant proposals
* ACT's cost of living plan - scrap tariffs, cut taxes, bring in workers and foreign supermarkets

Under Shaw and Davidson the Greens have achieved more power and influence in Government – particularly with climate change – than in the rest of party’s entire history.

What he heavily hinted at, but didn’t explicitly say, is that he thinks the membership supports him, but that factional delegates in the left of the party, who have been agitating, turned up to vote.

He wants to make sure that wider support is rock solid.

Co-leader Marama Davidson wouldn’t come out and back him – she is genuinely a pro-membership decisions person – but during the week used plenty of coded language to support Shaw.

It also reveals a crazy aspect of Green Party rules that give rise to spoilers.

While Shaw was supported to be leader by about 70% of the delegates, it only takes 25% – who don’t even need to have an alternative viable candidate – to stop his, or anyone else’s election to co-leader.

He could run again, and the same thing could happen in a month.

Shaw said he could – and according to him PM Jacinda Ardern indicated that he probably would – stay on as climate change minister regardless of his position within the Green Party.
DAVID UNWIN/Stuff
Shaw said he could – and according to him PM Jacinda Ardern indicated that he probably would – stay on as climate change minister regardless of his position within the Green Party.

Shaw confirmed that he could – and according to him Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern indicated that he probably would – stay on as climate change minister regardless of his position within the Green Party.

That surely would be embarrassing for the party.

More broadly, jettisoning Shaw would be absolutely crazy for the Green Party.

He is the party’s prime political asset. He is the middle class, unthreatening and eminently credible leader of what is, in reality, a far-left party that has the historical good fortune of having environmental branding.

The Greens membership might have its fair share of hardcore activists, but being a 10% sort of party means appealing to a lot of people who aren't. Voters who are worried about climate, rivers, national parks, and social justice, but who don’t want to fundamentally tear the joint down. Voters who like their middle-class job and going hiking in the weekend.

Without them the Greens are not a 10% party.

The agitators within the Greens clearly think that the party hasn’t done enough, and that Shaw is basically just a tree Tory.

But stepping back for a minute and looking at the whole political board reveals just how misguided this is.

Polling at around 10%, the Green Party is, for the first time in 30 years, actually in a position where come next year’s election it could be a powerful minority party in Government. If it and Labour get the numbers to govern, it will be a much bigger player and won’t have Winston and NZ First to contend with – on current polls at least.

Starting off a civil war in the party and getting rid of Shaw as leader would most likely just squander that position.

Green parties around the world face this constant conundrum: between purity and pragmatism, or between choosing to being adults in government or languishing in opposition. With Shaw and Davidson as co-leaders, the party had done the former.

Former Australian Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam captured this conflict best with a pithy phrase when fighting within his party in the 1960s: “Certainly, the impotent are pure.”