The iron law of oligarchy states that the first duty of the organization is to preserve itself. This means that agents will go against the interests of principals for tactical and strategic reasons. For class-based parties the two main sources of rank and file betrayal are vanguardism and centrism. Vanguardism refers to the centralization of decision-making authority within a party elite, which sees organizational democracy in instrumental terms rather than as a social good. Â The elite agenda is, foremost, about self-preservation justified in ideological terms.
Centrism refers to the tendency of class-based parties to move to the ideological centre in pursuit of wider mass appeal. This often means turning on what were once considered foundational principles of such parties, particularly adherence to a class line. The 20th century saw the emergence of a number of these type of party, New Zealand Labour being one of them. Once that “centrist” ideological space was captured electorally by the likes of NZ Labour (the permutations of the centrist shift by Socialist and Social Democratic parties are many), other parties emerged to fill the void and stand on principle. Few of them have survived, and those that do have married indigenous and environmental planks to an amorphous anti-capitalist platform.
One such party is the Green Party of New Zealand. It emerged as a party dedicated in principle to advancing the causes described above. It championed the environment as well as indigenous rights within it, and worked hard to provide an anti-imperialist, pacifist, human rights focused and anti-corporate counter-narrative to the market-oriented discourse of Labour and the collective Right. The composition of the Green Party caucus through its first decade in parliament showed a clear class consciousness. For many Left voters the Greens provided a tactical option under MMP, since a five percent party vote coupled with electorate votes for Labour candidates helped keep Labour ideologically “honest” when in government. Or so the Greens thought.
In practice the Green experience with the 5th Labour government was less than ideal, and in fact was marked by an increasing distance between the two erstwhile Left partners. Yet, as it replenished its ranks of MPs the Green Party began to emulate Labour and other Left-based “centrist” parties: it moved away from a strong class-based orientation and towards a more moderate stance on all original three ideological pillars. It saw an increased party vote in 2008, although it is unclear if the added support came from disgruntled Labour voters or genuine voter preference for a “reasonable” Left alternative to Labour’s increasingly corporate orientation. Whatever the cause, by 2011 the Greens have stripped out the Red in their ideological watermelon. There are no longer a working class-oriented party, and in fact have shifted to one that seeks the support of middle class voters who are not so much opposed to the status quo as they are seeking NIMBY relief within it.
The Greens are predicted to get 10 percent of the party vote in the 2011 election, with some estimates rising to 12-15 percent. The surge in support clearly has roots in voter disgust with National and Labour, but also is believed to be coming from moderate Left voters who feel more comfortable with Green occupying the ideological “space” formerly held by Labour. By moderating its policies and compromising on its foundational principles, the Greens have gone mainstream. The billboard vandalism scandal may be a perverse indication of that (with grassroots activists going outside the caucus mandate to make their point).
For voters who saw the Green party as the honest Left alternative, this is unfortunate. The Green march to the centre leaves those who believe in the essence of class conflict in capitalism (and its cousin, class compromise) devoid of electoral alternatives. Specifically, there is no longer a competitive Left option that challenges the fundamental logics of the contemporary New Zealand socio-economic system. Instead, there are only accommodationists of various centrist stripes, the Greens now being one of them. They may challenge along the margins of the dominant project, but they do not question the fundamentals. Despite the presence of Leftists and anti-imperialist/corporate rhetoric in the Mana Party, it appears to be more personality-driven and ideologically incoherent than a proper class-based party. That means that there is no genuine, politically viable alternative to the Left-centrist logic.
This type of political centripidalism is a natural aspect ofÂ first past the post party systems, especially presidential ones. But MMP is supposed to give voice to parties of principle as well as catch-all parties, and is in fact considered to be aÂ hedge againstÂ centralism. For both methodological individualists such as those on the libertarian Right as well as the collective good advocates on on the class-based Left, the move to centralism under MMP could well be a death knell (which ACT may prove in this election, and which the demise of the Alliance previewed in the last one).
In effect, what is good for the Green Party leadership and organization is not good for those at the grassroots who want a legitimate Left parliamentary alternative that is electorally viable and committed to questioning the status quo. In order for the Greens to have remained as such they would have had to eschew the temptation of centrism and accept their role as a minor party on the ideological margins that speaks truth to power rather than be a contender for power as given. That would have meant keeping to a more “militant,” or “activist” line that did not deviate from the foundational principles of the Party. Â The iron law of oligarchy suggests that never was going to be the case (and perhaps membership preferences have changed so that it would not be so), and given that Labour sold out the rank and file a long time ago (its corporatist relationship with the CTU, EPMU and other trade unions notwithstanding, since these also subscribe to the iron law), that means that in this election there is no real choice for those on the Left who want to vote for a party that can substantively influence policy rather than provide a minor corrective or circus side show to the dominant political discourse.
That being said, I am sorely tempted to vote Mana in order to try and keep the Greens honest from the Leftish fringe!
PS: Left for another time is discussion of the fact that in the absence of institutional (party) avenues of voice and redress, ideological militants of all stripes gravitate to extra- or illegal means of doing so. In the measure that formerly principled parties go centrist or are not replaced by successful others, the ideological void they leave behind is often filled by those of less institutionalist persuasion.