Politics: The Greens’ Tinge

Who owns the under-30s vote? Nandor Tanczos, say the Greens. This icon of greenery is anti-establishment, modern, different and attractive.

But will the Greens own these people when they get to be 40-somethings, then 50-somethings, when they are the establishment of the future? Only if they offer them something more than Nandor’s youth, something that resonates deep down.

The Greens think they can. They believe they are the future.
A century or more ago socialists wanted to change how we thought and lived. Greens want the same now.

Socialists forecast the collapse of capitalism unless there were radical changes in distributing the proceeds. Greens now forecast the collapse of the ecosystem – our life support – unless there are radical changes in the way we use resources.

They emphasise small-scale economic enterprise and cooperation, in order to make ‘just’ society. But, individualists themselves, they also value the individual. That sets them apart from the socialists.

Socialists were centralisers. Their social democrat descendants are, too. Greens are decentralisers.

So are young people. That, rather than Nandor’s anti-establishment image, is what strikes deep chord between the Greens and the young. The young want diversity and scope to ‘customise’ their lives. Conformist acceptance of central state prescriptions runs counter to their upbringing and real world experiences.

Last century mass production of goods on the assembly line lowered their real price and brought more of them within reach of the ordinary worker’s wage.

In tandem with the mass market came the ‘factory state’, which mass-produced ‘social’ services, particularly of health, education and income support. This, too, enriched ordinary workers.

But in the last quarter of the 20th century production and delivery techniques changed dramatically. limited range of goods and services no longer satisfy. They must be customised to individual tastes. And, surprise, surprise that is beginning to be expected of the state, too. one-size health or education service no longer fits all.

Stir in the constraints globalisation imposes on national governments, both in revenue and scope of action. No longer can government impose any level of taxes its public chooses to bear. Investors decamp to lower-tax places and economic growth slows.

Yet the public wants more, not less, public services. This is not just in quantity but in type: issues such as child abuse or failure at school that used to be private – family business, usually – are now deemed public or social business. The state can’t cope.

So the smart central government of the future will think local. It will get alongside local (or sectoral or ethnic) activists. It will draw on, support and leverage off their enthusiasms, energies and inventiveness.

First, that produces bigger pool of ideas. Second, it produces more diverse and numerous army of delivery agents for ‘social’ services. Third, it makes the money go further because local agents often don’t need – or even want – 100 percent central government funding.

It sounds too good to be true. And it is: local is also uneven and difficult to account for and sometimes goes off the rails. That unnerves the risk-averse bureaucrat back in Wellington. So there are lots of rules, which are the enemy of inventiveness and energy.

Greens understand this from the activist end. Many are the sort of local ‘entrepreneurs’ of social or environmental action on which this new sort of government depends.

The trick for the successful big party of the future will be to connect up this diverse way of doing things with the younger generation’s demand for customised services.

Greens instinctively understand this. The two old parties, both hampered by cumbersome burdens of history, are struggling to get up to speed. But the prize for the one that gets there first is potentially huge.

Central government politicians might develop, through ‘partnerships’ (to use the vogue word), web of connections with wide range of people who are active locally, voluble and influential.

The party whose politicians do this best will potentially become the ‘normal’ party of government, linked into this influential web – much as the mid-20th-century National party did through its huge membership which was also embedded in countless local organisations, carrying messages up and down.

National last year installed leader young enough to have grasped much of this possibility. Labour has groped towards notion of ‘partnership’ as new foundation for its social values. But neither is there yet.

And Nandor? Well, he is an attraction in second-rank party.

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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