Bryce Edwards: Why James Shaw needs to go

Bryce Edwards: Why James Shaw needs to go

James Shaw has lost his co-leadership position in the Green Party, and there’s a good chance he won’t be able to get it back. And he shouldn’t – it won’t be good for either him or his party.

When delegates at the Green Party AGM voted on his position as co-leader on Saturday, it was expected Shaw would simply be re-elected, particularly as there were no other candidates for the position. But about 30% of delegates essentially voted “no confidence” in him, surpassing the 25 per cent threshold that triggers the requirement for the Greens to re-open nominations for the co-leader position.

So the party is now led only by Marama Davidson, and nominations for the other co-leader position close in about a week.

Shaw still has a decision to make

Shaw has come out today confidently announcing that he will fight to win the leadership back. He’s trying to stare down those that are plotting, both in the wider party, and in his own caucus. He will be hoping that his rival Chloe Swarbrick announces that she won’t stand against him and, ideally, gives him her full support.

But don’t be surprised if none of that happens. Wiser heads might even persuade Shaw to withdraw his nomination before the end of the week. Shaw and his backers are likely to realise that the tide has turned against him amongst party activists and Green voters.

There’s now an appetite for leadership renewal, and if Shaw is smart he will end up championing that rather than fighting against it. He still has the chance to look magnanimous in handing the reins over willingly to Swarbrick. And if she gets anointed by him as the next leader, Swarbrick will win the contest next month hands down.

Swarbrick’s time has come

There is no doubt that Swarbrick is significantly more popular with either Shaw or Marama Davidson. She was a rising star before she even joined the party, having performed incredibly well as a mayoral candidate for Auckland in 2016. Since then she has impressed all with her performance as an MP, even winning the Auckland Central race last year – which was no mean feat. The only other Green MP to win a seat has been Jeannette Fitzsimons with Coromandel in 1999.

Swarbrick regularly appears as a favourite “preferred prime minister” in polls and has very high favourability ratings. Pollster David Farrar points out today that his firm carried out polling late last year which “showed Swarbrick had three times the favourability of James Shaw with all voters – she was at 23% and Shaw at 8%”.

That Swarbrick has already gone to ground and is refusing to comment on whether she is going to run for the leadership is very telling. Herald political editor Claire Trevett writes today that Swarbrick’s silence about whether she will challenge is possibly because “she is taking soundings on whether she has a chance of toppling Shaw in a vote.”

A lot hangs on what Swarbrick decides to do in the next 24 hours. Even if she hadn’t previously thought about taking Shaw on for the leadership at this time, she will now be seriously considering it, and many in the party will be pressuring her to seize the moment.

The leadership is clearly hers for the taking but if Shaw re-nominates then she would have to be willing to knife her sometimes-ally.

Another possibility is that Swarbrick and Shaw come to some sort of negotiated handover. This might allow Shaw to stay on for longer, with the understanding that Swarbrick’s time will soon come.

Shaw needs to read the writing on the wall

If Shaw attempts to win the leadership back, it is likely to be a disaster for both him and his party. Firstly, he might not actually win. In a contest against Swarbrick decided by Green Party members he’s unlikely to prevail.

There is significant support for Shaw, but much of it from outside the Greens. If the Labour Party supporters were to have a say then Shaw would win in a landslide. But Labour and National supporters coming out with statements about what a thoroughly decent chap Shaw is are probably doing him more harm than good right now. Even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s endorsement of him probably hurts him more than it helps him at the moment.

Second, even if no other candidates stand for the position, there’s always the threat that more than 25% of delegates will again vote to veto his leadership, once again re-opening the nominations process. This would be intolerable for both Shaw and the party and he would have to go anyway.

Thirdly, even if Shaw fought for the leadership and won, he would be a lame duck leader with his authority deeply diminished. As political commentator Matthew Hooton wrote in the weekend, “he is mortally wounded… The clock is ticking and no one thinks he has any chance of surviving much beyond the election. That makes him a lame duck from now on”.

Hooton suggests that the moderate Shaw now be replaced by the moderate Swarbrick: “there is an argument that perhaps the Teal Greens should just accept the dagger has found its mark, Shaw will now bleed out, and they should make the change to fellow Teal Chlöe Swarbrick now”.

This is one of the key factors that Shaw will need to consider – by fighting to regain his leadership he might spark a destabilising contest in the party. There are clearly growing elements in the Greens that won’t back down until he is gone from the leadership. By battling these activists, even if he wins, Shaw damages the party. The public quickly lose faith in parties and leaders who are divisive and unstable. The Greens can’t afford to go through a civil war, as the Alliance did in 2002, which led to their demise.

What’s more, if Shaw left the leadership, it doesn’t mean that he would have to step down as Climate Change Minister. In fact, this is a position he could do with focusing more time on. And it is, after all, a more prized role for him than his party leadership.

Shaw might also want to remember how Andrew Little had to accept the tide had turned against him in the run up to the 2017 general election. He admitted defeat, allowed Jacinda Ardern to take his place and has gone on to have a respectable ministerial career. His conduct ensured his political career wasn’t over, and he came out of the episode with increased respect within the party.

The Greens are compromised under Shaw

The Greens are likely to do much better with Swarbrick than Shaw at the helm. Under Shaw the party has ossified and come across as incredibly conventional, no longer being seen challenging Labour like their supporters want them to. Instead, they appear more as a prop to their coalition partner.

With Shaw leading the party – and as Climate Change Minister – the Greens have also risked looking like they are playing a “greenwashing” role for Labour, making the government appear more dedicated to action on climate change than it actually is.

That’s certainly the view held by former Green MP Sue Bradford, who was interviewed by the Herald yesterday: “Bradford said that under the current leadership Greens had become ‘Labour light’ and the co-leaders Shaw and Marama Davidson were being used to ‘greenwash’ Labour’s environmental and housing policies. The climate change agreement Shaw had struck was ‘feeble’, she said.”

Of course, Shaw’s position was compromised from the day he decided to take the offer of Climate Change Minister under the current government, even though Labour didn’t actually need the Greens’ support. It meant Shaw would have little real leverage on climate issues, and would instead have to promote the decisions made by the Labour Cabinet. It’s been a poisoned bauble. Not only does he have primary responsibility for a policy most Green members see as thoroughly inadequate but, as minister, he can’t even publicly distance himself from a policy he privately also thinks is inadequate.

But would Swarbrick be more popular with the activist left in the party? It’s not entirely clear. She is from the same moderate wing of the Greens as Shaw, but also seems more capable of being radical at times. She certainly has the potential to be more outspoken about Labour’s failings. This is what Marama Davidson promised when she took over the other co-leadership position, but has consistently failed to do. Perhaps Swarbrick can be the party leader who is not entrapped by the baubles of power.

As a response to his ousting in the weekend, Shaw is already trying to reposition himself as more radical and more connected with the party’s activists. In his interviews and speeches today he is using the more radical language and demands that his detractors use. At this stage it might not be very convincing to those activists who see his past actions contradicting his newfound radicalism. Shaw simply doesn’t sound authentic.

Not only does his inauthentic radicalism prove his critics right, but those that are suspicious of Shaw will also have noticed how shocked he was that he was rolled in the weekend. Shaw was either unaware of the rising discontent in his party, or he was dismissive of it. Either way, it’s shown him up as being guilty of exactly what his opponents accuse him of being – disconnected from the grassroots.

Because the Greens are in power and have been polling steadily since the last election there are many in the Beehive beltway who struggle to understand why Shaw is in this position. The core issue is one of policy – not polling. It speaks much as to how Labour and National leaders live and die by polling results, rather than what they stand for and actually do in office.

It’s now up to Chloe Swarbrick to show that she is more in touch with activists and ready to fight harder against climate change, economic inequality and other social ills. It’s just a question of whether she is willing to put up her hand.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on the Greens today

Michael Neilson (Herald): Green Party James Shaw co-leadership: MP Elizabeth Kerekere ‘considering options’ on challenge
Imogen Wells and Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Greens MP Ricardo Menéndez March refuses to back James Shaw, says some members ‘want more action’ on climate change
Amelia Wade and Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Green MP Dr Elizabeth Kerekere ‘considering her options’ over leadership position
Claire Trevett (Herald): Will she or won’t she? The silence from Chlöe Swarbrick in the Green Party leadership stramash? (paywalled)
Luke Malpass and Thomas Manch (Stuff): James Shaw vows to ‘redouble’ efforts as he bids again for Green Party co-leadership
John MacDonald (Herald): Shaw not wanted, but the Greens are still needed
Isaac Davison (Herald): Challenge against Green co-leader James Shaw will change the party, former MPs say
Luke Malpass (Stuff): If James Shaw walks, so does the Greens’ biggest political asset
David Farrar: The silence of the (Green) lambs
Rosie Gordon (RNZ): Green Party members divided on co-leadership challenge
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): James Shaw and the Green ejection seat
Conor Whitten (Newshub): Green Party faces existential crisis over James Shaw’s ousting as co-leader as former MPs weigh in
Matthew Hooton (Patreon): Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen (paywalled)
Luke Malpass (Stuff): PM Jacinda Ardern throws support behind James Shaw as he mulls Green co-leader race
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk): If Greens don’t know who they want instead of Shaw, the whole thing is pointless
Gordon Campbell: On the Greens, and on free market myopia
Chris Trotter (Interest): The Greens’ minority rules
Steven Cowan: James Shaw – heading for the exit
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Green Party votes down constitutional changes, boosting ousted co-leader James Shaw
Conor Whitten and Rachel Sadler (Newshub): James Shaw co-leadership vote could signal Green Party’s want for ‘something really new and different’, former MP Sue Bradford says
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Green party leadership and James Shaw: what you need to know
Maiki Sherman (1News): Green leadership challenge – Shaw opponent speaks out
Maiki Sherman (1News): James Shaw vows to fight on, co-leader position on-the-line
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Green Party co-leadership: James Shaw ‘still processing’ vote, Chlöe Swarbrick silent about challenge
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Why leadership challenge will put the brakes on Greens growth
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Shock James Shaw vote rocks the Greens coalition boat
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Green Party co-leadership: James Shaw ‘still processing’ vote, Chlöe Swarbrick silent about challenge
Tracy Watkins and Jono Galuszka (Stuff): Surprised James Shaw not reconfirmed as Green Party co-leader, nominations to be reopened
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Greens co-leader James Shaw faces possible leadership challenge
Craig McCulloch (RNZ): Green Party’s James Shaw to face leadership challenge
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Thoughts for the Green Left coup plotters
RNZ: Green Party’s James Shaw confirms he will run as co-leader again
Luke Malpass and Thomas Manch (Stuff): James Shaw confirms he will recontest Greens co-leadership
RNZ: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she has confidence in James Shaw
1News: James Shaw confirms he’ll contest Green Party co-leadership
1News: James Shaw does ‘fantastic job’ as climate change minister – PM


Other items of interest and importance today

Danyl McLauchlan (Listener/Herald): ‘Beggars belief’: Pursuing NZ’s richest earners – would a wealth tax work? (paywalled)
Susan St John (Herald): Social security purposes and principles are cold comfort for too many (paywalled)
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Same crap, different minister
Damien Grant (Stuff): It pains me to say it, but inflation is actually falling
Damien Venuto (Herald): Will Government act on the calls for more workers?
Liam Dann (Herald): Inflation is a plague, let’s fight it like one – together (paywalled)
John Braddock (World socialist website): New Zealand foreign minister sounds alarm about Sri Lankan “lessons”
Jean Bell (RNZ): Stemming the brain drain
Andrew Gunn (Stuff): A lot of economic platitudes are just so much pie in the sky

John Minto (Daily Blog): Who’s paying big money for big political favours?
Laurie Duncan (Spinoff): What the NZ First Foundation ‘not guilty’ verdict means for money in politics
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Winston Peters’ potshots aimed at wrong target (paywalled)
RNZ: SFO National and Labour donations trial begins

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Popular pundit Ben Thomas joins Capital lobbying firm
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Cost of living, Greens’ leadership, co-governance set to dominate Parliament
Stewart Sowman-Lund (Spinoff): Act unveils its three-C plan for election success in 2023
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Values vs policy: How a new ‘luxury belief class’ is changing politics

Keith Lynch (Stuff): The coronavirus pandemic will never really be over (but it is changing)
Jamie Morton (Herald): Building immunity against virus will take years – expert(paywalled)
Herald: Editorial: Lack of school mask mandate may be lost opportunity (paywalled)
Kelly Dennett (Stuff): Are disappearing masks a sign of our Covid fatigue?

Jo Moir (Newshub): Staff morale key to health reform success – Bloomfield
Jaime Lyth (Herald): The state of our health system – how did we get here and how do we fix it? (paywalled)
Wilhelmina Shrimpton (Today FM): If I was a nurse I’d be feeling pretty flat

Janet Wilson (Stuff): We’re all in trouble when education is failing our kids
Steven Joyce (Herald): Too little learning in polytech saga (paywalled)
Bonnie Sumner (Newsroom): Top academics call out sexual harassment
John Gerritsen (RNZ): School staffing remains big challenge with relief teachers ‘like unicorns’
Oliver Hartwich: No trivial pursuit

Leeann Watson (Herald): If Christchurch becoming a ‘Super City’ is the answer, what is the problem? (paywalled)
Carly Gooch (Stuff): Council shake-up will ‘undoubtedly’ have an effect on Nelson
Kiri Gillespie (Herald): Concerns for local govt election as abuse of younger, ethnic councillors runs rife (paywalled)

Todd Niall (Stuff): Half-price fares: Unclear what’s behind public transport uptick in Auckland
Peter Dowden (ODT): Free buses 1: when radical is sensible
Peter Dowden (ODT): Free buses 2: worthy of serious consideration