Party Potted History - Peter Barnett

This "potted history" of the Green Party was produced for the 25th Anniversary in 1998. It was written by Peter Barnett with an introduction by David Taylor - both sections are reproduced here as written including the sections covering the 90's. As well as providing a convenient summary of the party history through the 70's, 80's and 90's it is also very much a document of its own time, being written by two people then very involved and active in the party.


21/10/98 Silver-Green Anniversary

The first quarter-century of the Green Party, 1973-1998
by Peter Barnett
 
Introduction
by David Taylor

My own Green Party story began when I was fifteen, just over 24 years ago. Flicking through the Telegraph I came across those few column inches which were to change my life. A new party, PEOPLE, had been formed to contest the next general election (February 1974). It was a party of the environment. As my two great interests in life were politics, inherited from my family, and the environment, to which, in adolescent conviction, I had already dedicated my life, PEOPLE seemed purpose made.

In the 1974 October General Election, I put myself forward for PEOPLE in my school election. The teacher in charge refused to allow my name to forward in the ballot, despite a petition signed by half the school, so I allied myself with the Liberals. Thus did I gain my first taste of political realism.

Everyone in the party has their own individual story to tell, but our collective story: of success, of frustration, of passion and of an enduring commitment to the vision of a green society, can be read in Derek Wall’s Weaving a Bower Against Endless Night... an illustrated history of the Green Party. This 84 page booklet was published in 1994, to mark the Party’s 21st Anniversary. Its four chapters cover the periods: 1973-77, 1978-81, 1982-88 and 1989-92, identifying the Party’s first four distinctive stages of development, each reflecting the political and cultural influences of the time.

Stage 1 1973-77

The first stage, beginning with the formation of PEOPLE, was strongly influenced by conservationism and a general mood of pessimism. Some people were so convinced of the imminence of global collapse that they advocated a political strategy based on post-cataclysmic reconstruction. PEOPLE’s peculiarly British hybrid platform of survivalism, libertarian communism and conservative anarchism was to lay the foundations of what came later. As an ‘ecology’ party it was before its time.

Stage 2 1978-81

The second stage came not with the change of name to the Ecology Party, which occurred in 1975, but with a new generation of activists in 1977-78, most notably Jonathon Porritt and David Fleming. This new ‘ECO’ grouping brought coherence to the Party’s platform and organisation. Their great achievement was the Party’s breakthrough at the 1979 General Election, where the Party fielded over 50 candidates, qualified for a TV election broadcast, and stimulated a huge influx of new members. Ecological politics had arrived.

Stage 3 1982-88

The third stage gave the party a popular, cultural base. The emergence of the Liberal/SDP Alliance had destroyed Fleming’s dream of a ‘Real Alternative’ to the left/right divide. Overshadowed by the Alliance and without hope of electoral advance, many activists went out into the wider movement to tackle single issues and help give birth to a political green movement.

Stage 4 1989-92

Electoral frustration continued throughout the eighties, although the Party enjoyed some modest successes at the local level. The shock result of the 1989 European Elections result was a short-lived taste of mass support. The media and political backlash which followed, coupled with the recovery of the Alliance, proved to be more than the party could adequately handle, and it soon returned to its former position.

Policy development

A remarkable achievement of the Party has been its agreement on policy. Members from a diverse range of backgrounds managed to agree on all the principal points of our political platform, resulting in our much acclaimed Manifesto for a Sustainable Society. The Greens have always been a strange melting pot including people from all classes, refugees from other parties, hippies, forgotten intellectuals, trade unionists, travellers, yuppies and teachers.

Strategic strife

Where the Green Party stumbled was in its attempts to formulate strategy. Endless arguments over structure reflected a deeper disagreement over the Party’s direction and goals, between those wishing to focus primarily on the electoral route to Westminster and others who advocated a more decentralist approach.

Another problem for the Party was a general lack of support from the wider Green Movement. Goldsmith and Benfield both attempted to build environmental coalitions in the early 1970s without success. Then and throughout our history the British Green Movement has largely stood aloof from the Party. In marked contrast, Green Parties in France and Germany originated out of networks of Green groups and citizens’ projects. Both these parties are now, of course, sharing power in coalition governments, and as a result are having a powerful influence on, for example, the future the nuclear industry (or hopefully lack of a future!).

Porritt’s later ‘vanguardist’ approach assumed environmentalists would support a Party demonstrating strong leadership, tight organisation and coherent policy. This too, failed to create a social base. Tactical and negative voting put paid to Westminster electoralism. The Party’s success stories, in places like Oxford and Stroud, where Green Party councillors are implementing our policies, are the result of year round campaigning and community politics.

The fifth stage 1993-99

The Party’s entered its fifth stage of development in 1993, adopting a new strategy based on lessons learnt from the past. A national electoral approach based on ‘Westminster through the Town Halls’ was coupled with a fresh commitment to green movement coalition building as ‘a pre-condition for political success.’ In recent years local parties implementing the ‘Targeting to Win’ initiative have provided a steady stream of local election successes. Non-electoral popular campaigning including support for NVDA has helped the Party develop closer links with parts of the green movement, whilst working with others, notably FOE, on the parliamentary bill campaigns has resulted in policy drafted by the Green Party on energy conservation and traffic reduction becoming Law of the Land.

With full time staff in Central Office back to 1989 levels, and the introduction of proportional representation for European and regional elections, the Green Party is about to enter its sixth, and most promising stage of development ever.

David Taylor September 1998


The First Quarter Century

1974 - Two General Elections

PEOPLE fielded five candidates in the General Election of February 1974. Lesley Whittaker achieved the best result with 3.7% in Coventry. Alan Pickard polled a respectable 2.8% (1,332 votes), whilst Clive Lord did less well against the monetarist guru Keith Joseph in Leeds. Teddy Goldsmith contested his father’s old constituency (or the nearest equivalent after boundary changes) with the support of zoo owner John Aspinall.

The first national conference was held in Coventry in June 1974. Lesley Whittaker drafted the Party’s first manifesto ‘A Manifesto for Survival’ which was circulated before the conference and attracted 150 amendments. An influx of radical activists from the Left had joined the Party, and found Lesley’s manifesto too right wing on certain issues. A heated debate ensued but the amended manifesto was ratified by the 70 members present, ready for the October General Election.

Four candidates stood in October, but the average vote fell to just 0.7%. Lesley’s vote fell sharply in Coventry, Norma Russell gained 327 votes in Leeds, and Elizabeth Davenport 359 in Birmingham. Ben Percy-Davies did best with 1.8% in Hornchurch.

Disappointing results and lack of media interest exacted its toll and, by the end of 1974, the Party was at a low ebb with local groups starting to collapse.

1975 - the Ecology Party

The decline continued into 1975 and the Party came close to folding. The Whittakers, arguing that they had intended to give the Party a two year trial period, felt that the experiment had more or less failed and took to self-sufficiency in Devon.

At the second national conference, held again in Coventry in June 1975 the Party changed its name to the Ecology Party. A new Manifesto for a Sustainable Society (MFSS) was drafted by Peter Allen, one of the radicals who had been very critical of Lesley’s version the year before. The MFSS continues to this day - the official record of Green Party policy. All policy decisions taken at the Party’s biannual conferences are incorporated into it.

1976 - Green councillors

1976 saw mixed fortunes for the Party. NEC meetings featured arguments between Benfield and Allen, resulting in them both dropping out of activity. Only 27 members attended the 1976 Conference in Sheffield. Clive Lord feared the Party ‘was in real danger of petering out’. Yet in the same year the Ecology Party gained its first two councillors, John Davenport (near Worcester) and John Luck (Rother District Council).

1977 - Constitution

In 1977 Jeremy Faull won the first Green County Council seat whilst Jonathan Tyler contested the Party’s first parliamentary by-election in Walsall North. At the annual conference in Birmingham the newly elected Executive Committee comprised: Jonathan Tyler (Chair); Sally Willington (Secretary); Peter Sizer (Treasurer); John Davenport (Membership Sec.); David Fleming (Press), Nicholas Hildyard (Policy/publicity); Ron Andrews (Editor of Good Earth); John Luck (Elections Co-ordinator); Steve Lambert; Jonathon Porritt and David Taylor. A motion inviting Teddy Goldsmith to become President was signed by 11 members but not put to the vote. The first Ecology constitution, drafted by Tyler, was ratified after amendment. Membership had risen to around 400.

ECO - The next generation

Between the years of 1977-80 the new generation of ‘leaders’ including Porritt, Fleming and Tyler, transformed the organisation from a state of near collapse to a national political Party. Fleming introduced a new house style featuring the word ECO: "ECO is a short word, easy to say, easy to combine with other words, less academic sounding than Ecology, more usable in speeches and articles and free of the cumbersome suffix ‘ology’."

1978 - Bold plans

By 1978 there were about 650 members and a bold decision to stand 50 candidates in the General Election was taken at the annual conference in Birmingham. At £150 per candidate deposit it was an ambitious venture to say the least, but would provide the Party with its first TV election broadcast, reaching millions of people otherwise oblivious of their existence.

1979 - Breakthrough!

ECO stood 53 candidates in the May 1979 General Election, gained 1.5% of the vote, and established itself as the fourth national Party, beating the National Front and Social Unity. Porritt and Guy Woodford did best polling 2.8%. The gamble had paid off, and how! Within a year the membership increased tenfold to over 5000.

In June 1979 Benfield, Porritt and Goldsmith all picked up nearly 4% in the European Elections.

Into the ’80s

The huge influx of new members heralded a third shift in the Party’s political direction. If Goldsmith and the founding four had pioneered ecological politics in the 1970s, and Porritt and Fleming moulded this politics into an organised and more acceptable form, the next generation was to supply the Party with a radical new edge, but not without a fierce struggle.

A massive increase in younger members and radicals from the peace, animal rights and women’s movements was to shift the Party towards what Petra Kelly described as an ‘anti-party Party’. Calls for a more decentralist approach, of empowerment politics, community action, NVDA and coalition building to create a green movement outside of Westminster clashed with the ‘traditionalists’ who favoured the efficient construction of a parliamentary route to greening society.

1980 - ‘Legalise dope’

The Autumn Conference of 1980 in Cardiff was influenced by the new cultural mood. ‘King of the Hippies’ Sid Rawle was elected to the new Party Council (formerly the NEC); a controversial motion for the legalisation of cannabis was passed, and the three year rule meant that Porritt was replaced by GundulaDorey, a probation officer from Bristol, as the new Council Chair. The year saw encouraging results in local elections with an average of 5% across the country.

1981- SDP launch spoils the dream

In 1981 the Party opened a new national office in Clapham and saw great organisational improvements, largely thanks to National Secretary Paul Ekins, who had previously been running the operation from home. Ekins’ home was attacked in February of 1981. A statement from neo-Nazi paramilitary group Column 88 said:

"We attacked the home of one of your members last night because he is standing against a right wing candidate in the GLC elections. If this candidate does not stand down he will be wasted."

Ekins did stand against a National Front candidate, but remains alive and well to this day.

The local elections in May 1981 saw over 270 Green candidates. Jeremy Faull reclaimed his Cornish seat with 50.1% of the vote. The results were poor in London but better in rural areas.

In the same year the Social Democratic Party was launched, marking the end of the Porritt/Fleming dream.

With the Labour Party in disarray, and the country in the deep recession under an unpopular (pre-Falklands) Thatcher, the country was looking for something different - an alternative Party offering a fresh new start, promising radical, though not too robust reform.

Whatever chance the Greens may have had of occupying this space was destroyed with the creation of the SDP who attracted massive and sustained media attention. For the next few years the Greens struggled for attention with little success.

1982 - Falklands War

1982 was a dismal year for the Party. Membership had fallen to below 3,000; Paul Ekins resigned as National Secretary and no funds were available for staff. Undeterred, the Party held its Spring and Autumn conferences in Bridlington and started planning for the next election. The Party Council elected three Co-Chairs: Jean Lambert, Jonathon Porritt and graphic designer Alec Pontin.

The Falklands War restored Mrs Thatcher’s popularity and put paid to an early election. ECO was one of the few voices opposing the short but brutal war, condemning both sides for taking military action and the Government’s hypocritical denunciation of a regime to whom it had been exporting weapons to only weeks before the outbreak.

1983 - German breakthrough

In 1983 the election of 28 Green MPs in Germany established green politics as a serious political force, and provided a much needed morale boost for ECO.

The Party was well prepared for the General Election in June, fielding 108 candidates but gained only 1% of the vote. Media coverage was poor, but Porritt gave an excellent performance on Robin Day’s Election Call, and a MORI Poll suggested that 12% of the electorate would seriously consider voting for ECO. There was an increase in membership and new branches were established.

The Party launched its first national campaign calling for PR, a Freedom of Information Act and a Bill of Rights under the banner of the Campaign for Real Democracy.

With Porritt, Lambert and Ekins as the Co-Chairs, preparations for 1984 European Elections were underway.

1984 Anti-nuclear wars

The Party fielded 17 candidates in the June 1984 Euro Elections, and gained an average vote of 2.7%. Felicity Norman almost saved her deposit polling 4.7% in Hereford & Worcester.

Porritt published his book Seeing Green, still acclaimed as one of the best accounts of Green ideas ever written, which inspired many a person to join the Party. Shortly after the Euro Elections, he was appointed Director of Friends of the Earth and largely dropped out of Party activity.

The Party Conference that year overwhelmingly passed an emergency motion which urged non violent direct action in support of mining communities during the bitter 1984/5 miners’ strike. Many local parties joined miners’ support groups and helped support striking families.

ECO led a vociferous campaign against a government proposal to increase parliamentary election deposits from £150 to £1000. All the opposition parties united against the measure and eventually a compromise of £500 was agreed.

The Ecology Party CND (later Green CND) played a major role in the anti-Cruise campaign in the early 80s, and together with the Green Collective set up a huge land squat at Molesworth missile base. Later known as Rainbow Village, it remained on the base from 25th August 1984 until February 6th 1985 when 3,000 troops were employed in a massive eviction. Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine was on the scene, complete with army camouflage outfit. To prevent re-occupation the Government fenced the entire 600 acres in a single night under conditions of absolute secrecy, in the largest Royal Engineers’ operation since the crossing of the Rhine.

1985 - The Green Party

The 1985 Spring Conference in Dover was combined with the second European Congress with 600 Greens from 19 countries in attendance. The event was opened by Sara Parkin, International Liaison Secretary. The late Petra Kelly addressed congress with a plea for eco-feminism.

The plea was clearly heard by UK Greens who in the Autumn Conference, also in Dover, returned many women to the Party Council, who elected Jo Robins, Heather Swailes and Lindy Williams as Co-Chairs.

At the same Conference the Party finally voted to change its name to the Green Party after two previous attempts had failed.

1986 - Maingreen Affair

Many members were disillusioned at the 1986 Malvern Conference when the POWG (Party Organisation Working Group) plans to reform the Party’s governing structure were rejected. The brainchild of Jonathan Tyler, the proposals aimed to improve the structures and establish an executive to organise events on a day to day basis.

Tyler, together with Paul Ekins took the defeat badly, and proposed the establishment of a movement called Maingreen. They advocated recruiting supporters within and outside the Party, who would help to fund a full time Maingreen organiser, and putting up a Maingreen slate for Party posts. Co-Chair Jo Robins was incensed at what she saw as a plan for a secret takeover. When Ekins and Tyler called a meeting to discuss the project, the Co-Chairs, controversially, convened an emergency Party Council meeting on the same day. Much unpleasantness followed.

Ekins and Tyler later resigned, and their supporters failed to be elected to the Party Council later that year. This was the most serious clash ever between the ‘traditionalist/organiser’ and ‘decentralist’ elements of the Party. It left deep wounds which would flare up again with the Green 2000 initiative a few years later.

On the brighter side, the Party gained an encouraging 6% average vote in the local elections, with John Marjoram and Richard Lawson elected to the District Councils of Stroud and Woodspring. Membership expanded by 16% whilst the public were becoming increasing concerned about environmental issues, particularly following the horrific nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

1987 General election

In the 1987 General Election the Party increased the number of candidates to 133, and slightly increased its vote share over 1983 with 1.3%. Richard Lawson did best with 3.5% in Weston Super Mare. 427 candidates contested the local elections, gaining an overall average of almost 4%.

From 1987-89 membership grew, media interest increased and the Party was running smoothly. Sara Parkin had replaced Porritt as the principal media figure. She was later overshadowed by TV sports presenter David Icke, who joined the Party in 1987, remaining a member until early 1991.

1988 - Gearing up

In 1988 it was decided to put up a full slate of 79 candidates in the European Elections the following year, and the Party began preparations for its biggest and most successful campaign ever. At £1000 per deposit some serious fund raising was necessary.

Almost 400 candidates gained an overall average of 4.14% in the local elections.

1989 - !!!!

In the local elections of May 1989 the Party’s 646 candidates averaged 8.6%, and expectations were high for the European Elections the following month. The Party was aiming at a target of one million votes. To everyone’s amazement the Green vote count was 2,292,695 (14.9% of the vote). The Liberal/SDP Alliance came a poor fourth, whilst in half a dozen seats the Greens came second with around 25% of the vote. The UK Greens won the largest percentage vote achieved by any Green Party to date, but whilst Greens from countries all across the EU were elected to the European Parliament, the lack of PR denied Britain any Green MEPs.

The result had a huge impact on the other parties. The inherently anti-green Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley and his shadow, ‘nuclear’ Jack Cunningham were removed from their jobs, and a sharpening up of their environmental policies was accompanied with concerted campaigns to denigrate the Green Party.

The real backlash after the elections, however, came from the media, who gave the Party unprecedented coverage, generally very negative. At the autumn conference in Wolverhampton over 500 journalists attended, and focused on controversial issues like population reduction and car tax, reporting them in alarmist and misleading ways.

Tensions between the two wings of the Party surfaced with Parkin and Porritt arguing for a coherent strategy and the streamlining of policy presentation and the leadership system. But organisational motions for delegate conferences and pacts with other parties were defeated.

1990 Rising membership - rising tension

Over the next year membership rose to almost 20,000 but the Party was not prepared for such rapid expansion. It lacked the resources, infrastructure and organisational skills to cope with the either the internal or external demands of a Party which, at the beginning of that year was on a level pegging with the Liberal Democrats (both around 5%). But the Green Party had neither the money nor a voice in Westminster and the media had lost interest in them. Lindsay Cooke, one of the team who ran the Euro-election campaign said, "The Green Party had not disappeared, it was simply being ignored by ‘opinion formers’ in what then became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Lack of media attention was probably a blessing during the summer when the Party held a special constitutional EGM in Coventry to debate radical organisational changes. In a bitter exchange between the two wings of the Party, new structures were voted in, but were later invalidated due to inquoracy.

Early in the year the Party was desperately short of money - even the increased level of subscriptions barely covered staff wages and office rent. David Taylor was appointed fund raiser to seek new sources of income, whilst a generous donation eased the problem for a while.

The Party played a prominent role in the anti-Poll Tax campaign with imaginative ideas like the anti-Poll tax cheque books, and supported people who refused to pay.

Jan Clark won a by election and was elected onto Glanford DC in Humberside. The Party fielded the largest number of candidates ever in the local elections - 1,436 of them gained an overall average of 6.5%.

1991 - Green 2000

In 1991 the ‘traditionalist organisers’ in the Party finally achieved the organisational revolution known as Green 2000. Prime movers included Lindsey Cooke, Tim Cooper, Liz Crosbie and Judy Mackiejowska who rallied support for a new streamlined constitution to replace the 30 member ruling Party Council with a 11 member National Executive, and a Regional Council with advisory capabilities.

It was ferociously opposed by decentralists who feared a too powerful Executive but their opponents were very well prepared, and the Green 2000 constitution was adopted at the Autumn conference of 1991 in Wolverhampton.

Over this period the Party made a courageous stand in opposing the Anglo-American led war in the Gulf against Saddam Hussein. Earlier in the year would be spiritual prophet David Icke left the Party in a blaze of negative publicity. The Liberal Democrats had finally overcome their own internal problems and firmly repossessed their position as the third Party, whilst Green Party membership was falling rapidly.

Despite all this, the Party fielded 1,239 candidates in the local elections, won 12 new seats, held another 5 with an average vote of 6%.

In the spirit of decentralisation Scottish members broke away to form their own party.

1992 - No Parkin

The first Executive Committee was dominated by Green 2000 supporters, chaired by Sara Parkin, with Jean Lambert and Richard Lawson filling new positions of male and female Principal Speakers. With a General Election only months away, the new Party structure would be put through the most stringent of tests, with precious little time for preparation.

Contesting the largest number of seats ever in a national election, the Green Party’s 253 candidates faired no better than in previous General Elections, scoring an average of just 1.3%. The best news was the election of CynogDafis, a Plaid Cymru candidate who contested the election on a Plaid Cymru/Green ticket. The Party could claim to have its first (half) MP.

Tactical voting, a resurgent Liberal Democrat Party and a virtual media blackout dissuaded people from voting green, but critics of the new Executive wasted no time heaping the blame on the new body. Not long after the General Election, a recall campaign was enacted against three Executive members, Parkin, Alison Truefitt and David Batchelor, to try and subject them to early elections. Truefitt resigned soon after.

The Executive courted dissent by implementing sweeping changes. They dismissed Press Officer Sue Brown and the popular Campaigns Officer Ron Bailey saying the Party could no longer able to afford them. The Party newspaper Econews was replaced with a more externally focused magazine, Real World, produced by the Executive.

Shortly before the autumn conference Parkin withdrew her name from the Executive elections ballot and in her ‘resignation’ letter included some very scathing remarks about the Party. The letter was prematurely leaked to the press and one of her protagonists unilaterally issued a press release heralding her withdrawal as great news for the Party. The media loved it and the Party received more coverage than the during the entire general election campaign.

An emergency meeting of Regional Council at the autumn conference, a vote to accept her resignation with an admonishment prompted other Executive members to walk out of the conference and ultimately leave the Party. At the same Conference, a decentralist motion removed responsibility for Real World from the Executive, which led to the birth of Green World. Another motion introduced a maximum limit of 3 years consecutive service on the Executive - "to empower members by continually creating gaps to fill" argued its proposers. Others said it would simply ensure that the Party had no coherent face and would stop people voting for us.

1993

Parkin’s withdrawal left one of her greatest critics, John Norris, as the sole candidate for Chair. Ron Bailey joined the Executive as Campaigns Co-ordinator so he could continue his campaigning work and have more control over it. In a similar vein, Sue Brown became External Communications Co-ordinator.

The Party was a very different creature in 1993, having lost a large number of high profile activists that had dominated the Party over the past few years. Membership was falling whilst a group of disillusioned members and ex-members under the banner of Green Realignment were holding meetings to discuss the idea of forming an alternative Green Party. It failed to materialise, largely because both Porritt and Parkin refused to join them and become their figurehead.

Caroline Lucas provided the Party with a boost with her election to Oxfordshire County Council.

1994 Another full slate

By 1994 the Party was beginning to recover from the traumatic events of 1992, although membership was still falling. Ron Bailey’s energetic campaigns department played a vital role in providing local parties with a well-planned, highly organised series of campaigns.

In the local elections John Marjoram was relected to Stroud DC whilst Mike Woodin was elected to Oxford City Council.

Jean Lambert had taken over Chair of the Executive, and despite a greatly depleted activist base, the Party did remarkably well to field another full slate of candidates in the Euro Elections in June. Despite its spectacular result in the previous Euro Elections of 1989, the media virtually ignored the Party and it polled a disappointing 3.4%.

The most encouraging aspect of the post Parkin era was the fact that internal strife and lack of tolerance between members with differing views largely disappeared.

1995 - Turning point

Membership finally stopped falling in 1995, having dropped to less than 3,500. John Morrissey occupied the Chair of the Executive and David Taylor joined Jan Clark as the Principal Speakers.

Evidence of a recovery was reflected in the Party’s local elections performance, fielding the third highest number of candidates ever (1990 and 1991 were higher), winning 8 new seats, holding another 7, and seeing a return to the 1991 level of support despite a massive swing to Labour.

The campaigning skills of Ron Bailey delivered that year, with the enactment of the Green Party’s Home Energy Conservation Bill. It was the first time a non-parliamentary party had got legislation onto the Statute books, the result of 3 years of intensive campaigning, lobbying and coalition building, working very closely with FOE, ACE and Plaid Cymru.

1996

By 1996, although the Party had largely resolved its internal problems, it had virtually disappeared from the public eye, was severely depleted in numbers, and, as ever, was very short of money. However, a new Executive featuring seven women including three in their 20s helped inject new energy and enthusiasm into the Party.

The newly elected Chair, Jenny Jones, became the first person to stay in the position for three consecutive years, and over that period helped provide the party with stability and a more focused approach.

SushilaDhall won a famous by-election to join Caroline Lucas on Oxfordshire County Council.

1997

The media coverage of the Spring Conference of 1997 focused on the idea that the Green Party might not contest the forthcoming general election, accompanied with the regular commentaries about how the Party was a spent force. The Party was seriously discussing its election strategy, acknowledging that it always gets hopelessly squeezed by tactical voting in general elections, losing all of its deposits with under 2% of the vote. After 18 years of Tory misrule, even some of the party’s strongest supporters were likely to vote anti-Tory rather than Green.

In 1992 the Party threw in everything to field the maximum number of candidates, lost all 253 deposits and was left demoralised and broke. In the 1997 general election it was decided to contest enough seats to qualify for a TV broadcast, but to conserve some of its resources for the 1999 Euro Elections which were likely to be run under a proportional representation system if Labour gained power.

In the event the Party fielded 95 candidates, and averaged 1.4%, slightly up on 1992’s 1.3%. In the local elections held on the same day, the Greens’ average was almost 6%.

1997 also saw the enactment of the Party’s third parliamentary Bill - the Road Traffic Reduction Bill, the result of two years of intensive work, predominantly by the Green Party and FoE. However, like the earlier Home Energy Conservation Bill, a Liberal Democrat MP was needed to introduce it to Parliament. In both cases, even though Lib Dem Party members did virtually nothing during the campaign to build the necessary mass support, they stole all the credit and the media portrayed it as a Lib Dem initiative.

Having spent three years as Principal Speaker David Taylor was just beginning to make an impression in the media, but the three year rule obliged him to stand down, to be replaced by Mike Woodin.

Reflections

If the Green Party has one strength it is its resilience. In each stage of its development it has suffered severe setbacks, with the exodus of key activists - "throwing the Party to the Wolves". But each time a new set of people filled the gap, and kept the organisation going.

But a key factor behind this resilience is a core of activists beavering away at the local level, irrespective of what is going on at the centre. Even during some of the most turbulent periods of the Party’s history, successes at local elections were consistently achieved. The Party has as many councillors on principal authorities now as any time in the past, despite a much lower membership than earlier this decade.

There are also, however, unsung heroes at the national level, in particular the Party’s paid staff. John Bishop’s ten years as Office Manager kept the Party’s membership system running efficiently amongst a host of other things during the best and worst of times. Similarly Chris Rose, still going as National Election Agent, has played a crucial role in keeping the Party’s electoral machine going at local and national level.

The Party might look back over the last 25 years and despair at the internal conflicts which have inhibited its progress, but every party experiences such problems, remember how the Liberals and Labour tore themselves apart in recent times. Hopefully the Tories are about to do likewise!

The Green Party has survived, whilst others have come and gone. It has helped inspire a worldwide movement whilst many of its long standing policies, once ridiculed, have become mainstream.

Greens have achieved practical change, especially at the local level, with members on every level of council across the country. They helped to launch the anti-nuclear movement in the 70s and the newly revived anti-nuclear power movement in the 80s. With the latest developments in Germany, the future of the nuclear industry in Europe looks decidedly bleak - thanks to the Greens!

The party has played a significant role in the direct action movement in the 90s, and helped in the elimination of both the Poll Tax and cruise missiles from this country.

It has spawned numerous offshoots, including the Ecology Building Society, Green CND, the Green Gatherings, New Economics Foundation and Radical Routes.

The Party’s policies, especially in the field of economics, have provided a model for Green parties and movements worldwide. (It is often said that the British Greens have been able to develop such detailed and robust policy because they haven’t been distracted by the trappings of power!).

It’s unfortunate that the Party has not had a great deal of support from the wider green movement over the years, especially when contrasted with Germany and France, and the position their Green parties currently enjoy. But even this is beginning to change, particularly with the disappointing performance of a Labour government finally back in power. Hopefully it is true to say "The future looks bright, the future is Green" - to steal a slogan.

1998 and beyond

When it was confirmed in 1997 that the European Elections of 1999 would operate under a system of proportional representation, the Green Party immediately sprung into action. It is an indication of how much the Party has matured that it managed to ratify a controversial candidate selection procedure at its 1997 Autumn conference, and was the first party to announce its regional lists of candidates a few months later.

The Party’s local election results in 1998 augured well for the crucial elections pending in 1999. A countrywide average of over 7% had not been bettered since 1989, whilst the London Greens topped 10%, and saw the election of their first London councillors.

For the first time the Party appointed a full ‘Green Shadow Cabinet’ modelled on the real thing in Westminster.

With the formation of a Red-Green coalition government in Germany, joining France, Italy and Finland, and the Swedes gaining political clout, the tide is finally turning our way.

Peter Barnett, September 1998


 

Sources: main text from word document supplied by Peter Barnett. Produced for 1998 autumn conference and published on the early GP website.
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