Walsall North was not the most obvious constituency for the Party’s first by-election, but happenstance made it so. In September 1975 a small band of early members had met in Coventry and changed our name from PEOPLE to the Ecology Party. The word ‘ecology’ was barely emerging from specialist scientific usage and some academic colleagues disapproved of us adopting it. In retrospect, it well reflected the coming natural crisis.
The Party was largely dormant in the following months, but we met again in Sheffield in September 1976. By that time there was much excitement because the Labour MP for Walsall North (John Stonehouse) had staged his disappearance and been ejected from the Commons on charges of fraud. A by-election loomed.
The Party was in a mood to show its colours following its appearance in the two 1974 General Elections. I was asked to chair the then National Executive and to contest Walsall North – because it was there. We had no presence in the community, and it was only feasible because I was fairly close by at Birmingham University as the British Rail Lecturer. Both the University Department and BR were surprised, especially when the cartoonist Richard Willson drew a poster of me astride the new and iconic High Speed Train. The people of Walsall were perhaps even more bemused when Teddy and Kathy Goldsmith, Nicholas Hildyard and David Taylor arrived on the scene, latter pair fly-posting the cartoon at night.
We produced a leaflet for the Royal Mail Freepost delivery, but the rules then required individual addressing – a huge task diligently undertaken at our dining table by Steve and Jean Lambert. We did manage some canvassing. This proved a salutary introduction to the lives and interests of Walsallians: my very first call met with the response “all I want is a good f***…”, but another house became our unofficial committee room.
The count was troubling. The Conservatives overturned the majority of the decent Labour candidate David Winnick and the National Front came fourth. The Ecology Party won 181 votes, coming eighth, ahead of the maverick Bill Boaks.
But we were there, and 181 people understood our point. Less than three years later we were ready for the 1979 General Election. I was cautious, but we rose to the challenge of finding 50 candidates to qualify for a broadcast. In Birmingham Edgbaston against the redoubtable Dame Jill Knight I garnered a satisfying 852 votes.
19 September 2023