Bedeviled by setbacks in the early 1990's, the Green Party has reclaimed some of its lost political territory. The success of its Home Energy Conservation Bill last year demonstrated its ability to campaign on an issue, and in May it increased its small but significant base in local government. With membership around 5000, and an activist hard core of between 500 and 1000, it still occupies some of the moral high ground of environmental politics. But the Greens have not yet really decided what sort of party they want to be.
The Party is most celebrated for its spectacular 15% share of the vote in the 1989 European elections. But a rapid decline in support and membership thereafter fueled a series of internal rows. A major split developed when the Green 2000 grouping, supported by Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin, rewrote the Party rule book and took over the leadership in 1991. The defeat of Green 2000 by the activists and the departure of its key players left the Party battered but intact.
. . .within the fairly conventional structure of the Green Party there is a different kind of party. . .
What Kind of Party?
The thread running through this tale is that within the fairly conventional structure of the Green Party there is a different kind of party trying to get out. Some in the Party still see its future as an orthodox electoral party with a special interest in the environment. Their objective for the Party is that it should be the "political wing of the green movement." Unfortunately the green movement is not as well-defined as it used to be and even if it were clearly identifiable it is not obvious it would require the Green Party as its electoral wing.
. . .coalition-building, from Green Left Convergence to the "Real World" alliance of campaigning groups, is the order of the day.
The alternative is the "coalition-building" approach endorsed by the Party's 1993 Autumn Conference. This is a novel and potentially dangerous route for a political party. But coalition-building, from Green Left Convergence to the "Real World" alliance of campaigning groups, is the order of the day. It recognizes that the future will be built not by one self-proclaimed vanguard achieving supremacy over all the others but by organizations working together and by individuals cooperating across organizational boundaries.
This argument echoes a wider debate about the character of green politics. Is green politics simply about finding better environmental solutions within the existing system? Or is its aim fundamental personal, community, and global transformation? If the latter, what is the relationship of green politics to other radical traditions offering the same, in particular those on the left? Whether the Green Party can resolve these issues will be a test of its intellectual resources and may well determine its continuing relevance.
The 1989 Euro result was exciting but the success was illusory. The Party unwisely based its campaign on soft-focus environmentalism, concealing its more radical social and economic policies. It benefited from a wave of fashionable concern for the environment and a collapse in support for the SDP-Liberal Alliance. (1) But new supporters and recruits found the Party was not what they had been led to believe. When the bubble burst, all that remained were recriminations and the grounds for internal conflict.
The Party unwisely based its campaign on soft-focus environmentalism, concealing its more radical social and economic policies.
The Green Party had run before it had learned to walk. A better picture of its fortunes is shown by its results in local elections. These reached a nadir in 1992. But by 1994 its share of the vote had improved to around 5% and in 1995 and 1996 was much the same. The figures are consistent with experience in Europe, where Green Parties usually poll between 5 and 15%. The Party now has 25 councilors on Principal Authorities and around 100 parish, town, and community councilors. The May 1996 elections saw gains in Oxford, Huddersfield, and Brighton but no increase on the four seats currently held in Stroud.
Partly because of its large student electorate, Oxford is fertile territory. The Party now has a group on both the county and city councils. The vote for Greens across Oxford was, said agent Don Smith, "back up to the level of support we got in the 1989 European election." In Huddersfield, three years of solid community politics enabled candidate Nick Harvey to take Newsome ward from Labor, demonstrating that Tony Blair's party is vulnerable to a credible challenger to its left.
The Green Party has struggled hard and not entirely successfully to shed its image as a single-issue party. This limited success is not surprising, since a conventional party with a special interest in the environment is precisely what was envisaged by its founders in the early 1970's. Their naive belief that the Party would save the planet by the parliamentary route was soon confounded. In the middle of the decade the Party nearly expired for lack of interest.
Right wing takes over
By 1979, thanks to Porritt, Paul Ekins and others, the Party looked like a professional outfit. But the platform remained environmentalist. Standing 50 candidates in that year's general election secured few votes but a Party Election Broadcast and a high media profile. Membership mushroomed from 500 to 5000. But the recruits were not middle-class environmentalists, but libertarians, anarchists, alternative lifestylers, and survivors from the counterculture of the 1960's.
The left-libertarian and decentralist-pressed the importance of social issues, extra-parliamentary and protest politics, and a more experimental and participatory internal party culture.
The Green Party acquired right and left wings. On the larger political map the former are not right-wing at all, but left liberals with a particular concern for the environment. They struggled to maintain the focus on environmentalism, contesting elections, and conventional forms of political organization. The left-libertarian and decentralist-pressed the importance of social issues, extra-parliamentary and protest politics, and a more experimental and participatory internal party culture. For a decade internal arguments simmered but never quite boiled over.
The issue was finally forced by the right wing who, alarmed by the decline in the Party's fortunes after 1989, organized as Green 2000. The battlefield was not the Party's manifesto but its organization. At the 1991 Autumn Conference Green 2000 drove through a series of constitutional reforms, replacing the Party's elaborate national structure with a powerful Executive and a subordinate representative body, the Regional Council. In the succeeding elections to the Executive, Green 2000 won every seat, with Sara Parkin as Chair.
In an attempt to repeat the 1989 success, Green 2000 threw everything at the 1992 general election. Maximizing the number of candidates at any cost overstretched local parties to breaking point. The prepared manifesto was rewritten by Sandy Irvine, now of the splinter group the Campaign for Political Ecology, to emphasize its environmentalism. But the Green Party never polls well in general elections and once again it barely registered. Many activists considered the campaign a disaster.
The newsletter The Way Ahead and activists previously identified with the Association of Socialist Greens took issue with the Executive, arguing for a more radical political agenda, a focus on local campaigning and community politics, and a party culture based on activist participation. Whereas they focused on developing the arguments, a group of activists from the Party's center led by Mallen Baker took upon itself the task of removing Green 2000 from the Executive.
Their approach was to harry the leadership at every opportunity until its members simply gave up in despair and quit. The tactic succeeded. A few weeks before the 1992 Autumn Conference and the end of its term of office the Executive crumbled, then collapsed. Humiliated at the Conference, with much recrimination, its members departed, mostly into obscurity. Since then the balance between left and right on the Executive has been finely poised. Parkin was followed as Chair first by John Norris, from the left, then by Jean Lambert, a former supporter of Green 2000, then by myself, another leftist. Although the left has been well represented on the Executive throughout, only in 1994-1995 did it enjoy a working majority. The current Executive displays a slight tilt back to the right and its Chair, Jenny Jones, is an erstwhile Parkin supporter.
Following the Green 2000 debacle the Regional Council attempted to pull the threads together. Their consultation of the membership was followed by the endorsement of a strategy document by the 1993 Autumn Conference. This, representing the Green Party's "new direction," contained something for everyone and not all its recommendations have been followed. But for the first time the Party has a political strategy, democratically agreed.
The Party's flagship campaign, a parliamentary bill to promote energy conservation, neatly married environmentalism with ending fuel poverty and creating jobs.
As well as endorsing coalition-building, the paper stressed that "Having won recognition for its strong environmental policies, the Green Party must now demonstrate the link between these and the Green social and economic agenda." The Party's flagship campaign, a parliamentary bill to promote energy conservation, neatly married environmentalism with ending fuel poverty and creating jobs. The 1994 European election manifesto attacked free trade and the European Single Market and argued for subsidiarity and local economic self-reliance.
Ironically, those who engineered Parkin's departure themselves became disenchanted and quit. Baker was elected to the 1992-3 Executive as a Principal Speaker, together with Ray Georgeson as Elections Coordinator and Sue Brown in charge of External Communications. It seems their quarrel with Green 2000 had been based on personalities rather than political direction, since they pressed for a very similar approach. In particular they argued for an exclusive focus on the 1994 European Elections.
The Party's relatively weak showing in those elections appears to have been responsible for their disillusionment. In fact, the result was not too bad; all 84 seats were contested, the Party's average vote was 3.2% and three deposits were saved. Baker is now prominent on the environmentalist wing of the Liberal Democrats, although he has encountered difficulty promoting his new party in view of the local Lib Dem MP's support for the Newbury bypass.
. . .the Party draft its own legislation, lobby to build support for it, and, with the help of sympathetic MP's, steer it through parliament.
Because it lacks parliamentary representation, the Green Party finds it difficult to make its voice heard in national political debate. Campaigns Coordinator Ron Bailey devised the wheeze that the Party draft its own legislation, lobby to build support for it, and, with the help of sympathetic MP's, steer it through parliament. The Energy Conservation Bill was introduced to parliament in 1993 by Cynog Dafis MP, elected on a joint Plaid Cymru/Green ticket the previous year. (2)
The campaign was prioritized by the Executive, not least because it would give activists demoralized by the Green 2000 affair something on which to focus. Members obtained pledges of support from numerous local authorities and MP's. Organizations declaring support ranged from Friends of the Earth to the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association. Opposition from the government was overcome, the Bill was later adopted by Liberal Democrat MP Diana Maddock and it became law in 1995.
The tactic did not lack opponents. Radicals argued that the Bill was weak and reformist. Diehard electoralists believed the Party should give priority to elections, not behave like an ersatz Friends of the Earth. Bailey himself lost some support due to his inability to submit to the discipline of collective working. But the Party is trying again. Last year a Road Traffic Reduction Bill was introduced to parliament, again by Cynog Dafis.
The Welsh MP was also at the center of an episode which showed that coalition building at the electoral level can create serious difficulties. The local Green Party in Ceredigion, the constituency in the far west of Wales centered on Aberystwyth, sought an alliance with Plaid Cymru. The result was the election of Dafis on a joint platform. This was hailed as a triumph for a new kind of politics, based on cooperation between parties not competition.
But this enthusiasm was not shared by the rest of the Wales Green Party. Although Dafis has green credentials, such are not shared by the whole of Plaid Cymru. Green Parties locked in electoral combat with Plaid in their localities found the Ceredigion arrangements profoundly damaging. They questioned whether nationalism, Plaid Cymru's raison d'etre, could be reconciled with green politics. The issue grumbled on for years, paralyzing the Green Party in Wales.
The situation was resolved when opponents of pacts with Plaid, led by anti-nuclear campaigner Chris Busby, mounted a guerrilla raid into Aberystwyth and set up a separate Green Party. This peculiar arrangement, two local Green Parties competing on the same territory, was permissible under the Party's rules. An exasperated Dafis finally pulled the plug on the alliance with Ceredigion Green Party and the arrangement came to an end.
Again, What kind of party?
The Green Party's concern for social justice, cooperative economic structures, and small-scale common ownership identifies it as a party of the left. Most members believe the Green vision is not compatible with capitalism, although some departed leading members, including Porritt, choose to believe it is. The Party is itself a coalition between its environmentalist and electoralist right wing and a left which is libertarian and anarchistic. The former is comfortable with the traditional party form and conventional political activity. The latter could have rejected the idea of party altogether but has instead tried to reinvent it. As a result, the Party's national committees have almost no power to instruct the local parties to do anything. Candidate selection is entirely a local matter. Decisions are usually made by whichever activists turn up to a meeting to make them. The Party Conference supposedly consists of representatives of local parties, but in practice almost any member who attends is allowed to vote.
But political parties traditionally do not enter into alliances. They compete, not cooperate.
Greens want a party, since that maximizes their opportunity to engage with national political debate. Even in our degraded democracy, winning elections is still important. But as a party of the conventional kind promoting the environmentalist agenda, the Green Party's future is limited. The political instincts of many activists lead them elsewhere. And the system can always neutralize the Greens by taking on board their more attractive policies in emasculated form.
The declared policy of coalition-building could lead the Greens in a more interesting direction. The Energy Conservation Act was a useful start, albeit on a very specific issue. Green Left Convergence promises collaboration over a much wider range. But political parties traditionally do not enter into alliances. They compete, not cooperate. Nevertheless, the Greens' coalition building policy must at some stage entail electoral collaboration. As the experience in Ceredigion shows, there are as yet no models for that.
1. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was a right-wing split from the Labor Party in the early 1980s. It formed an alliance with the (center) Liberal Party which contested the 1987 general election but didn't do very well. The two parties then merged to form the Liberal Democrats. The irony is that Labour has now moved so far to the right that on most issues the Liberal Democrats are well to its left!
2. The Welsh nationalist party -- its name literally translates as "the Welsh party." Its central demand is for Welsh self-government.