9 Oct 2006

A short history of the Green Party of England and Wales

Wrote this back in 1993, I think my thoughts and style have changed, as the official party history, now I am going to make it open source, so creative commons license applicable (i.e. don't enclose and sell!), you can read, critique and copy....we are in the early 1970s in the West Midlands and yes the Goldsmiths', well Zac's uncle Teddy is about to join PEOPLE...which became the Ecology Party, then the Green Party...things have changed in some respects but not in others.

References later, there is some good academic stuff like Wolfgang Rudig and Phillip Lowe's The Withered Greening of British Politics, I will reference in later blog entries (Greens are a bit refreshed since they wrote it!)

Chapter One – Some PEOPLE in Coventry

Section one

The Green Party was originally called PEOPLE, before becoming the Ecology Party, then the Green Party, PEOPLE was founded in 1973 and was conditioned by a wave of concern about ecology. Scientific reports, TV shows, books like Paul Ehrlich's 'The Population Bomb' and the creation of environmental pressure groups like Friends of the Earth in the late 1960s and 1970s all feed environmental concern. While leftists and hippies were going green, much of this concern was from those who were on the right of politics and interestingly our Party was founded by ex-Conservatives.

One December 6th, 1973, The Guardian reported the birth of a new party known simply as PEOPLE. This new political movement had the remarkable objective not of increased prosperity for all but instead of slower economic growth “or better still no growth at all”. The PEOPLE manifesto stated boldly that they sought “a transition to a stable society in which people and places matter, which recognises that the Earth’s resources are limited and that we must learn to live as part of nature, not as its master”. Such a message was far from popular in the early 1970s and PEOPLE had to battle hard to survive, let along propagate its ideology of ecology. An early supporter, watching its modest progress with admiration, argued, “Whatever may be its failings, it is impossible to over-emphasise the importance of the simple fact that it exists” [1]. Since the late 1960s, ecological concern had been growing and a wide variety of groups and individuals had concluded that an ecological political party was necessary. Biologists, such as Professor Barry Commoner and the Ehrlichs, believed that to solve environmental problems, fundamental political change was necessary. A British academic, Owen, concluded his book on the environmental crisis with the following bleak statement:

“Sustained economic growth is the goal of all governments, both Left and Right wing, in both developed and under-developed countries, and although a diverse array of people have come to realise that, in order to survive, growth must be controlled, there is, at the moment, no political party in the world that would adopt this as its manifesto and expect to come to power by either democratic or other means”. [2]

With the formation of PEOPLE in February 1973, one such party did exist but its chances of gaining power were, admittedly, slim. Direct inspiration, with what in retrospect is a huge dollop of irony for a Party later claiming to be feminist (as well as green), came from an article in Playboy [3]. Coventry solicitor Tony Whittacker picked up a copy in 1972, only to be drawn to an interview with Paul Ehrlich, who argued that population was growing rapidly, famines were on the horizon and that the prosperity enjoyed by many would inevitably destroy the Earth’s finely balanced life support system. Whittacker became a very worried man.
“Profoundly affected” to see his fears for the future put down in cold print, he was roused to action [Interview with DW]. With his partner Lesley and eleven like-minded friends, they set up the ‘Club of Thirteen’ to discuss their fears. An initial meeting, on the 13th November 1972, was held in the Napton Bridge public house, a few miles from the Whittackers’ cottage home. Later, meetings were held in the canteen and boardroom of Herbert Ingersoll Ltd., whose personnel officer, Bob Richley, had borrowed Playboy and become involved. The last of these meetings was attended by the receivers, who had come to close down the company. “What else do you do in Daventry”, argued Tony, “when wrapping up one of the most exciting machine tool operations ever to have been put together in this country’s industrial history?” [4]. Europe had come to the end of the long post-War boom, Keynesian prosperity was threatened by energy crisis and stagflation (the pernicious combination of economic stagnation and rising inflation) was eroding the old certainties.
For the middle-class would-be founders of PEOPLE, living in a region based on a rapidly eroding engineering industry, social as well as ecological survival was on the agenda. “Britain in the early 1970s was being widely compared to the Weimar Republic of Germany in the later 1920s. The imminent economic crisis, the permissiveness of Soho, the new blunt power of the trade unions, inflation, the impotence of government – there was a sense of the brink, of instability and of fears of frightful collapse” [5].
The theme of survival marked the bleak evolution of Green politics in the early 1970s. Sunflowers, optimism and even the colour green were to come later. The ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967, the world shattering conflicts of 1968 (from Vietnam to Paris), the revolution of values brought about during the 1960s amongst the young, although later influences, were not yet significant for Party development. Freaks, hippies, street farmers and communards were to talk ecology but, until later in the decade, they remained outside of the political ecology movement. Oz magazine reported on the conference of the Freaks United Party, hoping to form “the first alternative government in Britain” in 1988. Curiously, they developed many policies close to those of our present Green Party, including:

“Elimination of pollution and all anti-environmental practices… All transport will be free. The petrol engine car will be outlawed and replaced with a comprehensive railway and tram system supplemented by low cost electric vehicles available to all… Abolition of all forms of sexism, racism and ageism… The breaking down of large groups of states into areas of regional identification”. [6]

The hippies’ optimism was not matched by the early political ecologists of the 1970s. The Ecologist published a cartoon book entitled The Doomsday Fun Book. Television series of the period included Kit Pedler’s Doomwatch, where, week-by-week, scientists uncovered horror stories of pollution, mutation and eco-terror in a science fiction context. BBC1’s Survivors, starting John Abineri (later the Ecology Party member who first proposed the name change to ‘the Green Party’!), described Britain after a plague holocaust that had reduced the population to a few thousand. The dominant feeling amongst many, especially in rapidly de-industrialising regions, such as the West Midlands, was one of vague fear enhanced, if not inspired, by media coverage of industrial unrest, social conflict and ecological problems. The alternative to some was The Good Life of Surbiton self-sufficiency and its political equivalent.
The founders of PEOPLE believed that the collapse of society was imminent unless swift action was taken. “I would have said, if you had asked where would the party be in twenty years back in 1972, that, if it hadn’t achieved Government by that time, time would have run out”, claimed Tony in 1990 [Interview with DW]. Lesley Whittacker agreed: “at that point… we would have all had said the same, and this is why we made the statement that we wanted six hundred candidates. We were trying to get over the urgency. The Playboy article was about how Paul Ehrlich decided to give two years to green issues and, if he couldn’t persuade the world to listen in that time, he was going to go and do what he could for his family” [7]. Radical action could only be achieved by gaining a majority of Westminster seats or strongly influencing a governing party. Although the collapse did not occur and ecological problems have become severe, the Party is still here.

In 1972, PEOPLE had not yet been born and the Whittackers were learning rapidly about both ecology and politics. “We discovered the Blueprint for Survival, The Ecologist magazine and Teddy Goldsmith”. The ‘Club of Thirteen’ contained others equally as worried and inspired as Tony and Lesley, including their friend Mike Benfield, a Coventry estate agent, his assistant Freda Saunders and Walter Longcraft-Neal, a former fighter pilot. Local businessman Keith Hudson, later to play a key role advising David Owen in the SDP, was an early supporter and published the journal Towards Survival. Keith impressed the Whittackers. “He was way ahead of us and introduced us to the forthcoming oil crisis, which it is now said no responsible Government could possibly have foreseen” [Interview with DW]. Keith helped draft early Party manifestos and Towards Survival was mailed free to members. But, in 1972, both Keith and a majority of the Thirteen opposed forming a political party. “The ‘Club of Thirteen’ evaporated. Lesley, Michael, Freda, myself, Graham [another Ingersoll ex-employee] and Walter remained. Keith was against political involvement. He considered it premature”. The Whittackers pressed ahead, finding, to their surprise, that there were no legal requirements necessary to establish a Party (this has changed since!). They simply placed an advertisement in the Coventry Evening Standard on January 31st 1973, proclaiming the existence of PEOPLE and asking for members willing to stand as candidates.

An inaugural meeting, held on the 19th March in Benfield’s office, attracted over fifty people. Clive Lord, a probation officer, came all the way from Leeds. Having read Blueprint for Survival, he supported the new Party, which based its beliefs on the document, without reservation. The meeting continued in a mood of mounting excitement and after its close the Whittackers, Benfield and Freda Saunders celebrated. After midnight, Mike phoned the Playboy headquarters in Chicago to tell them the good news and ask if they would fund the first Green Party in the Northern hemisphere. They politely declined.

A logo was designed by Ron Long of Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry with Green values in mind. “Hair [the controversial nude stage play] was very popular and the Age of Aquarius was on everybody’s lips. The logo was a globe with lines of longitude and latitude. Across it was a wave, the symbol of the zodiac indicating Aquarius… Our colours were Aquarian turquoise for the sea and coral, which was supposed to be a gentle colour that would initiate action in people”, noted Lesley.

Contact was made with Goldsmith, who agreed to merge Movement for Survival with PEOPLE. Tony describes what happened:

“Blueprint was pivotal. We knew it was coming out and we kept trying to get it from W.H. Smiths. It showed that others felt there was a need for political expression and in the back of Blueprint, it asked people to get in touch to try and get a Movement for Survival going. This wasn’t exactly a political party – it aimed to be some kind of group of like-minded people. Goldsmith was being flooded with ideas, contacts and people and he didn’t know what to do about it. And then he got these two solicitors in Coventry who had an office organisation, who wrote things down in lists and sorted them out. He was tickled pink. He asked us to contact all the people on the list and seen what we could do with them. I can’t say we converted much hard interest from these people. The politics frightened them”.

Goldsmith’s influence shaped PEOPLE. Originally, he was to have written their first Manifesto for a Sustainable Society. Sadly, this was not to be. “He went to Tuscany for three months to do it. But there was a postal strike and nobody could contact Teddy to remind him about deadlines and neither could he get anything out… We spoke to Ruth Lumley-Smith of the Ecologist and she said ‘I doubt he has done it, frankly. Its one of those things that seemed a good idea at the time but he probably hasn’t got round to it’”. Marx had similar problems with the Communist Manifesto and only completed the document after some bullying from Engels. Despite problems with the Manifesto, Blueprint for Survival was used as the basis for the Party platform and Goldsmith’s problems and prejudices were to dominate the organisation until the 1979 General Election, giving it a strong yet controversially unique ideological base.
Membership grew and by 1974, when the first Manifesto appeared, it included groups of supporters from Cornwall to Inverness. But while PEOPLE gained initial strength in both ideas and activist, the Whittackers were to find it easier to found a Party than to keep it going. The wave of environmental concern during the early 1970s peaked in 1972 and declined sharply as the economic crisis became more severe. Organising an effective national Party is a difficult task and sustaining it without access to the mass media is always frustrating. Another obstacle was opposition from many environmentalists. With the almost sole exception of Goldsmith, prominent activists and thinkers were hostile to the formation of an ecology party. In Germany, Die Grunen was formed after citizens’ campaign groups and the anti-nuclear movement united to build a grassroots party. In France, an Ecologist candidate for the 1974 Presidential Election attracted support from many academics an over a hundred local ecology societies [8]. In Britain, such support was not forthcoming. Like Goldsmith, PEOPLE made the tactical mistake of investing virtually all of their energy and finance in organising a conference to bring together all of the UK’s major environmental groups. Despite a mailing sent to virtually every local Friends of the Earth, Conservation Society, Ramblers Association and Vegetarian group, bookings remained in merely double figures. The Conference was cancelled but a leaflet put together by Benfield illustrates the ambitious thinking behind this two-day ‘Survival’ event. A jigsaw with lost pieces marked with the names of such diverse organisations as the Conservation Society, CND, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Friends of the Earth and Towards Survival decorated the booking form. The Conference was to have included films of an interview with Paul Ehrlich, who inspired the project, and veteran community activist Saul Alinsky, as well as workshops on economics and ecology with advice on establishing local PEOPLE branches. For its founders, the Party, like Goldsmith’s earlier Movement for Survival, was intended to act “as the glue to the splintered environmental movement and people dissatisfied with old-style politicians” [9]. The jigsaw conference leaflet claimed boldly that “PEOPLE with field 600+ candidates at the next General Election”.
Despite the Conference failure, ten constituency groups were active by May 1973 and both the 1974 General Elections were contested by a sprinkling of PEOPLE candidates. By the start of 1974, approximately a hundred members had joined. Five candidates stood in the February election plus two affiliates (an independent in Birmingham Northfield and a PEOPLE/Agrarian in Hornchurch). Lesley Whittacker achieved the best result with 3.9% in Coventry North West, while a second Coventry candidate, Warwick University Technician Alan Pickard, polled well with 2.8% (1,332 votes). Both were helped by the absence of Liberal candidates. Clive Lord stood against Keith Joseph, the monetarist guru, in Leeds North-East and fought a strong campaign.

Keith Joseph was a big political figure at the time, he was one of Mrs Thatcher's mentors, helping to shift the Conservative Party to the right. In particular in promoted the neo-liberal free market economics that have been dominant in Britain since the 1970s. As a monetarist he was obssessed with fighting inflation by cutting the money supply. To cut the money supply, Thatcher tried to cut government spending...one wag defined monetarism as the 'the unspeakable in pursuit of the unmeasurable'

The University Conserv-action Society supplied student helpers but, despite their efforts, Clive collected a mere 300 votes. A candidate in Liverpool West Derby gained equally few votes.

Edward Goldsmith decided to contest his father’s old constituency in East Anglia, but, alas, the seat, vacated by Major Goldsmith in 1918, had been removed by subsequent boundary changes. The nearest equivalent, Eye, was chosen, and Michael Ash, a practising witch, was picked as agent.

Goldsmith contacted Ecologist subscribers in the area, who turned out to be, in his opinion, “hippies” [Interview with DW]. Right-wing zoo owner John Aspinall supported the campaign, supplying dozens of canvassers drawn from his London casino. Goldsmith disguised his mainly longhaired student supporters as Arabs and borrowed a camel from Aspinall to launch a highly visual assault on the soil erosion, which to this day is turning Sudbury into a region of the Sahara.
Goldsmith’s campaign leaflet, a loosely written 3,000 word document, created controversy and alienated some natural supporters. International Times magazine suggested wrongly that PEOPLE was financed by Sir James Goldsmith’s Cavenham Foods Company. The alternative technology journal Undercurrents noted with great sarcasm, “the Richard Wilson who provided an amusing little picture for the front cover of Aims of Industry’s high-Tory, smash-the-miners pamphlet entitled ‘Reds under the Bed?’ is surely unconnected with the Richard Wilson who regularly draws cartoons for the well-known Cornish anti-capitalist monthly The Ecologist”. Undercurrents backed another green candidate, Susan Inkster of the Diggers Party, in Cambridge [10]. A student green magazine, Aether, described PEOPLE as ‘Conservative Anarchists, in spite of the apparent contradiction of that label... The first thing that Goldsmith’s handout stressed was that his father, Major Goldsmith OBE, had been Conservative MP for Stowmarket”, noting that there was “nothing to be proud of there”. The leaflet contained “a long harangue against growth, centralisation, pollution and industrialisation which is on the whole agreeable but interspersed by very Conservative statements amongst the prophecies of doom”, including attacks on women who worked and thus neglected “essential maternal duties” and the “all pervasive welfare state” that “mollycoddles the population”, as well as support for the family unity as a means of discouraging crime and dissent. Aether, as well many far from radical environmentalists, Goldsmith’s ideas conjured up “a vision of a parochial conservative society where the strong survive and the weak perish, rather than a cooperative decentralised society where mutual aid benefits all” .
In Goldsmith’s defence, we must note that he has supported the dispossessed and the oppressed – before his election campaign, for example, he helped to found Survival International with Robin Hanbury Tennison. Nevertheless, Goldsmith’s views caused disquiet and almost certainly damaged PEOPLE’s ability to gain support. Aether’s analysis summed up the views of many concerned with alternative technology, decentralisation and the environment:

Creditable though it might be to set up an environmental party, anyone who thinks of supporting the PEOPLE party should look behind the slogans and read very carefully what they are arguing for; whether they are a force for social change or for social conservatism in highly dubious” [11].

The first and most violent split in the Party’s history occurred when more radical members joined and attended the post-election June ’74 Conference. The Whittackers and Benfield were former activists in the Conservative Party: Tony was an ex-councillor and Lesley the daughter of a Conservative mayor of Coventry. Clive Lord remembers the contest to ratify the first Manifesto for Survival as a “blood bath”, thus “there was out right confrontation between those coming into the Party from the Left and those seen as being in control on the platform” [12].
Peter Allen, representing the radicals, bluntly argued that there was:

“A feeling by the Whittackers that the long-haired yobbos had come down from the North to take over the Party. Lesley was very resentful of our mutilation of her manifesto… On immigration, they wanted a total ban and financial incentives for people to repatriate. We thought they were racist… On education, they wanted children to go into apprenticeships, as their idea was to reduce the school leaving age. Lesley’s original manifesto sounded very right wing and our objective was to soften it”. [13]

Such conflict left the Party ill prepared for a second General Election in October 1974, although an updated manifesto was amended and ratified by the seventy members present.
Five constituencies were contested in October but the average vote fell to just 0.7%. The Liberals fought Coventry North-West and Lesley’s vote fell sharply. None of the other candidates ran strong campaigns. Norma Russell gained 327 votes in Leeds East and Elizabeth Davenport 356 in Birmingham Northfield. Two PEOPLE and Agrarian candidates in Essex did a little better – Ben Percy-Davis attracted 1.8% in Hornchurch and L. Sampson gained 0.5%


peter said...

That's one of the best green election posters I've seen. I know Jonathan Tyler from the York local party and I have a lot of admiration for him. He is an excellent and erudite speaker who can be relied upon for good counsel.
I really enjoyed reading your article, and I find it constantly amusing that the roots of our 'right on' party go back to some former conservatives reading an article in Playboy magazine. There's an important lesson there for us all.

Anonymous said...

I'm not by any stretch of the imagination a Green, but that is an excellent piece of political history, and much kudos to you for putting it in the public domain. Congratulations.

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