7 Nov 2006

The Ecology Party in the early 1980s

“We must be brave because it is only when we are prepared to get arrested for our beliefs that people will sit up and take notice. Through direct action we shall see the real nature of the nuclear state; the cloak of public enquiries will be thrown aside and its teeth will be drawn. Direct action is the cutting edge of change.”

Don't worry only four chapters in total, although I stop in 1993! The Party grew from the 1979 General Election and then virtually collapsed.

The Party entered the 1980s in an optimistic mood. At the first Spring Policy Conference, held in Manchester in 1980, Porritt, then chair of the Party’s National Council, announced with a note of near euphoria that membership had risen from 500 to 5,000 in a year.

The number of ECO branches was now 192, giving credence to his claim that the Ecology Party was the fastest growing party in the UK. He revealed plans to increase membership to 20,000 over six months and “to achieve a level of visibility in the press and media such as to force an ecological perspective to the forefront of the political debate” [6]. The General Election gamble had worked and the Party was growing rapidly. In June 1979, Mike Benfield in the West Midlands, Goldsmith in Cornwall and Porritt in the Central London constituency picked up nearly 4% of the vote in the European Elections. The fifty-three General Election candidates had brought in over 40,000 votes – an encouraging total for an essentially new party, with only a few hundred members, contesting a system without proportional representation, during a fierce battle that was won by Mrs Thatcher.
Modest success spurred on policy development. The UK’s fourth largest party needed, it was thought, an extensive manifesto. Thus, the Spring Conference included voting papers on animal rights, education, employment and health. Numerous discussion papers were presented including one with the intriguing title ‘A Recession Can Be Fun’ from Clive Lord, outlining his plans for a Basic Income Scheme along with other imaginative solutions to unemployment. The eco-socialist ‘Multi-Coloured Ecology’ group circulated a newsletter calling for the Party to look to its roots in the politics of William Morris, the Romantic Poets and the Diggers. A decentralist faction, ‘Ecology and Organisation’, produced literature drawing attention to “bureaucratic tendencies” that they feared were taking control. A minor organisational and constitutional argument was to ensue. Econews editor Peter Frings asked whether the National Executive Committee had not been

“… afflicted with a collective form of tunnel vision. How else can one explain the fact that they are attempting to resolve the problems of the Party solely in terms of economic efficiency? What about costs of centralization, most of which cannot be totted up on a bureaucratic balance sheet?” [7]

Decentralists were worried about suggestions that a central office should be set up in London. They feared that this would lead to the establishment of a national bureaucracy and would model the Party fundamentally. Others argued that without effective national organisation, the Party would be unable to fulfil the promise of its modest General Election success and increased membership. “The choice now facing us is whether we are to take an effective part in the politics of the nation, or whether we shall be satisfied with a worthwhile non-polluting leisure active for a tiny minority of aware middle-class people”, argued Fleming. Without the London office, he continued, the Party would be “doomed” [8].
Fleming won the debate and a modest office was established in the home of Paul Ekins, who volunteered his services as an assistant press secretary. Yet Executive decisions to elect a single leader and end the three year rule were thrown out by the Autumn 1979 Conference in a decentralist spirit.

The Autumn Conference decision to strip the Executive of powers to present motions to the Party showed that new political sensibilities were growing amongst the Ecology grassroots.
Despite the creation of a national office in London, the decentralist spirit was gaining ground, reflecting a third shift in Party politics. If Goldsmith had pioneered ecological politics in the 1970s, and if Porritt and Fleming had given this politics an organised and human form, a new generation was now to supply the Party with a radical and, for some, a rather challenging approach. From 1980 onwards, the Party has, in Petra Kelly’s words, been very largely an “anti-party Party”. The membership expansion saw a massive increase in younger supporters and radicals. Those who were to power the peace, animal rights and women’s movements of the 1980s were joining ECO is disproportionate numbers.
Many of the new ECO members and most of its growing number of activists saw political activity differently to Porritt et al. Rejecting necessary organisational niceties, they may be accused of naïveté; nevertheless, while practising a Green lifestyle and extending the strategy of the Party, they were an asset without measure. The Post-1968 generation had come to ECO. Brig Oubridge, Maggie Lomas and Sid Rawle of Tepee Valley in West Wales joined at this time and held views broadly representative of many new ECO activists who lived within four walls. Long standing radical members from the South West, such as Peter Frings and David Taylor, initially created much of the controversy, calling for empowerment politics, community action, non-violent direct action (NVDA) and coalition building to create a Green movement outside of Westminster. Opposing what they perceived as centralising moves, they clashed with traditionalists and made common cause with the new wave. The social and political differences between the decentralists, who looked to cultural change, and traditionalists, who concentrated on the efficient construction of a parliamentary road to Ecotopia, were to mark the Party for the rest of the ‘80s.
Support for direct action was controversial. Brian Kingzett, the Welsh representative on the NEC, saw it as “the slippery slope”:

“How can a group, dedicated to gaining the authority to change the laws of the country, be seen to be flouting the law without surrendering all credibility as a serious political force?” [9]

David Taylor, whose legendary Bath Anti-Nuclear Group sabotaged and eventually stopped nuclear waste dumping from the port of Sharpness, stated in response:

“We must be brave because it is only when we are prepared to get arrested for our beliefs that people will sit up and take notice. Through direct action we shall see the real nature of the nuclear state; the cloak of public enquiries will be thrown aside and its teeth will be drawn. Direct action is the cutting edge of change.”

Taylor and other ECO activists had built scaffolding towers on the railway line carrying nuclear waste trains to the river Severn, risking possible injury and long prison terms.
A gentler part of the cultural shift came with the first Green Gathering at Worthy Farm, Pilton, in Somerset, a site better known for hosting the Glastonbury Music Festival. It was proposed at the Spring Conference, which rejected it after an emotive debate in which Sid Rawle proposed “no confidence” in Porritt’s chairing, accusing him of bias. Despite the vote, the Summer Gathering in July 1980 was to be the first of many. Six hundred people took part; there were numerous debates on strategy, lifestyle and politics. An ECO peace group, later to become Green CND, was established and children played on the famous anti-nuclear scaffolding. The Autumn Conference and AGM held in September 1980 in Cardiff were influenced by this new cultural mood. Sid Rawle, former Slough park keeper, former Young Communist League activist, organiser of the Windsor Free Festival, recipient of an island off the west coast of Ireland from John Lennon and later defender of Stonehenge, was very much in evidence. Described at an earlier Keele conference as “living propaganda for the ecological cause”, he was elected on to the new National Council (previously the NEC). The Revd. R. Mayles, known affectionately as Rick the Vic, made an eloquent speech in support of the legalisation of cannabis, a controversial policy accepted by Conference. The three-year rule meant Porritt was replaced by Gundula Dorey, a probation officer and zoology graduate from Bristol, as the new Council Chair.
The new Council had to deal with a number of difficult issues. The initial optimism of 1979 and 1980 was fast shrinking. Media interest was focusing on Roy Jenkins’s possible plans to create a new centre Party with his dissident Labour colleagues. Recession was biting and unemployment was rising towards the three million mark; ecology and zero growth were far from attractive concerns to most voters. Success had created its own failure. A ten-fold increase in membership in a short period had created great stress. The Party did not have the ability to effectively service new members and its reliance on volunteer administrators simply did not work. Between 1973 and the early 1980s, the Party employed no paid helpers or employees. Regional organisation was patchy and administration became a hit-and-miss affair. According to Paul Ekins, now National Secretary, many of the new regions were in “totally predictable turmoil”. He appealed for help from members with “an organised mind and a spare evening a week”. Soon, membership was to fall as drastically as it had risen.
Parliamentary by-election results in 1980 ranged from a nearly acceptable 600 votes in South-West Hertfordshire, to humiliating scores in Manchester and Glasgow. Throughout the Party’s existence, it is fair to say that such by-elections have produced the worst set of results and European Elections the best, irrespective of wider circumstances. Local elections have almost always been as encouraging as by-elections have been depressing. The 1980 local elections saw the Party gain an average of 5% across the country – very encouraging in contrast to the by-election disasters.
1981 started with a new national office in Clapham and the rudiments of effective organisation, thanks mainly to Paul Ekins. An office assistant was appointed and paid the princely sum of £25 an hour. Sadly, February 1981 saw an attack on Ekins home in Battersea. A spokesperson for the neo-Nazi paramilitary group Column 88 claimed responsibility:

“We attacked the home of one of your members last night because he is standing against a right-wing candidate in the Greater London Council elections. If this candidate does not stand down he will be wasted” [10].

This sinister threat was not carried out, although Ekins did oppose a National Front candidate. In 1983, an allegedly ‘eco-fascist’ faction took control of the Front but took relatively little interest, thankfully, in ECO. May 1981 saw over 270 local election candidates nationwide. Jeremy Faull was elected with 50.1% of the vote, scraping back into his Cornish seat. The results were poor in London but better in rural areas.
1981 saw the launch of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the beginning of the end for the Porritt/Fleming dream.

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