Green Party Origins

In the beginning the party referred to itself as a political ‘movement’ rather than a ‘party’, and its identity was shaped by the merging of two organisations.

The first of these was PEOPLE, assembled in late 1972 and officially launched in February 1973. Founding members Lesley and Tony Whittaker, Michael Benfield and Freda Sanders, known as the Gang of Four, took their inspiration from a report entitled The Limits to Growth, (1972) commissioned by the Club of Rome (a thinktank of scientists, economists, industry and politicians). This document explored various growth scenarios which mostly ended in economic and societal collapse during the 21st century.  (Interestingly a 2008 study into the report by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, incorporating actual data of changes to the world since 1972, came to the same conclusions).

The second organisation, the Movement for Survival, was set up by Teddy Goldsmith to campaign on the issues raised in A Blueprint for Survival, a special edition of the Ecologist magazine (Vol.1 No.2 January 1972). Endorsed by top scientists of the time, it sold three quarters of a million copies worldwide. It also pointed out the unsustainable nature of indefinite economic growth and argued for de-industrialisation and decentralisation. Movement merged with PEOPLE in late 1973.

During 1973 PEOPLE circulated the magazine Towards Survival, edited by Keith Hudson, to all its members. Its first manifesto, in 1974, was called the Manifesto for Survival.. The survival imperative dominated thinking during those early days, as the movement grappled with the global predictions outlined in ‘Limits’ and ‘Blueprint’.

PEOPLE’s founders were not looking to create a conventional political party, but they understood that the hegemony of the mainstream parties had to be challenged, and that to gain leverage a new electoral force was needed. The idea was to create a much wider ranging, more inclusive movement, in which participation in the electoral process would be an essential element.

Once you lose the conventional ‘party’ identity a whole new range of more flexible,  inclusive structures and strategies arise, which is why PEOPLE was not called a ‘party’. The expectations of how a ‘party’ should behave are limiting. PEOPLE sought to become a participative movement that put its emphasis on coalition building and on creating an honest politics.

PEOPLE didn’t believe in whips. It didn’t have a single ‘leader’ and terms of office were fixed to discourage careerism.  Membership was open to organisations as well as individuals, including members of other parties. The objective was to make change happen. It was considered equally important to get other parties to adopt green policies as it was to get its own members elected.

PEOPLE was not positioned on the horizontal left-right spectrum. It introduced a whole new vertical dark green/light green dimension that cut across the old left-right paradigm. It had the potential to appeal to the whole country, enabling people from all backgrounds to engage in a new way of thinking about politics, one which is fundamentally inclusive, because our core issues affect everybody.

Two further things illustrate the radical breadth of the founders’ vision.  The symbol of the movement was the world with the two waves of Aquarius across its front, to symbolise the dawning of a new age for all humanity. Its colours were coral, white and turquoise; natural colours that represented water, air and earth.

The Ecology Party

The kind of radical thinking evident in the early seventies began to change in 1975 when any ambiguity about whether it was a party or a movement was eliminated.  PEOPLE changed its name to The Ecology Party.

The choice of the word ‘ecology’ was, with hindsight, not so very astute. At that time ecology was a relatively obscure subject – the scientific study of relationships that living organisms have with their biotic environment.  People found it an odd name for a political party. For many who thought they got it, ‘ecology’ was synonymous with ‘environment’. They didn’t fully understand that when applied to politics it is an approach based on systems and holism, where all policies have to be rooted, primarily, in the understanding that human beings are one part of an inter-related and interdependent web of life.

In contrast the word ‘environment’, meaning our human surroundings – whether built, natural or social – is inherently anthropocentric, concerned with what appears best for our own species. ‘Ecology’ was the positive counterpoint to ‘survival’, and a unifying philosophy for those who accepted the primacy of ‘survival’, but found it too negative a message.

Coalition Building

Lesley Whittaker says PEOPLE spent roughly half its time attempting to build relationships with the wider movement, as a necessary first step towards the political mobilisation of that movement.

Their first journal, edited by Michael Benfield, was called ‘Alliance’ and listed some 46 national organisations PEOPLE were developing links with.  The objective was to get members of appropriate organisations to recognise their common interests and causes, and to support PEOPLE as the electoral arm of the wider movement.

In 1973 PEOPLE attempted to host a large coalition building ‘Jigsaw’ conference in Coventry, which aimed to pull together the wider movement and build a more politically coherent whole. Sadly it was cancelled, but the idea was valid, as demonstrated later by Green Party members in two examples detailed below.

As the party’s founders stepped back from their national roles, the main coalition-building agenda was dropped. The dominant view of the new leadership in 1978/9 was that a strong Ecology Party, with good organisation and policies, would provide a ‘vanguard’ for the wider movement who would then follow the party’s lead. Pro-active coalition building was deemed unnecessary.

In 1985 the Ecology Party was renamed as The Green Party, having stood 53 Ecology Party candidates in the 1979 election and 108 in 1983. In 1987 the Green Party stood in 134 constituencies polling 1.35%. In 1990 the Scottish and Northern Irish wings decided to form separate political parties and the Green Party became The Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) with Wales having autonomous region status within the national party.