Shall we ‘Party’ or shall we ‘Movement’?

This is an extended version of an article published in GreenWorld Autumn 2016

How decisions taken at the very beginning of the Green Party have had huge consequences for the way green politics is done....

With many Greens now discussing the possibility of creating a Progressive Alliance , to unite different parties in a common endeavour to tackle climate change and introduce Proportional Representation, it is an opportune moment to look at the history of political alliances within the UK, not least within the Green Party itself.

Building a Movement -a new structure and form

Back in 1972 when the Green Party’s founders were discussing the possibility of creating a new political movement there was the widely held belief that you had to be a political party, or an independent, to contest elections. Lesley Whittaker, one of the founding four and a solicitor, was asked to research the issue and what she discovered was a complete surprise. The rules were far more open than expected. There was nothing to stop a ‘movement’, or anyone else,from putting candidates forward.

This discovery meshed neatly with the founders’ plans for a new model of political organisation. Central to their thinking was the belief that the ecological imperative, the need to radically change direction to avert ecological collapse (as predicted by both the Limits to Growth and the Blueprint for Survival), was the overriding priority. And that the urgency of it would necessitate a new kind of political organisation to deliver it; one that would cut across conventional political dividing lines and unite the wider green movement in a broad coalition.

So the Green Party was actually conceived more as a political movement than a party, with a novel organisational structure and pursuing a far broader and more inclusive range of strategies. It offered the possibility for those with existing political loyalties to utilise the movement to press for change within those loyalties, but – as and when they found this could not be achieved – to contemplate an alternative vote during an election.

As Michael Benfield, one of the founders, has said:

“Our aim was to enable candidates of every political hue and leaning to pool their common concerns in a mass movement that would change governmental policies in favour of those environmental and related issues that, collectively, were seen as imperative.”

“We wanted to promote a new form of politics, with a new message, that allowed people from all political persuasions to support our central cause. In that sense our mission was to create a ‘movement’ that would cause those holding the reins of power to take on board all of our concerns – and at least the thrust of our policies.”

For this reason the founders of PEOPLE, the Green Party’s name for its first two and a half years, spent at least half their time trying to build a broad coalition that would mobilise not just hundreds, but potentially millions of people, to push for the radical changes needed to create a sustainable future.

In pursuit of this project PEOPLE published ‘Alliance...of interests’, as a coalition-building project. The magazine listed 46 different NGOs on its cover, which it was attempting to build links with. It also set about organising a Jigsaw Conference which would bring these different groups together. Sadly uptake was slow and, concerned about costs and attendance, PEOPLE cancelled the event. To this day the founders still question whether this was the right decision.

Movement for Survival

So, rather than create a conventional political party PEOPLE’s ‘Gang of Four’ set out to build a ‘movement’ that would ‘break the political mould’.

The previous year, in January 1972, another ‘movement’ had been created with very similar goals. ‘Movement for Survival’ was set up by the Ecologist magazine as a coalition of groups and individuals and as a political vehicle for those who responded to Blueprint for Survival. Movement, as it became known, was overwhelmed by a massive response and struggled to reply to the many thousands who contacted it. Despite this lack of administrative capacity it nonetheless organised a conference attended by some 300 people.

Amongst those who expressed ‘general support’ for the Movement for Survival were the Conservation Society, Friends of the Earth, the Henry Doubleday Research Association, the Soil Association and Survival International. Blueprint had been ‘fully supported’ by many eminent scientists of the time, including Sir Julian Huxley, Peter Scott, Sir Frank Darling, Dr. Aubrey Manning and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar.

With such support there was every reason to believe that the Movement for Survival could have become the powerful coalition its founders had intended. Sadly it failed to take off, due to organisational problems rather than political ones, and it was decided that PEOPLE –which at that time had a similar ‘movement‘ strategy- would be a better home for its’ supporters. Movement merged with PEOPLE in February 1974.

A new style of politics

PEOPLE also conducted itself differently, in line with its de-centralist and inclusive philosophy:-

1)     PEOPLE was open to people of all political traditions. Membership of another party was not a bar to joining.

Benfield: “ We recognised that those who had been long term supporters of established ‘parties’, or had family or others who had been, would be likely to find it difficult to mentally reconcile themselves to voting against those beliefs and ideas...We wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to embrace and support PEOPLE’s message and objectives without having a major conflict with their previous selves / self-images.”

2)     PEOPLE, through its members, sought to persuade other parties to incorporate the ecological imperative into their policy platforms. It was however realistic about the limitations of this approach.

Benfield: “It was recognised that political groupings into ‘parties’ of the left and right, etc. meant that the ability to express any independent view within them was effectively squashed by the big party machines with their attendant disciplines.”

3)     PEOPLE branches were fully autonomous. The national organisation had no constitution. Local branches were advised to create their own rules and set their own subscription rates. £1 was sent per member to the national party. Whittaker: membership was of the branch, though members were known to HQ. The local branch was advised to set its local membership fee” Benfield: “Freda and I concur with what Lesley says, and would just emphasise that local branches were autonomous but represented on a (regional) national organisation.”

4)     PEOPLE was open to membership from groups as well as individuals.

5)     PEOPLE embraced nonviolent political activity.
Benfield:  Nonviolent Direct Action and civil disobedience were also “recognised as potentially legitimate means of creating change”.

6)     PEOPLE opted for collective leadership over a single figurehead leader.

7)     PEOPLE opposed the idea of party whips. MPs were to be able to vote with their conscience.

8)     PEOPLE appreciated aspects of how independents operated within the political system. The first public notice (January 31st 1973) said that PEOPLE wanted to “unite independent candidates with similar opinions under one banner”.

Benfield: “The role of ‘independents’ (of which there were still quite a number at local level) was appreciated as, potentially, a purer form of democratic representation.

Whittaker: “We hoped to link together a ticket of Independents who would agree with the objectives without necessarily having all the paraphernalia of a party.”

The idea was to embrace a variety of different strategies and create an umbrella organisation for all those who were “sincerely concerned about pollution, conservation, population, survival, ecology and the environment generally.”

A movement, a party, or both

For all of these reasons PEOPLE 1972-74 chose to call itself a ‘movement’. In private some thought that aspects of PEOPLE (standing for elections on a common platform) meant they were a ‘party’, and some internal documentation referred to a ‘party’, but in public the label ‘movement’ was preferred. None of the early leaflets, or the first manifesto, refer to PEOPLE as a ‘party’. This didn’t, however, prevent commentators referring to them as a ‘party’. There was a widely held belief that groups running candidates at elections were, ipso facto, political parties.

Benfield: “We were conscious that ‘others’ might seek to narrow our mission to merely a ‘party’ tag, whereas we sought not to be limited by this.”

Some commentators referred to PEOPLE, as a ‘People’s Party’ in the style of many revolutionary communist groupings of the time, to the chagrin of the founders.

Benfield “PEOPLE was the term that we found ourselves constantly returning to.  However, there was a danger in using this, since it might all too easily be associated with (what we saw even then) as a defunct form of communism, or other extremist politics. We therefore sought to avoid being labelled ‘The People(s) Party’ and opted for simply “PEOPLE” in the hope that this in itself would differentiate us from old style institutions. We also sought to further differentiate ourselves and be wider reaching by claiming to be a political movement.”

The main reason for describing PEOPLE as a ‘movement’ was that PEOPLE embodied a new form and a new style of politics, as well as having a new political philosophy. The word ‘party’ would have been misleading as PEOPLE’s concept of politics was, in many respects, quite different to the usual party political approach.

And it was the structures, the way of doing politics, rather than the content, which were to be the main focus of disagreement over the subsequent two decades.

This wasn’t just a debate inside PEOPLE, and later the Ecology Party. It was a debate felt across the wider green movement. In Oxford, to take a rather extreme example, they had both an Oxford Ecology Movement (OEM) and an Oxford Ecology Party during 1978-79. The Green Alliance began life as the New Alliance, considered becoming a political party, and ended up as a lobby group. Greenpeace had its own disagreements between the autonomous local group model used by Greenpeace London and the hierarchical model adopted by national Greenpeace.

As Peter Taylor, one of the founders of OEM, put it:-

Most of the historic focus has been on 'party' structure and policies – but at the outset there was a deep part of the 'movement' that was antipathetic to party politics, viewing politicians as ineffective at controlling the system. An aspect of the movement was to try and stay 'local' – especially to focus upon community, growing local food and getting involved politically at a community level only

So why, and how, did PEOPLE’s vision of a new politics change?

The seeds of the change were there from the beginning. In private, and despite Whittaker’s legal advice and their public pronouncements, the founders believed PEOPLE’s electoral activities meant that that aspect of it was a political party. And in 1975, as PEOPLE’s press officer, Benfield began referring to PEOPLE as a ‘party’ in public, in press releases: “This was really a reflection of what we were being publicly labelled. It may have been a mistake not to have tried harder to differentiate us at that time, but to get election coverage we needed to make it simple for the media.”

“Almost as soon as we began fighting elections the media could not help themselves and tagged us the PEOPLE party (Lesley will be able to tell you how hard we tried to avoid this)”

This action became self-fulfilling and in 1975 PEOPLE changed its name to the ‘Ecology Party’ and thus changed its status officially. Many, including within the membership itself, had not, in any case, understood the distinctions the founders had been trying to make, and believed that an organisation that ran candidates at elections, on a common platform, was a political party, whatever it chose to call itself and regardless of what the law said.

It was this change, however, that marked the starting point for protracted debates about the nature and style of green politics, between those whose priority was to build a broad political coalition of like-minded people that cut across parties and those who sought the hierarchy, discipline and focus of a more conventional political party.

This latter group referred to their approach as ‘vanguardism’, a mistaken belief that the wider movement would naturally support a party which articulated their ecological beliefs and was well organised.

‘Movement’ supporters, in contrast, believed the slow and arduous work of making links with other groups, bringing people together and building an inclusive, albeit looser and perhaps less disciplined, movement was a necessary pre-condition for electoral success.

The change in approach began when the founders stepped back from their leading roles after the name change, when ex-Labour member Jonathan Tyler took over the chairmanship of the Ecology Party’s National Executive Committee. It continued and intensified when Jonathon Porritt took over from him. As Benfield says of the two Jonathans:  “Neither, I think, really understood, or wanted to understand, the wider ramifications of what we were trying to do. It was enough for them to contain their thinking to ‘party politics’, hence perhaps the reluctance to pursue the ‘Alliance’ theme.”  

Reflecting on the early days of the Green Party and understanding the radical nature of the organisation the party’s founders envisioned, and began to bring about, is informative, especially in light of the party’s lack of success since.

It is salutary to consider what might have happened if PEOPLE and the Greens had persisted with the ‘movement’ model of political organisation and created a vehicle that did, indeed, embrace the whole green movement in its mission to stop ecological collapse.

PEOPLE 1973-4 was attempting a new way of doing politics that was markedly different to the way political parties were doing it up to that point. And some aspects of that early vision have survived in today’s Green Party. Membership is still primarily of the local party (which then automatically imparts membership of the national body). This gives local parties (nowadays deliberately not called ‘branches’) a degree of autonomy and creates a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, structure. In addition the party allows co-leaders, it supports NVDA, and rejects party whips.

The general direction of travel since 1973, however, has been towards a more conventional model of organisation; and the single most profound change of all was the abandonment, back in 1975, of the ‘movement’ model which the founders had pioneered. And that single momentous decision –which was in reality many small decisions- has had far-reaching consequences for the way green politics has been done these last forty three years.

It is hard now to imagine doing things differently. We just accept that green politics is split between those who work through mainstream parties, those who reject party politics altogether and those who work through the Green Party or any one of thousands of NGOs and community action groups. The idea that this whole movement could have had some kind of over-arching organisation and political strategy seems radical, even far-fetched, but that is what was envisioned forty three years ago.

As Michael Benfield says: “We four debated endlessly for months. PEOPLE was – and in many respects I think remains – a unique attempt to ‘think outside the box’.  I think we got it reasonably right, but perhaps had not accounted for the fact that – as we began to show that there was indeed support for our cause (movement) – the establishment would inevitably move to subvert and misdirect us.”

So the Green Party was not really a political party at all when it began or if it was, then that was only so to a quite limited extent. It was pioneering something new, something that was in fact a challenge to the way political parties divide us. And that lesson is just as relevant now as it was back in 1974.