‘Herefordshire is winnable for the Greens’. The Hereford Times headline comes up on my newsfeed, picturing co-leader Carla Denyer and Ellie Chowns – beaming alongside the River Wye, the backdrop to a small revolution taking place in the county 40 years since its Green movement began.
This formidable pair stood before a small gathering of Herefordshire activists and councillors in late May 2022 to launch the campaign for a Green MP in North Herefordshire.
Denyer recalled standing as a parliamentary candidate in the 2019 general election: “I came a healthy second place in Bristol West with 18,809 votes – the highest number of constituency votes the Green Party has ever received outside of Brighton Pavilion, where Caroline Lucas is MP.
“We worked incredibly hard for three months, but time wasn’t on our side; I had only been selected in September, and the snap election was called weeks later. The next election will be a different story.”
The political environment has locally, and nationally, changed seismically since then. In The New Statesman, the headline reported ‘Exclusive Polling: How the Greens supplanted the Tories as the party of the countryside’. Good news for Ellie Chowns’ ambitions.
In Herefordshire, we know that avoiding environmental catastrophe requires great change. Our precious River Wye system is crashing because of extractive macroeconomics in food production. Sometimes we feel like a raggle-taggle bunch of dreamers, but as a councillor, I speak to many (not just the usual suspects) who are desperate to vote for someone who will fight to restore justice and dignity to government.
Enter Ellie Chowns, Herefordshire councillor, Green MEP for the West Midlands for a short spell until Brexit – and ready to challenge Sir Bill Wiggin MP for North Herefordshire. Those of us who know and work with her know she will do it – it’s just a question of when.
“In 2010 we had one Green, Felicity Norman, on Herefordshire Council,” says Chowns. Felicity had stepped forward at six weeks’ notice to contest Leominster in the 1983 General Election for the UK Ecology Party. The first Green councillor in Herefordshire was Gerald Dawe in 2007.
"By the end of 2019, local elections across the county had seven Greens on the council, with the Independent-Green coalition taking power from the Conservatives, laying the way for a swathe of changes in local government delivery in a county with many rural challenges.
A university lecturer, former international development worker, Herefordshire Council Cabinet member and leader of the council’s Greens, Chowns is ebullient about what Greens have achieved: “We have made a real difference together: provided free weekend bus travel; investment in walking and cycling, stopped a bypass. We have produced a road map to net-zero, affordable council-built homes and a supplementary planning document on environmental building standards.
“We’ve held a Citizen’s Climate Assembly and secured funding to act on recommendations within that; helped develop a Greener Footprints Herefordshire collaboration to develop a Zero Carbon and Nature Rich county. We used Covid funding to kickstart the economy with vouchers for local businesses.
“We’ve reinvested in tourism – abandoned by the council during austerity.” Her role on the cabinet in Herefordshire includes Environment and Economy – positions that dovetail beautifully into each other. Greens in Herefordshire are now planning to double their councillors in next year’s local elections as they continue to work with their Independent colleagues to embed changes in Herefordshire.
Long-time Green activist, former town councillor and journalist Pete Blench in Leominster has mapped Green Party progress in Herefordshire over the past 40 years: “Leominster Greens put up slates of candidates annually – it was easy to find volunteers – few thought they would get elected!
“Among the candidates was Jenny Jones of Weobley, chair of Herefordshire Green Party. She later moved to London, won a seat on the London Assembly, served as Deputy Mayor to Ken Livingstone, and became the first Green member of the House of Lords.
“Baroness Jones of Moulescombe (the Brighton housing estate where she grew up) remains a relentless and outspoken critic of dysfunctional policing and campaigner for justice. At Leominster, serious intent did develop. We got some help with the ‘tricks of the trade’ in how to frame a successful local campaign from disenchanted former Lib Dem activists.”
In January 1990, Greens achieved minor success when Blench beat a well-known local Labour figure in a by-election and gained a seat on Leominster Town Council. By now hardened campaigners, his wife Felicity Norman followed a year later. Today Greens are well established in Leominster – Trish Marsh, also a county councillor, will see this year through as the North Herefordshire town’s mayor.
“By 2019 Something had changed,” says Blench. “After years of hit-and-miss, Herefordshire Greens fully embraced the Green Party’s recommended Target-to-Win manual with the active support of canny West Midlands party apparatchiks particularly Chris Williams – Green Wizard of Solihull – and his protégé, the politically laser-focused Peggy Wiseman.”
“The Greens have been depicted as a party of protest – it’s true, many of us have spent years campaigning against the ecological and political madness that confronts us,” says Pete. “But the Greens are also keen on helping to fix things.”
“Local Government is not a very glamourous or rewarding calling, but Greens standing for council aim to be team players. Better to participate, to try to improve an imperfect system rather than grumble from the sidelines.
“What sets us aside from certain others is our people are full-on – not part-time politicians focused on private interests. Our councillors have won respect for their sheer hard-slog and conscientious approach. Our electoral support grows. So many have played their part, standing as candidates, fundraising, making and erecting poster boards – campaigning.
“40 years on, we are much clearer on what the journey entails. We can dare to hope."