If you want to change something you’ve got to change the politics

Dr Mitya Pearson is a politics lecturer at King's College London. He researched Green Party history for his PhD and writes about how decisions taken by the Party's founders and early leaders set it on its current course to get Greens elected.

Ecology Green Party posters
Ecology Green Party posters

Two posters from the 'Clothing the Naked Earth' exhibition at the LSE Library Gallery

Dr Mitya Pearson
Dr Mitya Pearson King's College London

From 2016 to 2020, I spent my time researching the history of the Green Party for a PhD in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. The project involved 50 interviews with people who joined the party (then called PEOPLE and subsequently the Ecology Party) between 1973 and 1979, including its founding members, first chairs and numerous early election candidates. My colleague at King’s College London, Tara Zammit, is depositing these interviews into the LSE’s new archive collection on the history of the party (which is open to the public); they should eventually provide a substantial oral history resource on the Party’s origins and its first few years in existence for future students and researchers. These first-hand accounts will complement the documentary archive LSE is amassing, and other very useful online and physical resources.

It is great to see the effort, thought and care the Green Party has put into commemorating its 50th anniversary, not least because it is no mean feat for a party in the British political system. The Party was tiny when it was first set up (membership was only in the low hundreds for most of the 1970s) and early activists had to struggle against the tide to make any headway, as one candidate’s experience of campaigning in the 1977 local elections attests to (eventually getting 145 votes):

“Campaigning by bike from 20 miles away is far from easy […]. One of my bikes was stolen […] on another occasion an Alsatian dog grabbed a finger as I was pushing a leaflet through the letterbox […]. I was billed by a sympathetic Sunday newspaper reporter as the cycling candidate who would be canvassing from a poster be-decked bike. I hadn’t reckoned with the weather, and ended up with a bike festooned with soggy papier mache.”[1]

As the 1974 PEOPLE manifesto set out, the party was aiming to deliver ‘a stable, ecologically sound way of life’, and three early decisions were made (either implicitly or explicitly) by the founders and early members on how to achieve this.[2] Firstly, to operate within the confines of the democratic political system. As the 1977-78 Chairman’s report argued ‘a revolution of the traditionally championed kind’ was not the way forward and the Party’s aims of political transformation would have to be implemented ‘through the political process however imperfect’.[3]

Secondly, to push for change via a political party, rather than pressure group activity. As one early activist described in our interview:

“What it came down to was, okay, you’ve got various pressure groups etc., but actually if you really want to change something, you’ve got to change the politics.”

This was a live source of debate among those concerned about the environment during the 1970s, with many instinctively suspicious of party politics. The opposing views were summed up in a set of articles in an environmentally-focused magazine, with one person arguing that any ecological party would be undermined by having to ‘accept the mores of the present dominant political parties’ and a party activist suggesting that the only way to avoid being ‘dictated to’ was to take part in party politics ‘however distasteful this may seem’.[4]

Thirdly, to form a new party, rather than working from within one of the established ones. The individuals who founded PEOPLE researched what the existing parties were doing on the environment, before deciding to form PEOPLE. Indeed, co-founder Tony Whittaker challenged the Secretary of State for the Environment, Peter Walker, on a 1972 edition of the television programme ‘A Chance to Meet’. One Party member described in their interview encountering a Labour councillor during local elections in the 1970s who told them ‘it’s very nice to see somebody taking care of the environment’ which made them think ‘oh right, so it’s not your job then.’

The Party has not achieved the transformational change to the economy that many of its early members hoped for. Nonetheless, it has established itself as a durable force in British politics, including getting representation at various levels, and has carved out a coherent space for itself in the party system. Its local election results in recent years also show it has come a long way since the days of soggy papier mache. Therefore it is very a worthwhile exercise to look back over time at the party’s development.

[1]Personal Archive, Ecology Party Newsletter, June/July 1977.

[2]Personal Archive, PEOPLE: A Manifesto for Survival, 1974.

[3]Personal Archive, Ecology Party Chairman’s Report 1977-78.

[4]British Library Archiva, Vole, January 1978 & October 1978.

Want to find out more about our history and achievements over the years? Go to our Anniversary website (50years.greenparty.org.uk) to view our timeline, learn about our impact and share your story!

50 Years Anniversary Logo

Image credit: The Green Party