Former London Assembly Member and Principal Speaker Darren Johnson was the only Green councillor in London twenty years ago – one of just 40 across England and Wales. Here he recounts the huge amount of work behind his election breakthrough in Lewisham in 2002 and the challenges then for the party – long before the current Green surge – in maintaining momentum.
I first joined the Green Party in the 1980s when I was fresh out of my teens and soon got involved in various election campaigns. In spite of having no family background in politics and zero experience of campaigning before then, to my surprise, I soon found I had a knack for organising the nuts and bolts of election campaigns. I stood as a candidate on numerous occasions and started to think I might like to represent the Party as a councillor one day. Like a lot of young people, however, I moved around quite a lot in my 20s which meant laying down roots and putting in the necessary long-term commitment to a specific local patch would prove difficult. That all changed in the mid-90s when I moved to Lewisham with my then-partner – a borough that would end up being my home for the next 22 years.
In 1994 when I moved to the borough the local party was tiny and had only stood a small handful of candidates in local elections. But I could immediately see from the election results that there was real potential in Brockley where the Party achieved a decent second place in spite of very little campaigning. I encouraged the local party to adopt Brockley as a target ward and we set about delivering regular newsletters, mainly paid for by running a stall at the local car-boot sale every month – selling old second-hand stuff that people would offer to us while we were out leafleting!
By the time the local elections came around again, we were in a much stronger position. The local party was still tiny but I’d roped in friends, colleagues and whoever I could persuade to help deliver leaflets and knock on doors. We almost doubled our share of the vote but I was still a couple of hundred votes short and it would be another four years before we could have another crack at it. By then we had gained a few more members and this time were able to rope in volunteers from neighbouring local parties, excited by the potential of a Green breakthrough. No stone was left unturned. When the results came in I topped the poll. We finally did it! No other Greens were elected in Greater London in 2002 and for several years I was the only Green councillor in the whole of London.
My life had changed considerably by this point as I had also been elected to the London Assembly two years earlier. Now I was having to juggle being a London Assembly Member and being a Lewisham councillor. I pretty much lived and breathed politics and got stuck into plenty of local issues, from lower speed limits to saving the local leisure centre. Our local party continued to grow and when the next election came around we won all three seats in my ward and all three seats in the neighbouring ward, too. Things seemed to be on the up but then disaster struck four years later when it came to defending our seats. The local elections were held on the same day as the General Election and national rather than local issues were very much at the top of people’s minds. I held on but my five colleagues were unceremoniously booted out and I was back on my own again. But issues that we’d been relentlessly campaigning for, like 20mph zones and building new council housing, were starting to become mainstream in spite of brutal rounds of local government cuts and austerity budgeting.
After twelve years on Lewisham Council, I decided that I was ready for a less frantic pace of life and a move out of London. Before saying goodbye to Lewisham completely, however, I successfully ran the campaign to get my successor elected. I moved down to the coast in St Leonards-on-sea where I am delighted to say I’m now represented by a Green councillor once more – the excellent Amanda Jobson having been elected last year. While I can’t claim any real part in her victory, other than putting some leaflets out down my street every so often, it was a real pleasure to witness the clear momentum she was building up locally – and it brought back happy memories of my own local breakthrough twenty years earlier.
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!