'Party' versus 'Movement'

One of the Green Party's first members explains how decisions taken at the very beginning of the party have had huge consequences for the way green politics is done

David Taylor

Originally published in Green World 94

With Greens discussing progressive alliances, it is a good time to look at the history of the Green Party itself, which was conceived of more as a 'movement', and which even called its first newsletter 'Alliance'!

Back in 1972, the founders of PEOPLE, which would grow into the Green Party, discovered that there was nothing to stop a 'movement', or anyone else, from putting candidates forward in an election. This discovery meshed neatly with their plans for a new model of political organisation. The overriding priority was, of course, to radically change direction to avert ecological collapse, but they also realised that the urgency of this goal required the green movement to be united in a broad coalition that would contest elections, but also cut across conventional Left-Right lines.

As Michael Benfield, one of the founders, explains: "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."

A new style of politics

PEOPLE set about conducting itself differently to create an umbrella organisation for all those 'sincerely concerned about pollution, conservation, population, survival, ecology and the environment'. Key differences included: being open to organisations as well as individuals, building links with 'independents' and individuals within the mainstream political parties, creating a de-centralist structure, embracing nonviolent political activity, opting for collective leadership, and opposing the corrupting idea of party whips (MPs were to vote with their conscience).

The debate over how to do politics, which was the main focus of disagreement over the subsequent two decades, was felt across the wider green movement. This included Oxford, where, as an extreme example, they had both an Oxford Ecology Movement (OEM) and an Oxford Ecology Party in 1978-79. 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'."

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

With the media often referring to PEOPLE as a 'party', in 1975 PEOPLE also began referring to itself as such. Benfield explains: "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... but to get election coverage we needed to make it simple for the media."

In 1975, PEOPLE officially changed its status and became the 'Ecology Party'. This change marked the starting point for protracted debates between those who sought the hierarchy, discipline and focus of a conventional political party and those who believed the arduous work of building a united green movement was a necessary pre-condition of political success.

PEOPLE 1973-74 was attempting a new way of doing politics, and some aspects of that early vision have survived in today's Green Party. Membership is still primarily of semi-autonomous local parties (not 'branches'), creating a bottom-up structure. The party also allows co-leaders, supports nonviolent direct action, and rejects party whips.

Since 1975, we have, however, generally moved towards a more conventional model, and it is hard nowadays to imagine doing things differently. We 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 NGOs and community action groups. The idea that this whole movement could have an over-arching organisation and political strategy seems radical, even far-fetched, but that is what was envisioned for us 43 years ago.

As Benfield says: "PEOPLE was 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 has its origins in challenging the way politics is done, and the way in which political parties divide us. That lesson is just as relevant now as it was in 1974.

David Taylor is a former Green Party Principal Speaker. He joined PEOPLE in 1974. An extended version of this article can be found at: tinyurl.com/h8hxbgm