Although everyone was in a party mood and there was much reminiscing, singing and making merry, there were echoes of controversy – it just wouldn’t ring true if everyone agreed with everyone else at a Green gathering.
By Steve Emmott, long standing member of the Green Party England and Wales as well as European Green Party Committee member.
Saturday February 23, 1973 – the day that four people in Coventry, in the UK’s East Midlands, set up the first national Green Party in Europe. Incidentally, gobally, only the New Zealand Greens can claim to have got there before them.
On that same day in 2013, I am here enjoying the Gala Dinner of the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) as they celebrate their 40th birthday. The oldest Green Party in Europe was then simply called, “PEOPLE”. Amazingly, three of the founding members are here, too, to share their memories and celebrate with us.
Actually, this is also the 40th anniversary for both the Scottish and the Northern Irish Green Parties as well, because they split off from the main block at some later stage. On behalf of the EGP, I presented the current GPEW Party Leader, Natalie Bennett, with a bottle of vintage champagne to celebrate, although I joked that, even after 40 years of party development, we still couldn’t really work out who was in charge! In these austere days, the bottle was wrapped in an old sock to avoid it looking too ostentatious!
Although everyone was in a party mood and there was much reminiscing, singing and making merry, there were echoes of controversy – it just wouldn’t ring true if everyone agreed with everyone else at a Green gathering. Applause for our electoral successes was counterbalanced with comments that we had become transformed into another conventional political party. Maybe that’s what you get when you grow up?
I joined the UK Greens – at the time it was under its second name, the Ecology Party – in the early to mid 80s. I was living in a country village in West Sussex in the south of England, happily minding my own business with not a political thought in my head. Some idiot thought it was a good idea to start spraying pesticides from a light aircraft over the nearby fields and, unsurprisingly, children playing in their own gardens nearby began developing eye infections and other health problems. Apart from the families hit by this, the only people who seemed concerned were the local Green party and they were demanding action. I went along to their meeting and the next thing I knew I had joined the local group, which never seemed to consist of more than 10 people!
Fast forward to the Euro elections of 1989. I was the agent for the West Sussex constituency and our candidate got just under 25% of the vote – a score which still stands as one of the best results ever. We were in second place, beating the Socialists and the Liberals, and we gave the sitting Conservative MEP quite a shock. Somewhere in the archives of the local TV station there is a news clip of me proclaiming proudly that the Greens were here to stay. I like to think that all the work we did helped to prepare some of the ground for Caroline Lucas to be elected as the first Green MEP for the south-east region 10 years later.
Nationally that year, the party scored just short of 15%. Under any intelligent electoral system, that would have given us at least 12 seats in the European Parliament (EP). Under our antiquated first-past-the-post system we got exactly zero MEPs – nul points, nada, zilch. The Green Group in the EP, out of sympathy and solidarity, invited the Brits to send a representative, a “people’s MEP”, to join them. Jean Lambert, now happily a real, bona-fide, elected member of the European Parliament, was, for a while, our underground MEP! What a difference 12 or more British Green MEPs would have made in Brussels and Strasbourg. They would have been the largest faction in the Green Group and would have certainly given the group a different political flavour. That would probably have influenced the future direction of the EGP too.
Let us hope that the Euro elections next year deliver on that promise and put the British Greens where they ought to be – as a major player in our European Green family.