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Aliens, Activism and the Abyss: A Short (ish) History of the Green Party

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Matt Gillett recounts the mad history of Britain’s Green Party, to understand why it has failed to match the success of other Green parties in Europe and around the world.

The conference of the German green party, Die Grünen. Image Credits: Olaf Kosinsky

Green parties are on the ascendency. The German Green party holds 118 seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag, having won 14.8% of the vote at the last election in 2021, which amounts to over 6.8 million votes. This was a gain of 51 seats from the previous election – almost double – and a rise of 5.9% of the vote share. After that election, in an extremely complicated and impressively boring process, the Greens became part of the new coalition government, holding the balance of power and gaining five positions in the cabinet. The leader of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock, is now the German Foreign Minister. The former co-leader of the Greens, Robert Habeck, is now vice-chancellor (AKA deputy prime minister) and economy minister. Green parties have also served in governments in Italy, France, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden, among others. 

The purpose of this rambling list of numbers and names is to demonstrate just how successful Green parties can be – and have become – elsewhere in Europe. Where the Greens are not on the ascendancy, and where they cannot be described as ‘successful’ by any stretch of even the most optimistic imagination, is in Britain. The Green Party of England and Wales (there are separate Green parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but they’re beyond the scope of this article) has one member of parliament, Caroline Lucas. In the last general election, in 2019, the Green party got 835,597 votes, 2.61% of the vote share – not a wholly insignificant figure, but one that failed to translate into significant representation in parliament, and one that is dwarfed by the vote share of Green parties in most of Europe. 

The Green party has consistently failed to gain either substantial electoral representation or a respectable share of the vote at general elections going back decades, even whilst its sister parties in Europe have been entering governments and winning millions of votes. Why?

To answer this three paragraph-long question, to understand how the Green party has reached its present state of splendid mediocrity, first requires a brief sojourn through the history of the Green Party in Britain.

It all begins, as do most things, with Playboy magazine. In the winter of 1972 a real estate agent called Lesley Whittaker brought a copy of the latest Playboy magazine, a long-standing bastion of environmentalism (among other things). What caught her interest most was an interview with an American biologist called Paul R. Ehrlich, who gave dire warnings about the dangers of overpopulation. Newly alarmed about the future health of the planet, Lesley and her husband Tony set up a group enigmatically named the ‘Club of Thirteen’. Far less cloak-and-dagger than the name would suggest, it first met in Daventry on 13 November 1972, hence the name. It was essentially a gang of Midland surveyors who sat around and grumbled about virtually anything and everything – the economy, unemployment, defence spending, social security, industrial strikes – through an ecological lens. 

A leaflet setting out the manifesto of the PEOPLE Party, 1974. Image Credits: David Taylor

This club for fans of fun quickly transformed into what optimists would call a party: the PEOPLE Party, the first Green party in Britain and, in fact, in the whole of Europe. They wrote manifestos, came up with radical policies and ran candidates in the general election of February 1974, where they shook the political establishment to its core by winning an astonishing 4,576 votes. They capitalised on this political earthquake by winning even fewer votes in the second election of that year, in October, where they won just 1,996 votes

To combat this backward slide, in 1975 the PEOPLE Party was rebranded the Ecology Party, in order to make their aims more clear. What followed were the first tentative steps of progress, as the Ecology Party won its first district and parish council seats in 1976. It wrote a constitution, held conferences, and won 39,000 votes in the 1979 election. Membership grew tenfold from 500 to 5000, and it aired broadcasts on radio and television, entering the public consciousness for the first time. The party could not handle its new-found (relative) success, however, struggling to cope with the explosion of membership numbers and having to contend with the crippling economic recession in the early 1980s which put green policies on the backburner. The party collapsed into infighting and bickering, which continued throughout much of the 1980s.

In 1985 the party once again underwent a rebrand, changing its name from the Ecology Party to the Green Party, but continued to engage in debilitating civil wars over the structure and direction of the party. Nevertheless it continued to increase its share of the vote, winning 89,000 votes in the 1987 election and enjoying rising membership and attention. The Greens’ breakout success, however, came in the 1989 European elections, where they won a frankly extraordinary 2.2 million votes in Britain – 15% of the vote. 

The 1983 manifesto of the Ecology Party. Image Credits: Pete Frings

Yet in a theme that would become increasingly apparent, the party failed to win any seats despite enjoying a substantial share of the vote, as the election, like all elections in Britain at the time, were run using the first-past-the-post system (FPTP). FPTP is deceptively simple: whichever candidate wins the most votes is elected. You don’t have to get a majority: it doesn’t matter if you get 90% or 30% of the vote, as long as you get more votes than anyone else on the ballot paper you win. For the Green Party, this meant that even though they got a significant portion of the vote, they never came first in a seat, and so left the 1989 elections empty handed despite registering an extraordinary rise in support. If Britain had used proportional representation, as most of Europe did, the Greens would have likely won 12 seats in that election. 

Never before or since have they been so successful in electoral politics as they were in 1989: 2.2 million is the most votes they have ever received. A perfect storm of weak and disorganised mainstream parties, anger with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her government, a well-run and high-profile Green campaign, and a dramatic rise in the importance of green issues allowed the Green Party to make an extraordinary breakthrough, virtually out of nowhere.

Yet the Greens would struggle to capitalise on this success for a number of reasons. The electoral system would continue to bedevil the party and prevent them from taking seats in parliament. Factional infighting continued, as did the promotion of almost comically unpalatable ideas. One such policy proposed to reduce the British population by as much as 20 million, though precisely how this was to be achieved was not entirely clear.

A flyer for an Ecology Party rally, 1985. Image Credit: DavidJF44

The infiltration of the upper ranks of the party by conspiracy theorists also didn’t help shake the image of the party as being one of hippies and cranks living in a parallel universe. The party didn’t have a single leader – it didn’t want to concentrate too much power in the hands of any sole figure. Rather it had four ‘principal speakers’, which meant it just had four leaders instead, all bickering with each other and crippling the party’s organisational abilities, muddling its messaging and confusing its campaigning.

One of the four principal speakers in the late 80s and early 90s was a man called David Icke. In 1991 he declared that he was a “Son of the Godhead”, after he had taken a trip to a psychic, who had informed him that he was on Earth for a special purpose and would receive messages from the spirit world. He went on primetime television to warn that the world would end in 1997, with tidal waves and earthquakes wiping out life as we know it. Unfortunately for David the armageddon did not materialise, but naturally he would not be deterred by this minor detail. He then announced that an inter-dimensional race of reptilian beings, the Archons, had hijacked the Earth and a genetically modified human-Archon hybrid race of shape-shifting reptilians – the Babylonian Brotherhood – were manipulating events to keep humans in fear, so that the Archons could feed off the resulting “negative energy”. 

Having one of your national spokespersons associated with these unusual opinions was certainly not ideal for a party trying to gain a degree of credibility and respect. He eventually left to dedicate himself full-time to listening to messages from the spirit world, but not before the party itself broke apart. In 1990 the Northern Irish and Scottish wings split off into their own independent parties, and the rump became the present-day Green Party of England and Wales. This new party launched a huge and controversial reorganisation, which led to it approaching bankruptcy, losing over half its members and doing poorly at the 1992 election. It got just 170,000 votes, a tiny fraction of what it had won in the 1989 European elections. It did even worse in 1997, winning just 61,000 votes. From this historical nadir, wracked by infighting, financial struggles and electoral oblivion, it began a quiet and gentle recovery. 

A Green Party rally in Bristol, 2019. Image Credits: Bristol Green Party

The adoption of proportional representation in European elections and the introduction of devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, London and elsewhere allowed it to win meaningful representation for the first time. It gained its first two members of the European Parliament in 1999, and three members of the London Assembly in 2000. It also enjoyed a gradual rise in votes at general elections: 166,000 in 2001, 257,000 in 2005, 265,000 in 2010. 2010 proved to be a transformative year for the Greens. At that year’s general election it finally won its first ever member of parliament: Caroline Lucas, for the constituency of Brighton Pavilion. 

In 2007 the party had finally gained a modicum of common sense and binned its use of ‘principal speakers’, which were objectively a completely terrible idea that had held back the party for decades. In its stead they invented another novel idea they couldn’t quite believe nobody else had thought of before: to have a single leader, elected by the members. This leader would be Caroline Lucas, a long-standing Green Party member who had served in the European parliament. She proved to be hugely popular: a relentless campaigner, but also an effective media operator and shrewd politician.

In 1992 the Greens got 963 votes in Brighton Pavilion. This gradually grew over the next two decades, and then shot up in 2010, with 16,000 votes and a swing of 8.4%. But this also proved one of the faults of FPTP: Lucas won despite getting just 31% of the vote. She has only strengthened her stranglehold over the fair citizens of Brighton since: 41% in 2015, 52% in 2017, 57% in 2019. She has proved to be a popular and highly competent MP, yet she remains to this day the Green Party’s only MP. They have not been able to replicate their success in Brighton elsewhere in the country. 

Their share of the vote rocketed to 1.1 million in 2015, before halving in 2017 to 550,000, then recovering slightly in 2019, with 835,000 votes. But this is still only 2.6% of the share of the vote, and has not translated into more seats, the crucial barometer of success. This is the critical problem: the electoral system ensures the dominance of the two major parties, and makes it incredibly difficult for smaller parties to make a breakthrough. The Green party now are far more popular than they were a decade or two ago, with an MP, more members, and more votes, along with better organisational and campaigning skills, but they continue to stare into the political abyss. 

A Green Party rally in Bristol, 2019. Image Credits: Bristol Green Party

About the author: Matt Gillett is News and Politics Editor at WILD. He shares David Icke’s fear that a race of hybrid shape-shifting reptilians is controlling the Earth, but is mildly concerned that the world did not end in 1997 as David had promised. He might have been wrong about that specifically, but Matt is sure that David knows what he is talking about with the nefarious plotting of these devious alien shape-shifters.

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