The first Green councillor breakthrough and the founding of the AGC

18 May 2018

 

 

 For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world's systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.  Margaret Thatcher – Sept 1988, Royal Society speech

The above chart was compiled with much help from Alan Borgars, who has collected records of Green councillor numbers since 1974.

 

The first Green Councillor breakthrough

It is often thought that an early Green surge in members and votes, triggered by Margaret Thatcher’s conversion to environmental causes and devotion to tackling global warming, peaked in 1989 with the June European parliamentary elections. It is true that membership numbers, and the Green vote declined rapidly from this high point. The party has yet to match the 2.3 million votes it won in June 1989. But it is a myth that there was no lasting political impact.

In fact, the chart above, published here for the first time, shows that the Green Party’s big breakthrough to political success came in 1991. 

Despite Thatcher’s rhetoric and mounting political support for a Green alternative, the Green Party entered 1989 with just three councillors. But the surge meant it was able to stand 547 candidates in the May county council elections, an advance on the 352 wards it contested the previous year. Despite this the party gained just two more council seats– Paul Taylor in Medina on the Isle of Wight  and one in Wales -  to add to the ones we had, two in Stroud – John Marjoram and Martin Baxendale - and in a part of Somerset then known as Woodspring District Council – Dr Richard Lawson, in the ward of Congresbury.

I was one of the 540 odd who stood and failed to win in 1989 in Bristol for Avon County Council and I can well remember the frustration. We knocked on almost every door in Ashley ward and the reception was fantastic. We beat the Liberals and Conservatives into third and fourth place. People were intrigued by Green ideas and wanted to hear more. But Labour in Ashley still won with what seemed an unassailable majority of more than 50% of the vote. The effort we put in across the city and the country for no political return was galling. I remember wanting to storm the council chamber with a proportionate amount of Greens to our vote in Bristol. Looking back it was the lack of time we had put in beforehand, the 12 months of leaflet and door-knock work that we now call target to win, that was missing.

The following year’s May 1990 local election round saw another increase in Green candidate numbers to 862 and the party’s vote share in wards contested held steady from the previous year at around 9%.  But again the actual political return was very low – another seat won in Stroud – in Nailsworth ward – and two seats won in the home counties – one in Runnymede Council, Berkshire by former Liberal councillor Kenneth Graham in the ward of New Haw and one by another former Liberal councillor a C Hope, in Leatherhead, Surrey on Mole Valley District Council. The fact that these two had already been councillors, embedded in their community, was telling.

THE FIRST BIG BREAKTHROUGH

Greens had to wait for the following year, the May 1991 local elections, for their first big breakthrough. The idiosyncrasy of the UK local election cycle is worth rehearsing here. While some councils elect “by thirds” with a third of the councillors having to be re-elected every year and then a gap year, the vast majority of district and many borough councils in England (though not in Wales any more) only hold “all-out” elections every four years. The thing is, these councils are all on the same cycle, so once every four years there is a massive jump in the number of council seats contested. The first big “all-out” local election since Thatcher’s speech was 1991. This time there were a record 1,133 Green candidates across England and Wales, Green average vote share where seats were contested rose, to 10% in the district councils, to 5% in Metropolitan boroughs and 17.2% in the 31 seats contested in Wales, (probably indicating a dearth of other political party candidates rather than a surge in Green popularity). But most importantly, the effort finally paid off in seat numbers. Total Green councillor numbers tripled to 21.    

A WATERSHED

It proved to be a watershed moment. Following that year, the seat total hovered doggedly around the 20 mark for seven years as the party in the early to mid 1990s became mired in disputes over strategy and organisation, while membership, finances and staff withered away.  Elise Benjamin recalls: “There was a long period when our councillor numbers never seemed to move from around 20”.

The arguments that distracted key activists and apparently led to a haemorrhaging of members, centred around "Green 2000" proposals by a group of key activists, established in July 1990, which wanted to capitalise on the Euro vote to win parliamentary power by 2000. They argued for a smaller executive (rather than the large council that then existed) and delegate voting at party conferences.  Many party members argued that the reforms would undermine party democracy. The Green 2000 proposals were passed at the 1991 conference in Wolverhampton but left a bitter legacy of wrangling which led to many key members of the executive quittingAlthough the party fielded more candidates than it had ever done before in the 1992 general election, (253) their average vote was just 1.3%.  This was seen internally as a disappointment at the time.

But the Green vote share has been lower at many subsequent general elections. In hindsight, it is easier to see that the first past the post voting system means that the average vote for smaller parties will always be squeezed in a general election (compared to a Euro election that people take less seriously) and that real advances have to be made first in council elections within constituencies before parliamentary seats can be won. 

It is worth noting that though our membership numbers and national vote dwindled post-1991, our council seat numbers held relatively steady.  The next all-out big local election, 1995 was an apparent damp squib for the Green Party with no net gains.  “I remember that time as really grim,” said Chris Rose, then and still the party’s national agent. “There was just me and two others really trying to hold it together.”    

SECURING THE FUTURE

But there was not a big decline in seat numbers. And one of the gains in 1995 was Pete West, winning our first seat on Brighton and Hove council – a success which led directly to the election of Caroline Lucas as MP for Brighton Pavilion 15 years later. Pete West still holds the seat today. The steady presence of around 20 Green councillors throughout the 1990s did ensure some significant organisational moves were made that – with hindsight - secured the party for the future.  

In 1993, the Association of Green Councillors was founded in the front room of Cllr John Marjoram in Stroud to support and promote the work of the councillors we had.  John recalls that nine others were there, (though not all were councillors at the time) including Cllr Guy Woodford, Craig Simmons (who won an Oxford seat in 1997), Elise Benjamin, who won in Oxford in 1999, Darren Johnson, Mike Woodin (from Oxford – who the next year became Oxford’s first Green councillor and led a growing team of councillors there), Simon Pickering and Richard Lawson. At least two of the three councillors elected in 1991 to Glanford Borough Council (now North Lincolnshire) were also there – Neil Jacques, Jan Clark and Jenny Hayes.

JOHN’S FRONT ROOM

Darren Johnson, who later became Lewisham’s first Green councillor, was there in his capacity as incoming GPEx (Green Party Executive) Elections Coordinator. He recalls: “It was in John Marjoram's front room but we had dinner in a local cafe bar in Stroud on the Saturday evening and the Green Mayor of the town council in her chain was guest of honour. Simon [Pickering], John [Marjoram] and Gwen [Belcher - who stood down as a District councillor in 2011] from Stroud District were there as was Mike Woodin from Oxford. We put together several motions for conference with the aim of providing a more practical focus on policymaking or ‘cut the crap’ as John Marjoram explained. One of the motions was backing third party rights to appeal in planning cases. Which is still policy today I believe.”

There were two other landmarks in the mid 90s. In 1993 Caroline Lucas became the first Green on Oxfordshire County Council. Then in 1996 Target to Win was approved at conference as the party’s official election campaigning technique.  

BACK TO GROWTH

By the time of the next all-out election round – 1999 – the party was ready. It achieved another significant jump in councillor numbers to close to 40.  1995 proved to be the only “all-out” year where Greens failed to secure a jump in council seats.

The fact has been little noticed or celebrated before, but 1991 was the year the Green Party established a secure foothold in local government of England and Wales, a foothold that was to establish a reputation for the party of integrity, moral courage and community support on which it has been able to build ever since.  

Most of that class of 1991 councillors went on to take prominent roles in their local communities and also in the Green Party, and many are still very active in the Green Party today.  Some were elected in areas where we have never since been able to re-elect them.

 

THE CLASS OF 1991

So who were this pioneering class of 1991? Among them rank at least two principal speakers of the party and one of Britain’s very few former Communist councillors.

Starting from the South West and working North and East, they are:

F Williamson, Lew Valley, West Devon (unopposed did not stand again in 1995)

In East Devon Phil Foggitt won the ward that covers the market town of Ottery St Mary. Phil had formerly lived in Oxford and was a co-founder and the first Coordinator of the Oxford Ecology Party in 1979. You can read more about this in the Green History project here http://www.green-history.uk/tag-list/foggitt  . Phil served a term as an East Devon councillor but lost his seat in the 1995 election. Phil is still living and working in the town. In 2012 he was Project Co-ordinator for Otter Valley Harvest Hub - a permaculture project based in a 2-acre walled garden nearby. He also manages two large poly-tunnels and a veg garden at a local charity and teaches a "Grow Your Own" permaculture night class.

On the other side of Devon, in the town of Bideford, Peter Christie was elected for the first time to Torridge District Council and has represented Bideford North ever since. He still writes a regular column in the local newspaper.  He leads the non-aligned group on the council, keeping the Conservative administration under constant watch.

Simon Pickering – elected in Stroud 1991 and still a councillor there – a leading light of the Labour/Green alliance that has been running Stroud District Council for the last seven years.

In Somerset, Rosie Knifton in Congresbury, Woodspring District, took over the re-named ward that had been occupied by Richard Lawson. Rosie is still active as membership secretary in what is now North Somerset Green Party. And the Congresbury seat has been continuously occupied by a Green ever since. The current incumbent Tom Leimdorfer has been councillor there since Rosie stood down, though the council is now a unitary and renamend North Somerset Council.

Guy Woodford was elected in Frome Vale, Malvern Hills. Guy still lives in the area and works as a sculptor, still giving lessons at the local college. He held the seat for two terms. But his part of Malvern was absorbed into the new unitary of Herefordshire. The tale has a sweet ending however because in 2017, the local Herefordshire Green Party brought him out of retirement to help Ellie Chowns in a campaign to win a by-election in what was his old seat. Ellie was successful, so the seat is once again Green.

Just north from Guy, Felicity Norman won the ward of Berrington, in Leominster, then part of Leominster District Council and held the seat for seven years. She too was recently re-elected to the same seat, which is now part of Herefordshire unitary – in 2015. And since then Ellie and two other councillors have been elected alongside her in the county.

In Wales, we won two seats in the now defunct district of Llanelli, where we have never had a councillor since. Marcus Hughes ousted Labour in Bynea ward and Brian Stringer won in Dafen.  Both lost their seats in 1995 when Llanelli was scrapped and put into the newly formed Carmarthenshire County Council. They both stood as “Independent Greens” but lost out to Labour.  

 

Further up the West coast from Wales, Fylde Borough Council saw the election of its first and, so far, only Green councillor Roger Lloyd, in St John’s ward in the town of Lytham, just East of Lytham St Anne’s. He stood down for personal reasons at the end of his term in 1995, but 20 years later stood as a Rate Payer in the same ward in 2015 and won. He is still in office today (2018).  His Green roots do show, because he is a fierce campaigner against fracking and can be seen in a You Tube video being pushed over by a policeman at an anti fracking protest. He is plainly a strong, independent voice holding Conservative-controlled Fylde Borough to account. Of 1991 he told me: “There were three seats in the ward and I came a handsome second which I was quite pleased with. There was an independent, myself and a Conservative elected, we were three young lads. You could see people coming to the polling station going one, two, three for the young lads. All the votes were for the young lads not the old guard.

"I wore a suit and tie on polling day and I asked all my friends who helped me to dress up smart so we didn’t look like a load of hippies.”

“We did two mail drops and I wore one pair of shoes out. I can remember that election like it was yesterday. About ten days before the election, David Icke went on telly. He was out of the Green Party by then but people didn’t know that. There he was in his purple tracksuit, son of God.  My friend phoned up and said ‘Are we going out tonight to knock on doors?’ I said ‘turn on the telly’. He did and he said ‘Perhaps we’d better not tonight’.”

He remembers Green Party meetings in a pub in Blackpool, including a few members who had come from Greenham Common. His father had been a councillor in the same ward, and was at one stage mayor of the town.  “He always viewed me with a certain amount of suspicion,” he said.   

In the East Midlands, Nottingham’s only Communist Party councillor John Peck had become disaffected with his party’s reluctance to back him in his strategy of contesting elections. He defected to the Green Party and in 1991 was successfully re-elected as a Green to his ward Bulwell East. He was re-elected as a Green in 1995 but retired in 1997 after a lifetime as a political outsider taking on consensus politics. He died in 2004 aged 81. It has been left to the Communist Party to pay tribute to him on the public record in its Compendium of Communist Biography. An RAF bomber pilot in the war, he first stood for the Bulwell ward in 1955 as a Communist. He was well known in Nottingham for his trade union activity and the 1958 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning features John Peck addressing workers at the factory gates.

In Glanford Borough Council (now North Lincolnshire District) a trio of Greens won seats: Neil Jacques won Barton upon Humber Park, ward. Jenny Haynes stood as what Neil describes as a “paper plus” candidate in Barton Town ward, doing just one leaflet, not expecting to win. Jan Clark was already a Glanford councillor having won a by-election the previous year and was successfully re-elected that May.  All three stood down in 1995 when Glanford was scrapped and merged into the new North Lincolnshire District. Neil explained: “None of us stood for the shadow North Lincolnshire Council (NLC) as we were going to be employed by the new Council.  Jenny worked for Humberside County, I worked for Scunthorpe Borough and Jan was to work for NLC too. We were all founder members of the AGC.”

Neil is still a member and is now coordinator of North Lincs Green Party and Jenny is treasurer. Jan, during her term as a councillor, became principal speaker of the Party for two years. Before she was elected, she had been the Green’s European parliamentary candidate for Humberside in 1989 and won 14% of the votes. She had joined the Ecology Party in 1982 driven by concern about nitrates in the water supply.   

Robert Lindsay

NB if anything in this is inccorrect or you have any more info - do get in touch with me robert.lindsay@greenparty.org.uk






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