How I joined the greens

I joined the green party when I was 16. We had just invaded Iraq, and I knew nothing about politics but that I felt confused and horrified by what our country had done. The papers were full of blood and the streets were full of angry people. I read Michael Moore’s “Stupid White Men”, tied a white cloth around my arm and with my friend Jess, we hoisted a banner up the flagpole in the centre of Sheffield which said “No War”. The police left it up.

I’d never met a green before. My parents and almost everyone I knew were Labour – enraged Labour, but still Labour. The city greens had no councillors and seemed to have no members anywhere close in age to me. I came along to some meetings and was pounced on as a scarce “young activist”. But I’d only heard of climate change as a diagram in geography class marked “global warming”. To me “the environment” was an image from a kids book where the world’s endangered species fly away through a hole in the ozone layer never to return. So I began to read and the more I read about it, the more passionate I became. I tried to win my friends over to the green cause – to my surprise, they thought I was crazy.

This honeymoon with the green party lasted only a few months, until the spring council election when I campaigned for them and they once again failed to get a seat. A photo of the greens appeared in the local newspaper, looking scruffy and long-haired beside the smart-suited Labour and Lib Dem candidates. I felt they weren’t taking it seriously, and worse I began to suspect they cared more about closing down the local incinerator than fighting poverty. That autumn I moved to a small fjord in western Norway where the tentacles of British politics didn’t reach and the green party was left far behind. I battled my economics teacher because I thought I was a proper lefty and despised the market. Then I spent a year in one of the poorest parts of China, where it was clear how market reform was bringing millions of people out of destitution. When I started uni, I felt I was a gritty realist. I quit my politics course to study Economics and Chinese, and after a row about the greens’ stance on the Euro, I left the party.

At this time the greens were experiencing their brief magical high in Scotland, with 7 MSPs. Since I was involved in the activst group People and Planet (though always a bit of a malcontent) I knew lots of young greens as well as Mark Ballard the green MSP and uni rector. I agreed with them on many issues, and even helped campaign for them. But ultimately my attitude was that they weren’t quite right. They were too fluffy, with a noted tendency to get stuck in stereotype fixations.

But who else to choose? No other party was serious about the environment. No other party was as committed to peace. The greens were also strongest on transport and supporting developing countries. The biggest sticking point was the economy. The greens have radical views on sharply increasing government spending, and on pushing for a new, fair and progresssive economic model. It is bold and the aims are laudable, but to be frank, I wasn’t sold that it would work. The economy is immensely complicated, and the most important thing anyone can learn about it, is quite how ignorant we still are, and quite how easily we can screw it up. There are clearly serious problems to be fixed, but the treatment must not be worse than the disease itself.

Then came the 2007 Holyrood election, and the greens were slaughtered. As we downed our pints and cheered (in my case at least) for the SNP victory, the horror dawned that the greens were in for a massacre. Having seen first-hand the important role greens can play in shaping the national agenda with just a few seats, I was desperate for them to hang on. I turned to my friend Esmi and said that if they lost more than half their MSPs, I’d rejoin. They kept only two. I signed up again the next morning. But in retrospect, my decision was inevitable.

Because for many reasons, if you believe in even half of what the greens stand for, than you are better in than out. For there is no-one else but them. On the issues where the greens are weak, we already have the main parties, which totally dominate our politics anyway. The electoral system is unfair and the media is biased. There are many reasons why the greens do not have the vote or the support which they should have. Survey after survey shows that a far, far higher proportion of people agree with green policies than actually vote for them. This is because they think a green vote is a wasted vote, or because they didn’t know the policies until they did the survey. A small increase in the green vote matters. It makes their voice louder, and encourages creative debate on serious issues: it has shifted the main parties gradually in the direction of environmental sustainability. Proportionally, my energy supporting the greens is far more influential than it would be supporting a big party. And on many issues it is the most effective way to get heard and help bring change. Without bottling it on the biggest issues of all.

And as for the economics. Now is a fascinating time of debates across the economics profession. The neo-liberalism of the 80’s has taken a sound thrashing, though it is still strong. Research on environmental economics and happiness economics has exploded, and many of the world’s best thinkers are taking a new look at  the fundamental ideas about how the economy works. The greens are leading the way in spirit, but they lack resources. We need these resources. We need to work out how to organize our economy in the best possible way, only then can we see off the threats of climate change and oil running out, while ensuring that all people get the best possible opportunities in life. But these resources won’t come unless we fight for them. Therefore, imperfect as any party must be, for me the greens are the only alternative.

This wasn’t meant to be a plug for the election. I’ll be writing that soon 🙂 (Though check out this article on Caroline Lucas, the party leader and hopefully soon-to-be first green MP). Enough to say that this election really, really matters. We are the only major European country without a green rep in the national parliament, and for the first time, there is a very good chance of this changing in under a fortnight. History is being made. With this going on it might seem a bit self-important of little me to write a “my history of why I joined the green party”. But it’s not. I may not be prime minister, a paid politician, or even a candidate. But I am an individual with a heart and a brain, and I matter just as much. And so do you.


13 Responses to “How I joined the greens”

  1. Oscar Says:

    Well written Ellie. Nice to see that you have found a purpose to be excited about. It’s very important to have that. Maybe I would support the greens too if I were British.
    Cool to see that you are blogging again as well!

  2. blanco Says:

  3. elliepant Says:

    Ah yes Mr Andy C’s post. I can understand his feelings, but I am slightly surprised at the timing of his decision. The greens are destined to be a small party, and would be smallish even if we got PR. It is inevitable that when faced with a two-horse race, the greens will be squeezed, as happened this time with labour/con and at the last holyrood elections with labour/SNP. Imo the greens have still achieved a lot and will achieve even more now we have Caroline Lucas. But I suppose everyone faces the question of whether to effect change through a political party, or outside of one: both can be effective.

  4. blanco Says:

    I’m not sure that’s the real choice facing progressives and Andy C, in this instance. The choice is between trying to effect change through a small political party, and a large one. As you say, the Greens, even under PR, will be small. The only PR system that would give the Greens reasonable representation at their current level of support would either be an extreme single national constituency, or AMS/AV+ with the top-up element being a single national list. Neither would fly, in the UK. I think Andy’s timing makes sense because he’s realised the Greens have hit the wall as to what they might achieve.

    I think people who are serious about politics, and have exhausted the possibilities of change within the Greens, either become disillusioned with politics or seek change within a larger party. Whether that party is the Lib Dems or Labour depends on if the former Green was more of a liberal or more of a social democrat. In any system where there are 3 or 4 parties, the Greens can’t be significant players. As he says, PR is not likely to happen soon.

  5. elliepant Says:

    I don’t think the greens have hit a wall, and there is much we can do both within westminster and also in local councils and Europe. In Scotland the green MSPs have also done some excellent work. But I do agree that there are decisions with regard to small vs big parties and that for some people – especially those who are interested in entering politics themselves rather than supporting a party on the ground – a larger party offers more opportunities to change big things.

  6. blanco Says:

    I dont disagree there hasnt been great work done in Scotland – I think the numbers mean Caroline cant possibly have as much impact at Westminster, unless she takes a ministerial position within the Progressive Government – but the sheer difference in scale of a) what needs to be done in the time we have left, and b) what a small party like the Greens can achieve in that time, is overwhelming. The urgency of the problems, incl climate change, must surely lead people to think the Greens arent the solution, however well-meaning they are and whatever small steps of progress they undeniably make.

    put it this way: even Jenny Jones said at the Progressive London conference, that the real hope for the future was progressives within Labour, as the Greens will likely never form a government.

    I dont think there is a contradiction between supporting a party “on the ground” and entering politics oneself: in fact, i think entering politics is precisely how one supports a party on the ground. non-electoral campaigning is great, but there are NGOs etc who do it much better than the Greens ever have or ever will.

  7. elliepant Says:

    Political power is not just about being in the position to make big decisions on policy, but to set the agenda in the first place. NGOs and the greens go about similar work in different ways. Most greens also campaign for NGOs, and many prominent NGO figures are members of the green party. The NGOs have membership and influence far beyond the political sphere and can organize on a much bigger scale, but the greens are a voice in the political forum. And that doesn’t just mean elected representatives, but also just a voice on the doorstep and at the hustings, bringing up issues which other parties do not (and cannot) prioritise.
    One reason the greens remain small is because when one of their key issues becomes mainstream, the other parties shift to occupy their position. This is a good thing. On tackling climate change, the steps we need to take are massive. It would be suicide for a major party to push for certain carbon cuts overnight, and whereas they may set “targets”, these are never met. There is a very important role for progressives and environmentalists within the major parties to influence its direction, but they are limited in the measures they can call for publically. The greens play a complementary role where they can scrutinise other parties policies in open debate, and where they fail, they can campaign against them and win. For example the greens in Norwich council have played a very important role in shifting the debate there and forcing the lib dems and labour to become more progressive.
    The difference I was implying between supporting a party “on the ground” and entering politics, is the role that you play in influencing debate within the party. On the ground you are mostly passive, doing physical work with a small degree of influence as a “grassroots member” and if you don’t like the direction of the party, you leave. Entering politics you help to set the strategy and policies of the party, and if you don’t like it, you try to change it. If climate change is your number 1 issue, you are relatively speaking wasting your time delivering leaflets for a major party.

  8. blanco Says:

    “many prominent NGO figures are members of the green party”

    – many many more are members of Labour, I think that is a sign of what most NGO people feel is the best way to influence politics to benefit their issues.

    “the greens in Norwich council have played a very important role in shifting the debate there and forcing the lib dems and labour to become more progressive.”

    – yes this is very good, however the people who make the real change in this example are Lib Dems and Labour – Greens are dependent upon them for progressive change. i know which one i’d rather be – you need both, of course – altho i will say i think pressure groups have been infinitely more effective than the Green Party in pushing green issues, e.g. FoE and the climate change act.

    “If climate change is your number 1 issue, you are relatively speaking wasting your time delivering leaflets for a major party.”

    – again that’s right but – and i understand it might be different in SGP but in GPEW this is the case – the vast majority of stuff that the vast majority of people in such a minor party do is delivering leaflets, which following on from what you said must be a massive waste of time. very few people in GPEW get to decide strategy. policy is democratically decided but strategy is in the hands of Caroline Lucas. if you arent Caroline Lucas, and delivering leaflets is a waste if not of time then of your political talents and potential contribution, then you;d be better off in another party where you could do more than simply advance her career.

  9. blanco Says:

    Sorry, that list bit sounded a bit of a barb: what I should’ve said is that in the Green Party, given the collapse of their vote everywhere outside of 6 E&W constituencies, it will be at least two – three elections time before the Greens get any other MPs. There are lots of different things Labour and the Lib Dems could do with their numbers, and that members can do within the parties. Greens are very limited to what Caroline can achieve.

  10. elliepant Says:

    Look I respect your opinion on the green party, but I think we’d better agree to disagree. I am quite aware of the challenges facing a small party, and I obviously do not agree with what each and every one of the thousands of other greens in the UK think. Politics is a messy business, the politics of a small party focusing on a couple of very neglected issues, is particularly messy. There is obviously huge national variation in the greens, and I’m sorry if your local experience has not been good. In Scotland they have achieved a lot, and there is much potential. Were we to get PR, the potential would be greater see. The greens have made a big impact in other European countries.

    Different people are different, and while I sympathise with people who leave the party (I have friends who left, I left at one point), I am most definitely staying. And I certainly don’t agree with your assessment that strategy lies just in the hands of Caroline Lucas, nor that we are limited to what Caroline can achieve. In fact, more closely relevant to me is what can Robin Harper and Patrick Harvie achieve. The green vote goes up and down. It will go up again in the future. If you don’t believe me, I’m open to bets.

    And to be frank, if you’re serious about being progressive and constructive, I wouldn’t use such divisive expressions as “typical green supporter”. I am not labour or lib dem but I respect that people campaigning for these parties, or any other party, have chosen the path which they feel most comfortable with, and where they feel they can achieve the most. All parties have strengths and weaknesses, and politics has a plurality of parties for a reason. But we’re all in this together.

  11. jacobbauthumley Says:

    I’d like to link to your wonderful blog, but I don’t know how…

    This is mine. I work with Norwich Green Party. Not a member yet. The post above is on global warming.

  12. How I joined the greens (via Ellie’s Blog) | Jacobbauthumley's Blog Says:

    […] I joined the green party when I was 16. We had just invaded Iraq, and I knew nothing about politics but that I felt confused and horrified by what our country had done. The papers were full of blood and the streets were full of angry people. I read Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men", tied a white cloth around my arm and with my friend Jess, we hoisted a banner up the flagpole in the centre of Sheffield which said "No War". The police left it up. … Read More […]

  13. jacobbauthumley Says:

    I like your writing a lot, and this article in particular. You do not post often, but when you do the content is always thought provoking. Are you back from the People’s Republic of China? Over the last few weeks I’ve been out campaigning with the Greens quite a lot in the upcoming Norwich City Council elections, and I’ve enjoyed it a very much. Thinking about Going Green myself, as in joining the Green Party.

    Old Commie (I was CPGB – the original one) habits die hard, though. Suspicion of any deviation from the royal road of democratic communism. Suspicion of anything that does not apply a marxist diagnostic to our politico-economic ills.

    The Green Party is reformist and parliamentarist in its orientation and aspiration, but it has recognised the person/planet connection (personal evolution in awareness and the biosphere connection, for example ridding your life of non-recyclable plastics, many of which end up in a vast “plastics lake”, miles wide, in the Pacific Ocean, killing fish and poisoning sea mammals), and the importance of prefigurative politics, the future in the present.

    The explicit reformism of the UK Green Party bothers me. It is for me an obstacle to joining the organization, rather than merely offering support in local campaigns. If a political project does not acknowledge that capitalism is the biggest obstacle to and enemy of environmental politics, and does not have a strategic perspective on its overthrow, then is it worth supporting at all?

    Plus, and it is a real plus: the Green Party do not seem to suffer from the dogmatism, lack of self-awareness, incestuous behaviour, self-destructive posturing (the WRP are positively the worst for this, but I shall not tar most of the other groups with this brush), authoritarianism, fissiparity, and millenarian aspirations (SPGB!) of the numerous and vocal grouplets on the UK Far Left: Socialist Workers’ Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, CPGB (ML), CPGB (one of the best grouplets), CPB, NCP, Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Party of Great Britain (very endearing, but completely on another planet!), Revolutionary Communist Group, International Marxist Tendency, Workers’ Revolutionary Party and the beguiling A World to Win (

    You really wouldn’t know where to start, would you? Green Person says:

    “Get off the Leftist Bus!
    Think About Us!”

    Unlike all the groups above, the Green Party have city councillors all over the country, an MP, and more than 10,000 members. The impossibilist and opportunist SWP are the next largest group, with about 4,000 members, and a high turnover.

    Which speaks volumes about the political (in)capacity of the British Far Left, does it not?

    So I haven’t joined…yet. Must talk to Derek Wall…he’s the nearest thing to a Green Commie I’ve come across. The Green Party has its own internal Left. I haven’t met them.

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