Greens try to stay afloat in sea of troubles

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Environment Correspondent

If Conservative delegates in Blackpool feel a little down about their party's fortunes, they might find some consolation 30 miles down the coast in Southport.

There, the Green Party is holding its autumn conference for the next four days, and it really has got problems. Membership is down to 4,000 and the party is making heavy losses.

The Greens are now resigned to fielding around 70 parliamentary candidates at the next general election after putting up some 400 at the last two. It will be their smallest showing since 1979 - the year the Greens reckon they first registered on the British electoral scene.

At their last nationwide outing before the voters, in the European Parliament elections of June 1994, they won less than 2 per cent of the vote. That was a sad contrast with the annus mirabilis of 1989 when they notched up 15 per cent.

Since then, there have been bitter splits, with Sara Parkin quitting the party along with several other leading lights. David Icke, once a principal speaker, reinvented himself first as a "son of godhead'' and then as a fantastic conspiracy theorist, while Jonathon Porritt - who is no longer active in the party - was almost expelled last year.

Yet the remaining stalwarts refuse to be downhearted as they strive for the social and industrial revolution they believe is needed to bring humanity into harmony with nature. David Taylor, one of the Greens' two principal speakers, said: ''We're used to having our obituary written; we're in good heart.''

Yesterday dozens of them descended on Blackpool beach, to demand that the Government condemn French nuclear tests, before travelling to Southport for their own conference.

The Greens' agenda and reports show a degree of painful honesty and self- criticism that none of the mainstream parties would ever dream of putting on display. ''Once again a difficult year in which membership and income has continued to fall,'' writes treasurer Brian Burnett.

About one-third of the Greens' 203 local parties are ''at risk of collapse'' with another third giving cause for concern. The party is budgeted to make a pounds 30,750 loss this year, eating deep into its pounds 80,000 reserves. However, the party can claim some credit for getting a Private Member's Bill promoting energy conservation in homes enacted into law earlier this year.

The Greens drafted the first version - it was later to be heavily watered down - and helped provide the nationwide lobbying pressure over several years which the Bill needed to get on to the statute book.

Now the Greens are working with Friends of the Earth to try to get a Bill through Parliament that would reduce traffic on the roads.

The party's great hope - most would say its only hope - of returning to electoral relevance is the advent of proportional representation. With Labour endorsing a referendum on voting systems, the chances of PR being implemented are better than ever. "PR is a great hope, but we mustn't depend on it too heavily,'' said Mr Taylor.