Parliament and Politics: Political winter descends on former success story: The Green Party is now an influence rather than an electoral force, reports David Nicholson-Lord

TO THE lay observer, the Green Party's treatment of Sara Parkin and David Icke at its conference in Wolverhampton must have been baffling.

Mrs Parkin, hitherto the party's 'greatest asset', was ejected from its leadership. Mr Icke, whose self-declared Messianism made him arguably one of its greatest liabilities, was greeted with enthusiasm. Both responses seemed proof of a collective death wish.

Many leading environmentalists will shed few tears for the Greens, believing them to have been a fractious irrelevance to the cause. But is the Green Party in abrupt terminal decline? And if it dies, will green politics die with it?

Tom Burke, former chairman of the Green Alliance and now a special adviser to the Government, is among those who believe that the Greens had their opportunity - the surge of support which saw them claim 15 per cent in the 1989 Euro- elections - and fluffed it.

Yet the green movement itself is one of the most spectacular growth stories of the last decade. Unofficial estimates put the membership of environmental groups at about 5 million (Labour Party membership is 261,000). The Green vote at the April general election was 170,000 - 1.3 per cent. Why the mismatch?

In the UK, in contrast to much of Europe, the Greens face an electoral system that penalizes minority parties. Government and bureaucracy are strong, Parliament weak. Those pushing for a green agenda have found more influence within pressure groups - Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth - than a minority party.

Many senior figures in the party believe the pressure groups have let it down by withholding their support. Robin Grove-White, director of the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at Lancaster University and a former leading environmentalist, describes the suggestion as 'quite extraordinarily facile'.

Identifying with the Green Party would have meant voluntary groups losing charitable status and being frozen out by the main parties, he says.

'Environmental politics is about enormous tensions in industrial society - not just technological problems but values, processes and structure. These are not being adequately addressed by the dominant political parties. There is a need for something major and new.'

Should Green Party supporters give up politics and return, in Mr Burke's words, to 'lives of quiet desperation'? Or should the party tough out the political winter ahead?

Peter Wilkinson, former UK chairman of Greenpeace and now an environmental consultant, describes the party as a 'critical element of the green movement. It is its political wing. Given that the party hasn't a hope in hell of running the country for the foreseeable future, the real priority is to influence the mainstream parties' policies. But there has to be a ginger group - a political organisation like the Green Party.'

If the greening of the political agenda is the criterion, then the Greens have already achieved some success. Indeed, a Mori poll commissioned by WBMG, Mr Wilkinson's consultancy, last week showed that most MPs would support radical green proposals. Yet, if the green tide is lapping through industry, society and even into Parliament, the Government holds out against it. According to Mr Wilkinson, this makes electoral 'success' marginal - what difference would a few Green MPs make?

Green Party members apparently agree. According to a Strathclyde University survey, half of them are reconciled to the novel idea of the party as an electoral pressure group whose main job is to influence the other parties. Most members, particularly activists, are prepared for a long haul and do not define success in electoral terms.

Even critics of the Greens, such as Mr Burke, believe that the public will continue to look for a 'green political choice'. Green Party activists - those, at least, who are staying - see their job as to refine this and elaborate so-called 'fundamentalist' policies on issues such as population and economic growth. The alternative is to pronounce the system incapable of reform and turn, as Mr Icke has done, to spiritual reformation.

The Strathclyde survey indicates that the Green voter is younger, better educated and more 'post-materialist' than the average, and fed up with the main parties. A fortnight before the British Green vote collapsed in April, the French Greens were registering 14 per cent in regional elections. Both the British and European experience suggest that the Greens are not a 'flash' party but an enduring phenomenon, waxing and waning according to the public mood. The Greens may be in retreat, but they will probably return.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power