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Leading Article: To the compost heap of history

ONLY a quarter of the 400 delegates expected at the Green Party's annual conference in Wolverhampton this week have so far appeared there. The absent majority has shown a surprising degree of sound political judgement. A little more than three years ago the party won 15 per cent of the votes, though no seats, in the elections to the European Parliament. An opinion poll soon afterwards suggested that half the electorate would seriously consider voting for the Greens. Heady stuff for a party that got 1.4 per cent of the vote in the 1987 election, and wildly misleading. This year, the Greens' share of the vote returned to 1.3 per cent. What has gone wrong? Should anyone care?

There are plenty of former leaders of the Green Party to tell us what has gone wrong: they blame their former followers. Few people can have done more than Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin to spread the idea that the party's mass membership consists of little woolly minds kept snug in little woolly hats. And the loathing has been returned by the membership towards any party figure who threatened to acquire the authority to speak for any other.

This enthusiasm for extreme democracy within the movement has gone hand in hand with policies that are not in the least democratic. There are elements in the Greens' programme that are offensively as well as unrealistically authoritarian. Zero population growth and zero economic growth are policies that would have to be imposed by force on most of the world's population. The 'people's democracies' of Eastern Europe very nearly achieved both. This did not stop them from being among the filthiest polluters and most materialistic societies the world has known. If human greed is ruining this planet, it will be checked by self-interest, not superhuman virtue.

There has long been a divide in the wider Green movement between those who would persuade and those who would convert. In this country the organised Greens, if the oxymoron be allowed, have always come down on the side of conversion, if for no other reason than that the British electoral system has meant that there was never any real power available to turn fundamentalist Green politicians into realists.

Defenders of the party would say that none of this matters. The function of the Greens is to put forward a pure programme, which none of the established pressure groups dare do. The Green Party alone can provide the kind of radical political critique of machine civilisation that socialism provided in the 19th century. Just like the early socialists, their job is to be prophetic, not practical. But socialism was borne forwards by a huge natural constituency of industrial workers. The natural constituents of the Green movement are the educated and prosperous middle classes who consume proportionately most of the planet's resources. These are the people who now pay premium prices for ecologically sound goods. Outside the Green Party, green ideas are now a huge political force. Greenpeace already has more members than the Labour Party.

If the planet does face an ecological crisis, there is no time for prophecy. What is called for instead is sensible action. The Green Party has historically opposed both sense and action. Recycle it.