Tell a ‘Green’ they were left wing in the 1970s and 1980s and they might have told you to wash your mouth out. The heavily state-dominated policies of Labour during those decades were for some environmental activists, utterly terrifying.
The blunt power of trade unions and the revolutionary left views of the Militant Tendency, which in the early 1980s had a foothold in the Labour movement, was the exact opposite of the emerging belief that local communities should take back control over their own affairs and live a more environmentally aware life.
In fact some would have quite liked to have smashed the left’s vision for a behemoth state to smitherines.
“In the past we didn’t brand ourselves as left wing because left wing was associated with a very centralist state,” said Andrew Gray, who is challenging Labour’s veteran MP Nick Brown in the forthcoming General Election.
“In the 1980s we might not have been left wing because we would have been attached to left ideas we just wouldn’t have shared.
“We do believe in public services and we don’t want to dismantle the state but we do believe in a very strong local agenda.
“Most of the policies like public ownership of the railways, the NHS and ending Trident are core green policies that very long term greens from the 1970s share, but we aren’t all ‘old lefties’. We have always been distincitve.
“Now we are unashamedly of the left wing in terms of most policies but where we will always differ from the very old left are our policies on local Government.”
The 1970s and 1980s was a transitional period and a bringing together of a dozen or more environmentally minded groups. The PEOPLE party rose, putting out an agenda of slower growth, sustainability, survival against economic crisis and taking inspiration from Paul Ehrlich’s work, The Population Bomb.
Teddy Goldsmith, who founded The Ecologist magazine supported the PEOPLE party, wrote a Blueprint for Survival printed in 1972, and later stood for the The Ecology Party.
However it wasn’t until 1985 that greens got their official capital letter - and the ‘green agenda’ morphed into The Green Party.
But by this point the ideas of Teddy Goldsmith were beginning to fade as his conservative approach to the environment began to be superceded by socialist currents emerging within the British Green Party.
Yet those early decades reveal just how fragmented the scene was. From the left, to rural protection, to Conservative with a small ‘c’ visions of farming, food production and landscape.
Friends of the Earth, Conservation Society, Ramblers Association and Vegetarian group, Conservation Society, CND, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Friends of the Earth and Towards Survival were all drawn into the fray, and there were as many similarities as there were battle lines.
But that fractious swing between left and right has died away and the party is now solidly and unashamedly left, and in 2015, the most left-wing party you’ll see on the ballot paper.
Alan Marsden, a former Labour party member and veteran Green campaigner who has been working in the Eden Valley in deeply Conservative north east Cumbria for more than 15 years, said those original ‘conservative greens’ are a dying breed.
He said: “The battle between the protection of the environment and interests in international capitalism was always going to come and the conservatives were always going to be on the wrong side.
“We can’t afford to burn more fossil fuels where as at the same time we have got large fossil fuel corporations going full steam ahead and it’s going to come around to an almost Tolkien battle - that battle is going to come and it’s a battle between international capitalists and the people who want to live on the planet.
“‘Tolkien’ might sound flowery but it amazes me how little it’s in the mainstream media and it’s the biggest single problem that we have got.”
He said there’s no shame in shouting loud and proud about how left the Green Party is today.
Alan, who is standing in Eden District Council local election on May 7, said: “The Green Party is now the party of social justice and sustainability as well as being the party of the environment. They don’t just want to be a one trick pony like UKIP.
“It’s always been a broad church and there’s still people from the right wing but they are very much in the background, because of austerity and more broadly because of neo-liberal which basically the three main parties subscribe to. In our local party there are very few people of that ilk and they may well have gone.”
However will the Green Party’s ‘we are the left’ marketing campaign for General Election 2015 transform into votes on May 7?
Andrew Gray, who lives in South Heaton, is certain that they will steal votes from the Labour Party, and potentially even take a council seat or two in the North East. They currently only hold one in Middlesbrough, Joe Michna in the city’s Park Ward.
These are abysmally low targets by anyone’s admission, but there’s a sense of the party creating a new identity for itself, with Peter Thomson, a former Labour Lord Mayor of Newcastle, explaining how eyes are really on the 2020 General Election, if Parliament extends for five years and this is the year when they will really start to emerge.
However Mr Gray, a librarian, who has been involved with the Green Party since the early 1990s said: “The feeling on the doorstep is that we are taking people from all parts of the political spectrum including those who voted Lib Dem in the past but what’s changed this time is because we have emphasised inequality and the need to tackle it, and other commitments like nationalising the railways, to the NHS being free from the market, more people who would have previously voted Labour are voting for us.
“People are highlighting particularly the social justice side of our policies, and that’s the reason they are looking more seriously at us than they would have done in the past.
“In a way I’m not surprised about Labour’s latest manifesto not offering more to entice those voters who might come to us. They are bending over backwards to defend Trident to Labour supporters. We know Labour voters are picking up on that issue.
“People also talk about the economy and inequality of tax and I think supporters were hoping that Ed was going to go in a different direction and it’s not happened.”
The Green’s own manifesto reads like that of a party who knows it can’t win - an intense amount of bountiful promises, that would cost an awful lot to fulfill.
It’s setting out an alternative way of life, a vision for how things could be, but where do we draw the line between aspiration and true political credibility?
End austerity, scrap tuition fees, an £85bn programme of home insulation, renewable electricity generation & flood defences, increase NHS budget by £12bn a year, bring all schools back under local authority control.
There’s other policies that just feel as though they’ve been thrown in for the sheer hell of it - a referendum on the EU, while also supporting a policy of open doors immigration. A policy that would do away with the Grand National, to appease the animal activists within the party.
And all of this is premised on borrowing £338bn, with the sizeable amount of interest that would be charged on top. That is compared to the Conservative borrowing pledge of £115bn.
Andrew Gray, said: “But by the end of the Parliament we are running a surplus.
“In the last five years there’s been a lot of emphasis on Government debt but what we have actually done is got individuals into even higher debt. It should be the otherway round. The Government should shoulder that, not individual people.
“We are asking people to be bold because we want to radically transform society.”
For financial literacy he references how cancelling Trident would save £100bn over its lifetime and their proposed railfare cut would be funded by scrapping the country’s road building programme. To make change it costs, like insulating homes, but it’s a ‘one-off cost’.
So the message on the doorstep is that voters have an economic choice, and for Alan Marsden it’s about rejecting the narrative that’s been built up by the Coalition Government that any borrowing would be wreckless.
He understands a figure of £338bn will worry people, but economies globally borrow, and deficit economics has been a ‘complete fraud’.
He said: “Our deficit is 80% of GDP but in Japan for example it’s 125% of GDP. The trade deficit is what matters, this group of Tories and Lib Dems have managed to convince us that the ordinary deficit is the problem. The trade deficit is a lot more now than it was in 2010 and our national debt is massive.”
“The £338bn figure does scare people because they are tuned into the way of thinking of austerity, that borrowing and debt are bad things.
“I think people will vote green over Labour. Things can change, it doesn’t have to be a neo-liberal choice.”