Where on earth is the Green Party?

The environment is gaining record levels of media coverage. So why are people not talking about the Green Party?

When Germany's coalition between the Greens and the ruling Social Democrats collapsed last year, environmentalists found themselves out of power in Europe for the first time in 30 years.

Here in the UK, the Green Party's profile also appears to be on the wane. In the last general election its best result was Keith Taylor's third place in Brighton Pavilion – a far cry from the 1989 European Parliament election when the Greens secured 15 per cent of the vote nationally.

Ironically, the ebbing of Green influence has coincided with a greater focus on the environment in mainstream politics. The climate and energy efficiency are on the public's mind, and the major parties are tapping into this.

It may be an unconventional measure of public interest, but it is always telling to note the targets for parody on April Fools' Day. This year The Guardian suggested Coldplay's Chris Martin had switched his allegiance to the Tories and podcasted a song in support of David Cameron's green cred.

It showed not only that Cameron's green posturings have hit home (many fell for the joke), but that some of our biggest celebrities are environmental sympathisers: it is trendy to be green.

So why, in this green-friendly climate, is the political party dedicated to the environment so inconspicuous?

'A lot of people are asking what happened to the Greens,' says Green Party head of external comms Jim Killock. 'But we've been very successful in the past couple of years.'

Despite its relatively muted profile, the party is aiming to have more than 100 councillors for the first time in its history after May's local elections.

It is particularly keen to remedy the fact that it is devoid of presence in London's councils. 'Journalists, who are usually in our main demographic, will talk about us more because we'll be on their doorstep,' says Killock.

Lack of visibility
More recognition in the media will be necessary for the party to gather momentum. PRWeek's search of national newspaper archives for the past 12 months provided surprisingly scant examples of Green Party coverage, with some political commentators explaining they lacked sufficient knowledge of, or exposure to, the Greens.

'It is not a party we generally cover,' says The Sun's political editor George Pascoe-Watson. Even The Independent, a paper traditionally receptive to environmental stories, failed to provide anyone with an opinion on the Green Party's current situation. Killock responds: 'There is green posturing among other parties but commitment [to policies] is low. We have to show we're the "real green" party. There is an issue with getting coverage and getting that message across and [we're trying harder to push forward] our spokespeople, such as Caroline Lucas, MEP for South-East England.'

In a bid to generate further coverage and get themselves taken more seriously on the mainstream political stage, the Greens are promoting their stance on non-green matters. Last week for instance they attacked the Government's NHS policies as 'a wreck'.

Greenpeace UK policy director Simon Reddy says the Green Party is making significant inroads across a wider policy base, citing its embrace last September of Labour's anti-social behaviour orders. Killock explains: 'To secure our future as a political party we need to focus on poverty and social discrimination.'

This broadening of horizons is a far cry from Jonathan Porritt's tub-thumping days as chairman of the UK Ecology Party from 1978-84. But Porritt has moved away from front-line party activity (although he is still a member and the Greens would be 'happy to have
him back' as an activist) and is chair of Tony Blair's Sustainable Development Commission. The party lacks a similarly recognisable spokesperson at present.

Killock concedes that although the Greens have spokespeople in the forms of Lucas, Taylor (still the candidate for Brighton Pavilion) and Darren Johnson (running for Lewisham), 'we lack a celebrity face'.
He says the party will be networking in the run-up to May's elections and is aiming to match the UK Independence Party in terms of amount of coverage, despite having fewer members.

More robust structure
'The party was a complete mess a few years ago,' admits Killock. 'We relied too heavily on voluntary structures. But now we have a comms structure in place rather than individuals campaigning alone.' Indeed, the Greens now have five full-time comms staff and a membership heading towards the 10,000 mark – more than double what it was in 1995, but disappointing in relation to its peak of 20,000 supporters in 1990. This recovery is healthy, but other parties are encroaching on its territory.

'The public are facing up to the realities of climate change, and that means all political parties are having to address it,' says Greenpeace's Reddy. 'That doesn't mean the Greens are disappearing, but that larger parties have increased the green agenda.'

Reddy adds that, in fact, Greenpeace spends more time lobbying the three main political parties than it does the less-powerful Greens. 'Only one party can really make a difference so we spend a lot of time talking to Labour,' he explains. 'Cameron is making the right noises with the Tories, but it remains to be seen whether it's simply rhetoric.'

In a Guardian article this week Lucas dismissed the Tories' environmental credentials as a 'blank page' and claimed Cameron was a 'Johnny come lately' in the green arena.

Killock notes: 'We've got to invest in comms and be here when the public realise that a lot of posturing from the main parties has been rhetoric. In Scotland there's potential for a Lib Dem coalition in the next few years. The Green Party has not gone away.'

Three decades of the Greens
The Ecology Party is formed, inspired by an article in The Ecologist, edited by Edward Goldsmith, uncle of über-green Zac Goldsmith.
1985 Rebrands as the Green Party.
1989 After successful local elections the party sets itself a target of one million votes in the European elections. It secures 2.2 million.
1990 Membership peaks at 20,000.
1995 Resurgent Liberal Democrats and lack of media interest see membership fall to around 3,500.
1997 Stories in the press suggest the Greens might not even run in the general election. They do, but get only 1.4 per cent of the vote.
1999 The first two Green MEPs elected.
2003 Green councillors rise to 53.
2006 The party has 70 councillors, two seats in the Greater London Assembly and two MEPs.

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