PEOPLE logo taken from “PEOPLE Election Leaflet February 1974”, supplied by Professor Michael Benfield
In November/December 1972 a new political party was formed in Britain. This year, despite two name changes, that party is still going strong and celebrating its 40th birthday. The Green Party was originally as PEOPLE in January 1973, holding its first meeting in February of that year, and changing its name to the Ecology Party in 1975 and the Green Party in 1985. Currently in the House of Commons there is one Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, who represents the constituency Brighton Pavilion. The party made its electoral breakthrough in the 1989 European elections when it gained 15 per cent of the overall vote.
In the first general election of 1974 (there were two that year, in February and October) PEOPLE fielded seven candidates, none of whom won. Yet in some places they came third and beat the larger Communist party. They got two councillors elected in the local elections of 1976 (the party was then the Ecology Party) and fought in every election since the February 1974 one. Proclaiming they were neither left nor right, PEOPLE was founded in Coventry by four people concerned about ecology and also the need for popular participation in government. Their name comes from their interest in population issues and also reflected the emphasis it took on participatory democracy. Their manifesto contained policies not just focused on the environment, but on issues that stretched across politics, from education, to social welfare, to population, employment and industry, pollution, transport, the economy, defence and foreign policy. PEOPLE’s fundamental philosophy was holistic, embracing the whole of society, hence the different policies in the manifesto.
PEOPLE appeared in a period when the environment was just becoming more integrated in society. The first few years of the 1970s was a period of rapid change in attitudes towards the environment. The decade began with the European Conservation Year, which encouraged governments across the continent to educate their citizens in conservation issues. The Ecologist also appeared in this year. The UN Conference was held in 1972, and the ‘Plant a Tree in ‘73’ campaign, which encouraged tree planting on a massive scale, happened the same year PEOPLE was founded. The BBC science fiction drama series Doomwatch had already entertained and educated people about environmental problems and there was a large increase in newspaper reports concerning the environment. The first few years of the 1970s saw environmental activist groups appear like SOC’EM and Commitment.
Some may ask therefore why the party was needed. Why couldn’t or didn’t the other political parties pick up the slack and adopt environmentally friendly policies. The Conservative Government, after all, elected in 1970 had established the Department of the Environment, there had already been the UN Conference in 1972 and a great awareness already existed in the British public of environmental issues. But PEOPLE and the Ecology Party, as it became, represented a ‘new approach to politics’, describing themselves as the only political party committed to economic strategy based on minimal growth and self-sufficiency; they were different because they not only preached devolution but practiced it too with the party structure; and were the only party which was influenced by ecological principles . One of the party’s slogans was “PEOPLE Puts Politics in Perspective”; another “The political party based on ecological principles”.
With the party celebrating its 40th birthday it offers a chance to reassess and revisit the founding of this party which appeared at a time when the environment was only just becoming a main part of British society. With the exception, perhaps, of Population issues, which are more contentious today, most of PEOPLE’s policies seem not dissimilar to the Green Party’s. And whilst electorally, in general elections at least, no PEOPLE/Ecology/Green Party MP got elected before the 2010 General Election, the appearance of PEOPLE raised the tone of the environment in the press and forced the other main political parties at the time – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals – to raise their game on environmental issues. PEOPLE ensured that the environment became – and stayed – a part of British politics.
*My thanks go to Professor Michael Benfield, one of the four founders of PEOPLE, for providing me with original documents concerning PEOPLE/The Ecology Party’s early years, some of which have been made use of here: PEOPLE Election Leaflet February 1974; Facts About the Ecology Party 1976.