Category Archives: Activist Groups

PEOPLE – Green Party’s 40th Birthday


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.


From Toronto to J’burg: group’s international reach

From minutes of SOC’EM 5 November 1975, Tyne and Wear Archives, accession number 2659 – apologies for the quality – is easier to read as smaller image.

Today I came across reference to ‘Metropolitan Toronto Library’ – a request from them for information re. SOC’EM’s Motorway Report. The note was taken from their minutes from November 1975 and simply was mentioned under the category of ‘Correspondence’. But the library very kindly included money for the report to be sent. In January 1975 there is a similar comment for the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, showing SOC’EM’s international reach. Both request the report produced by SOC’EM and Transport 2000.

I seem to have come to the end of the archives and there is no letter in there from either Toronto or Johannesburg. I have contacted Toronto Public Library to see whether they have a copy of it or conversely can tell me how they heard about it. Their reply was, alas, that they no longer had a copy (if they ever did). They have got rid of anything not Canadian and less than 50 pages. The mystery of how two libraries on different continents heard about a small organisation in the North East of England remains.

University Newspapers

I’ve finally finished in the Special Collections at Newcastle University. I was looking the their newspaper, Courier, published from 1948. Other than many, many articles on the state of university food (both price and quality) and accommodation issues, there was little directly related to the environment. In fact most students weren’t involved with any activism, at least if not related to food or board. In the 1960s things slowly changed with issues about civil rights, apartheid in South Africa, and lastly CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).

But there was nothing directed towards the environment. Until, that is, I came to 1972, when issues begin to increase, mostly pertaining to ideas about population growth and sustainability, centred around the publication that year of A Blueprint for Survival (this can be accessed free online on The Ecologist‘s web archive of issues, 1970-1999 here:

There is discussion in one article, not of SOC’EM but of another environmental group locally, TEC – Tyneside Environment Concern. They, together with others (the North East section of the Conservation Society and Clean Air for Teesside) wanted a ‘Blueprint for the North East’. The article is interesting, insofar as it links social justice and environmental justice. TEC was holding a festival ‘Planning for People’ which described current planning in the city as crazy. The festival wanted to tackle issues pertaining to the North East – unemployment, the abandonment of mining communities, pollution and dereliction. It questioned whether tackling one would negatively affect another? All the problems could be tackled, the festival argued, by creating a new, sustainable society, a ‘Blueprint for the North East’.

Is this an early example of social ecology, argued by Murray Bookchin in Our Synthetic Environment, which said you could only solve environmental problems by solving social problems? I’m not sure – I don’t know how the festival was received. TEC do claim they are concerned with the quality of life, but more bothered about rampant materialism on the lives of everyone.

Built vs Natural 2…

Also today I found there seemed to have been a spilt in October 1973, when several members, including the former Chairman (and founder), his wife and daughter, and a couple of others, all resigned. This was in relation to an incident involving the Chairman – from what I can work out he had the society’s best intentions at heart but he exaggerated the number of members.

I don’t know anything more than that but it was in a local paper I think (this was referred to various times) and I will hopefully get to probe further. Also it is acutely clear that SOC’EM had money issues. A fundraiser held on 10 June 1974 at Balmbra Music Hall, aptly named “SOC’EM at Balmbra’s” included a timetable with times of performers to the minute. The show had a commedian compere, a conjurer, a fire eater, a folk singer, a jazz singer, an organist and an auction. They finished with the national anthem.

They held many jumble sales and sold Christmas cards and the impression is they were often in arrears. But also that their reach was quite long. There are many letters throughout the ten years of the group’s functioning from students and members of the public asking for more information about joining and information on specific issues relating to the group. Letters from students and staff at Newcastle University, Keele University, and Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) as well as Newcastle Polytechnic (Northumbria University) show the bredth of knowledge this organisation had. They were usually about motorway and urban planning too and less about the natural environment.

Finally today’s visit also touched on tension between different environmental groups – which numbered 7 in the area in the 1970s, including SOC’EM; one member’s letter stated he was in shock why they were at odds with other environmental groups and not in coalition with them. He questioned who the enemy is – the council or the environmental groups!

Built vs. Natural (or what is the environment?)

I came across a mission statement today for SOC’EM. What they stand for – ‘SOC’EM! is an action group devoted to the betterment of Newcastle upon Tyne as an historic [sic], living city’. They opposed motorways, wanted a better transport network, a better bus service and believe people come before cars.

They were anti-empty office blocks and wanted the conservation and continued use of buildings of architectural and historic importance. They wanted more trees and open space and were for a better environment.

They opposed pollution and waste and wanted an ecologically sustainable society. They supported social justice in the allocation of resources and believe the city belonged to the people and not just the planners.

Taken from March 1974, their mission statement is rather vast. I am still working through the papers, today’s boxes mainly concerned with 1978 and  1973. The former offered some information but much of it was not really useful for my research. The latter, however, opened up an interesting question. Last week’s boxes produced much from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and there seemed to be a pronounced shift away from environmental concerns towards building conservation. That is to say, from the natural to the built environment. In their mission statement about they mention both; in the later 1970s and early 1980s, however, there is about 30 or so letters from the Chairman to various organisations – local authorities, the Department for the Environment, the Victorian Society and the Civic Trust about various buildings in the area and what the proposals were for them. Mostly it was to demolish them, which the organisation – or the Chairman – opposed.

The question this offered up was how far is the built environment an ‘environmental’ concern as we understand it today (ie dealing with pollution, species extinction, climate change etc). Does it have a place in a thesis on environmentalism?

It will factor, only so far as to say SOC’EM moved away from the natural and towards the built environment as time went on. Had SOC’EM been concerned fully with historic building conservation from the outside and have no issues surrounding pollution etc, then it wouldn’t be looked at to the same extent.

Archival Research (or the pleasure and pitfalls of archives)

Doing archival research can cause a range of emotions – joy when you stumble upon something significant, excitement when you get something unexpected, but useful, irritation when there is much of what you don’t need, but little of what you do, or just not much of anything, to anger, when your camera runs out or you are pushed for time looking atuseful items. Uncatalogued items can be an annoyance too.

At the moment I am going through some papers from SOC’EM, none of which are catalgoued. This is not the archives fault – often they have a huge amount of work and little time or staff, or money to catalogue everything. The staff are always helpful and you get faced with box after box of sources, in which there could be anything. I am limited by my timeframe, in terms of SOC’EM as an organisation lasted for 10 years, 1972 – 1982, but I am only interested in the first four years at most. Many boxes have things from the late 1970s and early 1980s, which might be interesting, but you just have to skip over it.

One thing I am learning (and I have only scratched the surface with the records in the archives) is that SOC’EM seemed to have shifted its focus primarily away from issues more often associated with the environment, like pollution, anti-road protests and so forth, and from 1975 looked more towards historic building conservation. This, whilst important, falls outside my remit of ‘environmental’ activism. There are dozens of letters from the late 1970s, and dozens of records from the council’s planning office, concerning local buildings, either asking for them to be added to conservation lists or detailing which buildings are in danger.

Until I’ve anaylsed all the photos I’ve taken and looked at all the minutes of the meetings, I cannot say for certain that there was this shift and how far that happened but it is interesting how their focus shifts during the 1970s towards more civil and historic building conservation and less towards traditional environmental ideas like pollution. I would’ve thought that their interest in environmental issues would’ve increased over time, not waned. I don’t know either why they folded in 1982. They did charge membership fees and so they might have run out of money. This is, as yet, unclear. Hopefully when I’ve spoken to one of the key people involved with SOC’EM at least in the early days, things will become clear …