Wanted: a green spin doctor

Although considered a sensitive pressure group, the British Green Party badly needs to recover from languor and gain gloss

By Peter Stone
Published: Wednesday 15 January 1997

-- (Credit: Vishwajyoti) an english seaside resort when the summer has gone, the day is dull, and the gray sea rolls onto empty beaches, is a stern test of morale and spirit for any bouncy extrovert, even for politicians. Yet, the politicians of this so-called home of parliamentary democracy scarify their souls every year by holding their annual conferences in such dismal settings.

Because I like underdogs, I went to the Green Party's annual conference at Hastings on the south coast near the spot where William the Conqueror beat the British in ad 1066. There were a few journalists there. But only because the greens were to debate the motion that they should give up fighting general elections altogether as they were too expensive, and because no green candidate had ever got into parliament -- at least, not the mother of parliaments at Westminister.

Since this seemed like an announcement of an intended suicide, it did attract the media, but probably of the wrong sort. It is disquieting that democracy and free elections, so often invoked as the last remedy for the political agonies of nations, are unable to accommodate the environmental cause. From Bosnia to Bolivia, from China to Russia to Burundi, strife-torn peoples are urged to call for free elections and install the democratic political process -- secular state, independent judiciary, political parties, free speech, secret balloting and the like.

Winston Churchill had a disarming dictum that admitted that democracy was not a good way to organise a nation. But then, however bad it was, the alternatives were far, far worse. But there at Hastings was a democratic political party talking on matters of vital and immediate concern to us, our children and every living thing on the planet, and yet, getting nowhere.

It is not as if voters do not care about the issues that the Green Party cares about. And voters do respect the passion and dedication of the green campaigners. Those who took direct action to change national transport policies and fought for new roads and by-passes; those tireless peace workers who camped out for years at nuclear airbases and chanted "ban the bomb"; those who now fight for organic farming and decry "efficient" chemical farming that pollutes the rivers, raise livestock in factories, not farms and recently, brought the mad cow disease to ruin trade (and infect the brains of God knows how many consumers): all of them are generally tolerated and respected.

The party label of 'Green' is meant to imply a broad concern with issues which concern the entire society and is a real transformation of the more restricted label of its predecessor -- the Ecology Party which had been founded in the '70s in Britain,on the radical agenda of the post-Stockholm Conference hopes, reflecting the ideas of E F Schumacher, Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, the Club of Rome and Edward Goldsmith.

In France, believers in such radical environmentalism are dubbed 'ecolos' and are held in low esteem. In Germany, radical environmentalism fared better and 'Die Grunen' became the world's largest, most dynamic and successful Green Party with the name proudly worn before anybody else in Europe. However, like all the others, they are prone to schism and were soon divided into realists and fundamentalists. They have the so-called confusing 'red greens' who are Marxists and 'green capitalists' or reformers -- both theatrically rude to each other. But they did get elected and were an encouraging example to environmentalists. Moderation was never their strong point. They used to have a policy that required Germany to close down all nuclear power stations and withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization instantly. They also have a reputation for meddling in the affairs of other green parties in Europe.

By the end of the '80s, there were seven national parliaments with elected green mps, but they did not include the British Green Party. It is true that the party was relatively young -- founded in 1985 -- to unite the radical ecologists, peaceniks and development movements. But even the Italians, who were never in the vanguard at deploring pollution, litter or loss of species, had 13 deputies and a senator. The Swiss, who could claim the first ever green mp back in 1979, have many green representatives in cantonal and federal assemblies. Austria registered 4.8 per cent of the vote for the greens in the 1986 presidential elections and elected eight mps.

The simplest explanation for all this lies in the way voting is organised; minority parties are much more favoured by proportional representation.The best the greens have done was to get 15 per cent of the vote in elections to the European Parliament in 1989. They fought every seat and amassed two and a quarter million votes.

At least they got a message through to the other parties which quickly found a cause for enthusiasm for environmental policies. Even Margaret Thatcher declared, "I am a Green", and sacked her environment minister - a notoriously ungreen squire called Nicholas Ridely. But thereafter, membership fell and the despairing motion to give up contesting the general election was taken by the media to become the bell that tolled the end of the green dream.

Indeed, the media is seen to be the Green Party's other major problem. Media attention is regarded as disastrous as the voting system, since it is so often sneering or cynical, or flippant enough mostly to raise a laugh at the beards and anoraks. The main difficulty is the utopian fringe of enthusiasts with their policy advocacy, and the Hastings conference provided the usual examples.

Usually, other annual party conferences are marked by passionate declamations about trade union rights, unemployment, health services, crime and punishment, the collapse of social services, education and taxation. But opening the agenda documentation of the Green Party were topics like 'development and green economics', then the mad cow disease and organic farming, followed by 'nuclear and peace' and local roads action.

As a sympathetic spectator from the media, I was interested to see if the utopian fringe really was just a fringe to a substantial central tableau of policies that are relevant to voters' concerns as they presently are, rather than to what they should be. It was hard to tell. Early in the conference there were two riveting presentations on climate change and nuclear pollution.

One presentation by Aubery Meyer dealt with equity and survival in the context of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He argued convincingly that Western market economists have hijacked the debate on sustainable development; by finding a price for everything, they have virtually privatised the atmosphere and the oceans; the consequences for the poor are unacceptable; the rich and the poor must converge in the allowable consumption of fossil fuel per head to limit global warming, and that time is running out. Another by Chris Busby traced the medical effects of low level radiation pollution and highlighted the frailty of the basic work that defined currently acceptable radiation doses. The audience was attentive and moved: here was the Green Party as a pressure group, full of heart and admirable concern. But it would not gain a single vote at the Hastings no matter how well it was reported by the most sympathetic mediaperson.

Today, we live in an age of marketing, clever advertising, memorable sound bites and reassuring tv presentations. Long ago, as an apprentice in television, I discovered that the adage that "the camera does not lie", was rubbish. Two sorts of people came over well on tv. First is the showperson who calculates or acts every movement or glance, and weighs and rehearses every word. Just as effective is the entirely unselfconscious enthusiast, sometimes eccentric and often a "character" like the most famous and influential astronomer in Britain, Patrick Moore - entirely self-taught and having a monthly tv show for at least 30 years.

Generally speaking, the greens come into neither category. They are not unselfconscious, nor are they eccentric. They are emotion-driven and want people to understand and to show solidarity and unity of purpose. But they are not prepared to twist and turn and utter words calculated to suit the occasion. They find themselves between the extremes and are unselfconscious only when quarrelling, which is very often! Like the Kurds, the greens' disunity is extremely exasperating to their sympathisers. They do not make the necessary friends, and do not get the votes they should either. And yet, this impulse to quarrel seems endemic to green parties all over the world.

Other parties which see themselves as having a realistic chance of election, appoint a shadow cabinet with a spokesperson for each department who always gets air time whenever the government dabbles in social affairs, economy, foreign affairs or whatever. The greens do not. They have no shadow ministers. Other parties labour to cover up their quarrels, not the greens. Other parties stage manage their meetings and political appearances, but not the too honest greens.

Others use smooth, shadowy creatures, derisively called 'spin doctors', to put the right gloss on party statements, groom their speakers, improve their tv manners, to control the party image. In other words, to market their product. Here, the term 'doctor' implies a high degree of professional expertise, but also implies "to tamper with, adulterate, sophisticate", to quote the Oxford dictionary. Perhaps, 'spin' comes from cricket. Anyway, the expression boils down to the use of organised guile in putting things over to the public. This is what the Green Party does not have. And badly needs. By the way, they rejected the motion not to fight the general election and decided to field 70 candidates. I am sure they will all be beaten.

Peter Stone is a journalist based in the UK.

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