By Frank Noakes
John Norris has just been elected chair of the Executive Committee of the British Green Party at the party's conference in Wolverhampton [see page 28]. He replaces Sarah Parkin in that position. An avowed green socialist, he co-edits the newsletter The Way Ahead, which provides voice to a network of Green Party radicals.
Norris is unpretentious, unassuming even, and not at all a populist. A public servant by occupation, he has the manner of an earnest schoolmaster — not at all the stuff of the media. But Norris is a breath of fresh air. Dedicated to green politics and serious about empowering others, he says he wants the new Green Party executive to develop as a team that enables all party members to play the role of green advocate.
"Unlike Sarah, I don't believe in the Green Party having a single leader; I am not interested in that position. My job will be to pull the executive together in the day-to-day running of the party."
Publicity has been disastrous and the message is: the party is over. Says Norris, "The media had their own agenda and their own story when they arrived to talk to us. The story at this conference has been: 'This is the end of the Green Party, how do you feel about that? You have lost your leaders, who is going to replace them, is anyone going to be able to replace them?' Now, that's their agenda, it's not the fact.
"The fact is, we are a party of about 8000. Something less than a dozen people have lost faith in it. It's a pity, especially when some of them are articulate and eloquent advocates of Green politics. But there are still 7988 of us to carry on, and that's what we'll do."
Does the Green Party still have a future then?
"If you believe that the Green Party is about having a small number of photogenic media star leaders who will appeal in a conventional way, then, yes, we've suffered a considerable setback. But if you believe it's about grassroots community politics, putting forward a radical green agenda, which recognises the interdependence between ecological and social issues, then ... the project is entirely viable.
"I think that what is more important is the work that's been going on locally. We have all this rubbish in the national press, all this stuff ever since Sarah Parkin decided, whilst still chair of the party, to issue a letter saying that the Green Party is a liability to green politics. I think that was deeply irresponsible and quite disgraceful for someone who had that elected responsibility. She should have resigned first and then expressed a personal opinion, not the other way around. "The work going on at local level is still proving successful."
Will the party lose more members through the recent events? "There will obviously be some people who are disappointed that prominent spokespersons for green politics are leaving the party. But there will be other people who feel that, although they didn't want those people to leave, given the way those people have behaved recently, it's a damn good thing that they've departed.
"I think we'll take a few months to settle down, to get ourselves sorted out, and then I'm sure we'll start to move ahead again."
Norris believes that there were subjective reasons for the party's decline and there will be objective ones for its re-emergence.
Some people were overoptimistic after the party won 15% of the vote in the 1989 European election. "There were special circumstances in that election. We were the only party offering any green policies, and therefore we got all the light green, all the dark greens and whatever other variety you like to think of.
"Since then the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have taken on a superficial green coating, by adopting a number of short-term policies which they can reconcile with their vested interests in the system as it stands."
Unfortunately, the environment will continue to deteriorate. As that happens, people will become more convinced of the need for green solutions.
It had been widely reported that, with the success of Parkin's Green 2000 faction at the last conference, the left in the Green Party had been excluded. Norris disagrees: "You're talking to one", he says.
"The left current in the Green Party is alive and kicking. We don't have a majority on the new executive, but we're there and we're accepted just the same as the other currents."
According to Norris, many people accepted some of the proposed organisational changes advocated by Green 2000, the leadership of the party for the past 12 months. But their methods and approach left much to be desired.
"Green 2000 said, 'We must have a conventional political party, conventional approach'. Parliamentary power was the first objective: build a Green group in parliament and eventually form a Green government, that sort of thing.
"Now, those of us on the other side of the argument said, 'If we had 30% in the opinion polls, we might have philosophical objections to that on the grounds that it's rather disempowering, but it would make practical sense. But when you've got a political party with about 2% in the opinion polls, it doesn't make any sense at all."
What should the Greens concentrate on then?
"You have to adapt your style of political organisation, not only to your philosophy, but also to what is possible. We think local campaigning, building a base of support, is the essential first step. We hope that by doing that we will create more people who are empowered politically themselves, not just through representatives.
"Now there are some people who say this is all rather purist. I don't think it is. I think, if you're not prepared to do it yourself, why should anyone else believe that you really mean it when you say society ought to organise that way?
"So, while I don't see the Green Party as some sort of laboratory for the wilder fringes of green ideas, I do think that unless it is essentially green in style, in its campaigning and in its approach, the fact that we say green words is not going to help us. We've got to be green as well as sounding green."
The press is now writing the Greens off as too radical. Norris disagrees. "I don't believe that us being just a little way ahead of the electorate will do. If you want to be a little bit green, there are political parties larger than we are, with more members, more resources, and they're already a little bit green for the short term ...
"The other strategy is for us to be absolutely clear, firstly, about what we think is necessary from a green standpoint for the long term, and secondly, about how we get there. One of the problems is that we tend to be stronger talking about the first than about the second. I think that if we manage to crack that particular problem, we will see that we'll get more and more support."
Since the disbanding of Green 2000, there are no hard factions within the Greens, says Norris, rather networks or currents. These reflect the diversity of the party, a strength of the Greens.
"One of the divisions between currents of opinion in the party is whether we should go solely on the ecological agenda or whether we should go on the social agenda too. We on the left of the Green Party have always been very clear on the fact that ecological and social issues go together. If you don't tackle social issues at the same time as ecological ones, it simply won't work."