Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
21 May 2015

The Greens failed. Now they must find a way to “fail better“

Thank goodness for our failures. 

By Jonathon Porritt

The air is still thick with the poignant wisps of personal political failure – after one of the most extraordinary general elections of the modern era.

Failure of that kind is all the more cruel when it is entirely unexpected, and although many Lib Dem MPs knew that there was going to be some kind of a reckoning for having thrown in their lot with the Tories, few had reckoned on that kind of reckoning!

With the exception of Caroline Lucas (who literally triumphed in being re-elected in Brighton), all Green candidates also ‘failed’ – inasmuch as they’re not now preparing to take their seats in the House of Commons. But most of them will be feeling flush with success at their failure, having saved their deposits, or got a higher vote than ever before, or contributed to that magical ‘one million votes’ threshold across the UK as a whole.

I got very familiar with that ‘winning by failing’ shtick back in the 70s and 80s, when I stood seven times for the Green Party (or the Ecology Party, as it then was) in local, national and European elections. I only stopped hurling myself into another cast-iron, 100% guaranteed failure when I became Director of Friends of the Earth in 1984, secretly thankful to be able to wrap myself in FoE’s mantle of ‘strictly non-party political’.

And I’d never have got into all that political stuff were it not for a totally unanticipated (and correspondingly painful) failure in terms of my chosen career – to become a lawyer. I’d somehow persuaded myself that this would be ‘my path’ in life, allowing me to prosper and do some good on the side. The speed with which I realised the error of my ways was startling; within three months, I’d stopped going to lectures, had an essay graded C- (oh my God!), and had shunned the company of my fellow students, blaming incompatibility on them rather than myself.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

I quit before I was pushed – the first time in my life I’d failed to complete something that I’d set my sights on. (I’d even managed to ‘succeed’ in my Modern Languages degree at Oxford, despite having little affinity for either French or German, relying entirely on sweat rather than talent).

But without that failure in becoming a lawyer, I wouldn’t have become a teacher, I wouldn’t have gone to the Institute of Education (in those days, an epicentre of utterly inspiring socialist teaching), I wouldn’t have taught for ten years in a West London comprehensive – and I wouldn’t have had all those wonderful school holidays to learn the rudimentary craft of minority party politics!

But I would probably have ‘succeeded’ as a lawyer, and either made a ton of money or joined the Lib Dems. So just think where I’d be today!

To be honest, I spend next to no time (literally!) thinking about all those ‘paths not travelled’. I love what I do, I love the fact that all that early ‘failure’ gave me the grounding and the hunger to make a go of ‘sustainability done well’ through Forum for the Future – which Sara Parkin, Paul Ekins and myself set up in 1996.

These days, however, I struggle with a different sense of personal and professional failure: that whatever I myself do, I’m not doing enough; that whatever we do as Forum for the Future, we’re not doing enough; that whatever the whole, wonderful, heaving community of people involved in the world of environment, social justice, human rights and so on do, we’re not doing enough. We’re not doing enough because we’re still a ‘minority force for good’ rather than part of a mainstream movement creating good lives for all. Seven billion dreams; one planet.

We face this sense of existential failure so deeply in the Forum that it sometimes hurts. We have lots of successes along the way; we meet almost all of our objectives almost all the time. We employ 80+ utterly brilliant, caring, committed people, create opportunities for hundreds more, and ‘bring sustainability to life’ for thousands of people through our partnerships. I think we can reasonably claim to do the ‘upside’ of sustainability, through our focus on solutions and transformational partnerships, as well if not better than any other organisation.

Which means, by any standards, that we’re ‘succeeding’ – even as we’re failing to make an even bigger difference in stopping this crazy, beautiful world of ours sliding off into some kind of frighteningly destructive reckoning with the ineluctable laws of nature.

I suspect I will be living with this sense of failure until the day I die. In the meantime, there’s serious work to be done, spirits to be lifted, fun to be had, and countless successes to be secured along the way. That’s what I’ll be talking about tonight with Ranulph Fiennes at Forum for the Future’s ‘Failing Better ‘ event, and who knows – all that ‘winning whilst failing’ may just win out – for real – in the end.

Jonathon Porritt is founder Director of Forum for the Future.