ROB (or BOB) STEEL, 31/01/55 – 11/08/20
Although this is an obituary for Rob, it is written for local Green Party members and from the standpoint of Rob’s place in the party. To a certain extent it therefore reads like a history of the party and its constituent members over the years. However, I hope that readers feel that this approach adds to Rob’s story with the Green Party and helps us appreciate some of the contexts in which Rob spent so much time and energy.
In 1979, Rob, as a young local Geography teacher in his mid-twenties, joined a handful of local visionaries to found the Sutton Ecology Party, as the Green Party was called at the time. As ever, the party comprised a small number of dedicated and radical individuals who had a wide and lasting influence in the local community. Amongst the number was a Quaker man in his 70s called Richard Allen whom Rob greatly admired for his clarity of thinking and dynamism. Rob himself threw himself into his new-found political party immediately and stood for election for both the borough council and for parliament as soon as the opportunities arose. As a result of the local Ecology Party campaigning for the 1983 General Election, there was an upsurge in membership in the area and I was present at a stimulating follow-up meeting of about 30 people in the upstairs room at the Sun pub, Carshalton, where we met Rob and many others who were to become ardent members of this still minor political party. For me it was the start of many years of working closely with Rob and the others, acting as their local election agent as well as being involved in much other general party activity.
Rob was already a key figure in the party in the early 80s. He had endless energy to put his increasing understanding of environmental politics into action in the fledgling political party. One lasting amusing memory in the early days was the regular waste newspaper collection which the local group carried out every 2 weeks around a set of a few streets in Wallington. It involved a leaflet drop a couple of days prior to the collection, two people to drive up to Dulwich to pick up the “Eco Van”, about the size of an old Post Office van, and whoever was available to go round on foot picking up the piles of papers left on doorsteps for us and chucking them in the van. A brave volunteer would get up at 6 the next morning to drive this ramshackle van to a recycling site in Croydon and hopefully receive about £30 for it after it had been weighed. They would then have to drive the van back to its home in Dulwich. As this was before the days of any paper recycling by the council, this was quite a revolutionary action on our part – fulfilling our environmental concerns, as well as bringing us some well-needed cash for our funds. Rob always worked flat out at this, but his enthusiasm persuaded many of us to join in the mad venture! Some of the stalwarts at this time were Graham Garner, James Deane (not an American actor!), George Dow and Nick Greaves, whose mammoth ancient photocopier churned out endless members newsletters, along with the ones that would inevitably catch fire in the process! (Remember all those envelopes and stamps too?)
The Council Elections rolled by over the years, with the local Liberal Democrats gaining an ever stronger hold on the local council and claiming to be the greenest London council (they had now started their own newspaper recycling!). This was welcomed by some local environmentalists and members of Friends of the Earth, including those working for the fledgling Centre for Environmental Initiatives, set up by Vera Elliott and later to be called Ecolocal, but Rob kept the Ecology Party members well informed, so that we consistently challenged the Lib Dem environmental claims. He delighted in quoting the considerable number of examples of anti-environment and contradictory actions and policies by various Lib Dem authorities, as well as on the part of the almost permanent Lib Dem MP in Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake. However, even Rob struggled to convince some of our members, like Phil Mouncey!
Among the party members by this time were the charismatic Silvia Scaffardi (co-founder of NCCL, now Liberty), Peter and Josie Hickson, Karin Andrews and Sue Riddlestone, Director of the new local organisation, Bioregional. At one of the local meetings we had a persuasive speaker from the Vegan Society, which prompted at least Jim Duffy to switch to a vegan lifestyle, now so common with environmentalists. Neil Hornsby brought his civil servant expertise and successfully persuaded London Transport to adopt his idea of “jogging tickets” for commuters under another name. Heather Jarrett and her partner Bruce gave stalwart service locally, and by now some of Rob’s ex-students from Wallington Boys School were joining the cause, as did Simon Dixon, proof that Rob had been spreading his views in the classroom!
And all the while, Thatcher and her successors would come back into power at every General Election and there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst our little party (as well as amongst many others of course!) and Rob would sift through the details of the Green Party results here and all around the country, declaring that there was no hope for this country and we should all go round to his house and have lots of ale!
In the early 1990s we had a young television journalist by the name of John Cornford join us. His experience and skills with the media of the time were a great boost to the local party, as exemplified by our campaign against a British Rail tree cutting extravaganza in Carshalton in 1992. John and Rob led some of the party to trespass peacefully onto the railway line from a garden in Denmark Road and most importantly got the London television news reporters to film the event and interview John and Rob for us to proudly watch at home that night!
By the turn of the millennium the Sutton Party was reaching out to Croydon Green Party members who had no active party, and we attracted a small but powerful core of members, including Bernice Golberg, Shasha Khan and Martyn Post (the latter of mass leafletting fame!), who went on to get the Croydon Party properly established. While there were a lot of separate issues for the Croydon and Sutton Parties, we were soon collaborating again, because our councils, together with Merton and Kingston, had announced in 2008 that they were forming a waste partnership. “No, they weren’t going to build an incinerator; they were going to consider various options, one of which may be a pyrolysis waste processor”, we were told. The rest of the story is more or less history, as the saying goes. Rob managed to play an active part in the anti-incinerator campaign, in spite of taking on some long term supply teaching posts in various parts of the country. He worked with Dr Stan Prokop, who first informed us of the issue, with his own ex-student Peter Alfrey who had specialist knowledge of birds and the ecology of the Beddington Farmlands and with several others of our own highly motivated party members. Rob, as ever, threw himself into writing well researched and detailed submissions for the Green Party against the council planning application.
While Rob often gave solid and comprehensive presentations at many election hustings alongside his opponents, his forte definitely lay with his writing. First there was his letter-writing on behalf of the party, whether to local newspapers (of which there were up to 3 at one point!) or national. For many years this involved writing very quickly and then of course getting the letter into an envelope to post it in time to catch the appropriate editorial deadline. He had a bulging file of cuttings of letters which had been printed in various papers. Then there was his leaflet-writing for the numerous election campaigns run by the local party. Hardly had an election been called than Rob had composed a first draft for a leaflet and usually the first discussion of his drafts would involve asking him to “tone it down a bit”! But he usually managed a great balance between getting serious information across and appealing to “the masses” in the Sutton wards and constituencies. Then, after the party had carefully calculated what our funds (and leafletters) would enable us to produce, Rob would wave opposition leaflets at us and insist that we needed to put out another leaflet to put the voters right on this or that issue and he would “lob in some dosh” for it. So just when we thought we had done all our leafletting, he was lining up the next lot of boxes!
When Rob got married and moved to his new home in Wiltshire about 6 years ago, it was a dramatic change for the local Green Party. He had been so central to its functioning for almost 40 years! By keeping on his lovely quirky Tower Cottage in Carshalton and lured back by his longstanding connections to The Hope real ale pub, as well as with the aid of IT and electronic communication, Rob managed to keep up to a certain extent with the activities of the local party. Any good organisation tries not to get into a situation where any of their members become indispensable, and both Sutton and Croydon parties are continually moving forward with new blood, but that is not to deny the absolutely vital part Rob played in the party for all those years and the huge gap he now leaves. Whether we knew Rob since his early days in the party or just met him more recently on a brief visit back to the area, or some time in between, our parties collectively mourn the sad, sad loss of such a dynamic and influential party member. May we all learn something from and be inspired by his enormous contribution to the party.
By Gay McDonagh, Sutton Green Party member, September 2020