Lesley Riddoch: Greens turning shoots into growth

Co-convenor Patrick Harvie suggested the party could have an MSP elected in each region next May. Picture: Robert Perry
Co-convenor Patrick Harvie suggested the party could have an MSP elected in each region next May. Picture: Robert Perry
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OTHER PARTIES have taken on its policies, but there are plenty of ideas the Greens could champion, writes Lesley Riddoch

Will a big contingent of Green MSPs make the next Scottish Government more progressive? And will that “hint-of-a-tint” argument encourage more Scots to support the party at next year’s Holyrood elections?

Scottish Greens co-convenor Patrick Harvie MSP addressed 700 delegates at the party’s annual conference in Glasgow’s SECC this weekend. The numbers and venue both suggest the Scottish Greens now resemble a serious political party more than a pressure group with 9.000 members – a quadrupling of its support base of 1,700 seen before the independence referendum.

According to Harvie – whose approval ratings were surpassed only by Nicola Sturgeon’s during parts of the indyref campaign – polls suggest a Green MSP will be elected in each of Scotland’s eight regions next year. That would represent half the Tories’ current MSP total and twice the Lib Dems’. Not exactly an SNP-like burgeoning but steady growth. Meanwhile, women make up 51 per cent of party members and around 30 per cent are under 30 years old – a demographic profile some small party rivals can only dream about.

The Greens’ 2016 Holyrood candidates do have profile – John Finnie is a former SNP MSP and successfully challenged the use of armed police on Highland streets; party co-­convenor Maggie Chapman is Aberdeen University rector; Mark Ruskell was a Green MSP and Alison Johnstone is one of the Greens’ current two. Andy Wightman is a respected author and land reform campaigner and Kirsten Robb, Ross Greer and Sarah Beattie-Smith are young, capable campaigners.

Yet despite a relative growth in members similar to the SNP, the Scottish Greens have not achieved a similar breakthrough in the Scottish political scene. Why is that? It’s an important question because for 1.6 million Yes voters, the Greens and RISE – Scotland’s Left Alliance are the only acceptable alternatives to the SNP.

In fact, the first subjects debated this weekend served to highlight the Greens’ dilemma. Conference reaffirmed opposition to fracking and backed the Living Wage – both positions recently delivered by the SNP. In the general election, Caroline Lucas MP campaigned on nationalising public transport (now Jeremy Corbyn’s flagship policy) and a minimum wage of £10 an hour by 2020 (set to be delivered, if you believe him, by George Osborne).

Last week the SNP announced the moratorium on fracking would be extended to unconventional coal gasification and earlier this year vetoed further research on GM crops.

On the positive side, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Greens can rightly feel chuffed. On the negative side, it’s not clear if voters will back Greens as endless nudgers of other parties – even if that’s a refreshingly honest assessment of the party’s current strength.

If nudging worked, surely the Greens would have managed to capitalise on the Lib Dems’ collapse, the SNP’s recent scandals and Labour’s ongoing misfortunes?

Another difficulty is the perception of being kind but unrealistic and unworldly, which in turn gives the mainstream media an excuse for hardly attending or reporting their annual conference. Patrick Harvie was dismissed by the Daily Mail soon after his election in 2003 as the “voice of the irresponsible left-led anti-­family anti-Christian gay whales against the bomb coalition”, prompting the equally memorable retort: “My mum was very proud of that, yes.”

Natalie Bennett’s inability to explain the party’s housing policy hung unfairly over the Greens’ Westminster campaign, though a bigger factor was obviously the archaic first-past-the-post electoral system that hammers small parties. Nonetheless, the Greens’ proposed exclusion from TV debates in which Ukip took part prompted 300,000 people to sign a petition and thousands to join the party in protest.

Can the Scottish Greens turn this sympathy into actual votes next year?

One difficulty is that the list is set to become a very crowded place in the Holyrood elections. In the past, the Greens made clever use of the fact Labour and the SNP were slugging it out for first-past-the-post seats by asking voters to make their “Second Vote Green”. But with polls predicting an SNP landslide in the first-past-the-post section, Labour, Tories and Lib Dems will also be fighting for those “top up” seats. And of course there is always the possibility the SNP will “break the bank” – as they did in 2011 – and win such a large share of the vote they snatch “top up” seats too.

Another difficulty is the lack of big, important, exciting policies at the top of the Greens’ agenda. Blogger Kate Higgins observed that Greens lost the battle for a green vision to the SNP in 2011. She said “on the little stuff – on recycling, on community-based issues – the Scottish Greens were solid and worthy. But on the big stuff – the renewable vision thing, of how it could create a real Scottish economic identity, and jobs – real jobs – in the future, the SNP won hands down.”

So why doesn’t the party make a loud song and dance about a few policies the SNP cannot run off with – such as updating Holyrood’s slightly proportional system to full STV so small parties aren’t virtually wiped out by the dominant party?

Ironically the new Book of Ideas published by think-tank Common Weal contains more provocative and attractive alternative policies than those discussed at the Greens or indeed any other political party conference, many of them normalising Scottish democracy by basing more power at community/local ­level. Currently a tiny group of volunteers from the failed Castle Toward community buyout have put more energy into creating a new template for Scottish local democracy than any political party since Cosla’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy recommended the creation of at least 100 councils in a report published last year but since then roundly ignored. (Actually, Andy Wightman produced a thorough and radical report for the party around the same time, but it hasn’t been pushed to the top as a Green priority.)

Would championing truly local democracy put the party too far ahead of the Scottish curve?

“Reforming one of the most centralised countries in the western world requires an ongoing commitment of political will and attention. The prize is a fundamental change in the relationship between citizens and the State.” Those words, from a House of Commons Select Committee, should be on the front of someone’s manifesto. Will it be that of the Greens?