Green party leader’s ‘to do’ list is more radical than SNP’s but he backs them on Named Persons and independence
Patrick Harvie is discussing how he intends to push the SNP “beyond its comfort zone” as he contemplates a new parliament which has found him in an unexpectedly influential position.
As he considers the implications of his Green party holding the balance of power, he reels off a list of policies where he thinks he can make a difference, including his ambitions for higher taxes.
During the conversation, the Greens’ most prominent Scottish politician reveals that the behind-the-scenes negotiations which will determine how Scotland is governed over the next five years have already begun.
In a quiet moment last week Harvie nipped under the radar for a private meeting with Nicola Sturgeon. It was an encounter that kicked off the cross-party bargaining and deal-making which the SNP now has to do to make a success of minority government.
Sitting in his Glasgow office, Harvie discloses that he challenged Sturgeon on her plans to cut and eventually abolish air passenger duty – one of the items on his list of SNP policies which he believes must be changed.
Cutting air passenger duty is a vulnerable policy for the SNP. All opposition parties are against Sturgeon’s plans meaning that after losing her majority in the Scottish election she can no longer command the political support required to make her plans a reality.
Also on his “to do” list are a raft of other policies where he has the potential to play power broker. Raising income tax and abolishing council tax and replacing it with a far more punitive system for those living in the most valuable homes are on his unashamedly left-wing agenda. The environmentalist in him also wants to make sure the incoming government has absolutely nothing to do with fracking, an issue where his implacable opposition aims to kill any prospect of Scottish unconventional gas playing a role in the energy mix.
He also favours repealing aspects of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which was supposed to crack down on sectarianism but which has been criticised by all opposition parties for being unnecessary and unworkable.
There are also areas where Harvie and his five colleagues could prove to be the Scottish Government’s saviour on contentious issues. For example, he supports the SNP’s hugely controversial Named Person legislation, which will see every child in Scotland allocated someone to look after their welfare.
Despite the clamour of opposition against the legislation, which was passed in the last parliament and is rolled out across the country in August, Harvie backs it.
Explaining his approach to working with a Sturgeon-run minority government, Harvie says: “A better Scotland needs a bolder Holyrood and it is about pushing the SNP beyond their comfort zone. I suspect we will see that by the end of this session, there will have been room for more creative thinking and room for opposition ideas, positive, constructive opposition ideas to come forward in a way that moves the Scottish Government’s position.”
Having returned 63 MSPs, the SNP is just two shy of the 65 required for a parliamentary majority. In theory, the support of any one of the opposition parties, including the five Lib Dem MSPs, would be enough to get prospective legislation through Holyrood. But the Greens appear the most likely deal-makers.
Sturgeon has made the point that together the SNP and Greens have ensured that there is still a pro-independence majority at Holyrood. But neither party had an explicit commitment to a second referendum in their election manifestos.
Harvie is now unsure whether indyref2 will actually happen.
“It doesn’t appear that the SNP are urgently keen to bring forward another referendum,” he observes.
Furthermore, according to Harvie, there would be “little point” in having another vote unless opinion had shifted “markedly” towards independence. “Will that happen? I hope so, [but] I don’t know,” the Green co-leader adds.
Where Harvie sees greater scope for influence is in day-to-day government, where he hopes that he can form a left- wing alliance with the SNP.
Both parties may see themselves as left-wing parties, but the SNP’s socialist credentials have come under fire recently. And Harvie believes Sturgeon must do more to get back to those principles, particularly when it comes to taxation.
At the heart of his approach to the new session is a desire for a more “progressive” taxation regime in Scotland. During the election, the Greens, Labour and the Lib Dems all campaigned for an income tax hike. The Green proposals, however, were the most radical – particularly when it came to taxing the better off.
Harvie’s manifesto called for the tax rate for those earning over £43,000 to be raised to 43 per cent while those earning more than £150,000 would be taxed at 60 per cent.
In contrast, the SNP limited itself to refusing to pass on a George Osborne tax break to higher earners and reneged on its commitment to abolish the council tax.
“I think a great many people were surprised that the SNP’s tax policies at national and local level in the campaign were a bit timid and the reality is there is time now to work on that,” says Harvie.
“Unless the SNP want to get through this session by relying on Tory votes, they are going to have to give some movement in the direction of a return to progressive taxation and the protection of public services in Scotland.” The Greens may be the SNP’s most obvious bedfellows, but the parliamentary arithmetic means the SNP has the potential to be more politically promiscuous.
As Harvie acknowledges, a key question will be whether that promiscuity will extend to working with Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives. The prospect of the SNP dealing with its sworn enemies is not so far fetched. The SNP’s tax proposals are more closely aligned with the Tories’ plans not to raise income tax beyond the levels elsewhere in the UK.
“The SNP are going to have a clear choice,” Harvie says. “Do they go more in the direction of the Conservatives, who have made it clear they don’t want any protection for public services in Scotland? They are just going to want to hand on the cuts that are coming from the UK government. Or they will have to move in the other direction and head towards any of the other parties who have all put some kind of proposition on the table for more progressive taxation – closing the gap between rich and poor, protecting public services?”
Similarly, Harvie feels he can persuade the SNP to be more radical when it comes to property tax and believes he can work towards replacing the council tax after the SNP reneged on its pledge to abolish it.
“The notion of just keeping the council tax alive for another five years was deeply disappointing to a great many people,” says Harvie. “Well, now again the SNP are going to have to decide, do they want to vote for the Tories to achieve that rather lacklustre ambition or do they want to find some support from elsewhere in political spectrum?
“Even if they don’t want to do it in the first year or two, there is going to have to be a course of action to follow that will result in a replacement of council tax.”
Harvie’s solution is a residential property tax that would see the rates for more valuable homes increase more than threefold.
His bid to overhaul Scotland’s tax system started during his talks with Sturgeon last week. His discussions centred on the SNP’s cuts to air passenger duty, a proposal the Greens oppose on the grounds that such a move ultimately decreases Scotland’s budget by £250 million, will harm public services and will increase climate emissions.
“The SNP clearly don’t have a majority for their policy on air passenger duty,” says Harvie. “They want to halve and then scrap it. I oppose that for very different reasons than the Conservatives oppose that.
“But rather than just shoot it down in flames, I hope that the SNP will be open to coming up with an alternative. One that will command a majority support across the chamber. For me that means it has to pass a social justice test. It needs to not leave the burden of that tax on people who just take an annual holiday. But move it on to those who fly frequently and unnecessarily. Secondly it has to pass an environmental test. It has to be one which is modelled to reduce emissions from aviation not increase them. The SNP’s previous policy failed on both those tests.”
It is not just on tax that Sturgeon faces a dilemma about how to get its manifesto through parliament. The First Minister has staked her reputation on turning round Scotland’s education system and, in particular, on closing the attainment gap when it comes to the relatively poor academic performance of children from poor backgrounds. Sturgeon has signalled that reform of education will involve schools being given the freedom to escape local authority control, a proposal that the Greens would attempt to block.
“We are certainly not convinced. I would be very surprised if there was any appetite within the Green Party to support that kind of proposition. Public services need to be democratically accountable and the more urgent challenge is to properly resource our local authorities rather than continuing to squeeze their budgets,” he says.
For Sturgeon, however, there is again the possibility of relying on the support of the Conservatives, who are firm believers in giving schools the ability to break free from council control.
There is also common ground between the SNP and Tories on publishing more data on the performance of schools, including primaries, and giving more power to head teachers and parents.
Despite Davidson’s pledge to be a “strong opposition”, the idea of a Sturgeon government propped up by the Conservatives on some policies is at least looking like a possibility. There also happens to be a precedent. The two parties managed to do business in spite of their wildly differing views on Scottish independence when Alex Salmond ran a minority government between 2007 and 2011.
The options for the SNP are reduced, however, when it comes to the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. The Conservatives and Labour are both for repealing the Act and Harvie agrees that something should be done to halt the SNP’s legislation.
This weekend the Conservatives have approached other opposition parties in an attempt to get parliamentary time to repeal the legislation. While Labour’s James Kelly is meeting with Holyrood officials this week to look at producing a Member’s Bill aimed at scrapping it.
Harvie agrees something should be done. He suggests the new Justice Committee should produce legislation that would repeal the most controversial aspects of it.
The numbers are much tighter, however, when it comes to the Named Person legislation. The Conservatives are utterly opposed to it and during the election campaign Kezia Dugdale suggested there should be a rethink. The Lib Dems are cautious proponents.
“We think it is a good policy,” Harvie says. “It may have been poorly presented and it has certainly been misrepresented by some on the political right.”
Harvie’s uncompromising anti-fracking stance means he is determined to close the door on unconventional gas extraction which has been left ajar by the SNP.
Although Sturgeon has strongly indicated she is against the energy extraction technique, the SNP’s position is not for an all-out ban. The Scottish Government has called for a moratorium on the matter saying there should be no fracking until it can be proved beyond any doubt there is no harm to the environment.
In contrast, the Conservatives are pro-fracking while Labour and the Lib Dems are officially against it. “I suspect that the mood within the SNP leadership is moving away from supporting fracking, but the industry are still going to be lobbying hard to change that position,” says Harvie.
Clearly Green politics are going to be more relevant than ever under Patrick the power broker.