The Future of the Scottish Greens could decide the Future of Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, July 28th 2019

This is the summer of leadership contests. After the Lib Dems and Tories, next week sees the turn of the Scottish Greens. This might at first seem of less importance, but the outcome of this contest could play a significant role in the future of Scotland and hence the UK.

The Scottish Greens are now a permanent feature on the political landscape. ‘Two decades of devolution have been good to the Scottish Greens’, says Lynn Bennie of Aberdeen University. ‘The party has gained relevance in a way that would have been impossible if the Scottish Parliament had not existed.’

The party are an important and sometimes under-estimated component in the politics of Scotland and independence. Not only do they have critical parliamentary votes, they have a popular base, supporters, and activists. Patrick Harvie, current co-convenor of the party with Maggie Chapman, believes the party has a ‘good track record of impact, growing activism, and organisation.’

Success brings with expectation of greater success. Yet in the recent European elections the Scottish Greens won 8.2% and 129,603 votes (their highest ever vote) but failed to win a seat and were a mere 0.1% up on five years previous; this when their colleagues in England and Wales won seven seats, and there was a Green wave across Europe. This missed opportunity has produced the current leader election with Harvie and Chapman being challenged for what are now called co-leader posts by three candidates: Lorna Slater, Graham Kerr and Guy Ingerson.

The Greens for the last fifteen years have had two co-convenors, something which marks out the party – along with the Green Party of England and Wales – as different from others. Many in the party like it, while for others the Harvie-Chapman partnership has not been its best advert. Ian Dommett worked for the Greens in the 2016 election and thinks this arrangement constrains the party: ‘There is a greater chance of a disconnect between the party and the public when you have co-leaders. It splits the party personality and face, and muffles the public message the party has.’

These are times of opportunity for the Greens with an SNP minority government twelve years into office needing critical support for legislation and independence votes. Harvie raises one of the main challenges they face: ‘How do we differentiate ourselves? We need to be sharper. We need to be bolder in holding the SNP to account.’

The centre-left ground to the left of the SNP is increasingly there for the taking – with the SNP centrist and cautious, and Labour not in a strong condition. That opportunity requires the Greens to dare to adopt a more ambitious and radical politics, that speaks beyond their traditional constituency to working class voters – and people who live outside Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Maggie Chapman believes that the party is in the forefront of challenging ideas – from the Green New Deal to free public transport and redirecting wealth, stating that: ‘We need to have the courage to take these ideas to new audiences in different ways’, but adding that equally important is the need to ‘be radical in our approach and be willing to take our policies and our party beyond its comfort zone.’

The party has been on an upswing since the indyref – galvinised and given profile by the three year campaign, and energised by the infusion of members and activism which saw the party grow over four-fold in numbers in the aftermath of the 2014 vote.

Laura Moodie, from Borgue by Kirkcudbright, reflects that ‘we grew from being a tiny party to nearly 10,000 members at one point [it currently stands at just over 7,000]. Our system couldn’t cope. Since the Green surge there has been a period of understandable adjustment.’ Lorna Slater, one of the leadership challengers, thinks that despite its growth, funding and visibility remain problems: ‘What we need to change to fix this is our visibility. We need our spokespeople to be household names, we need our volunteers knocking on doors every week.’

The Greens, Success and the Independence Question

Growth brings new pressure points to a party and challenges to the old ways of working. There are now numerous young, idealist Green activists who don’t respect the old ways of working with their byzantine ways and committees; the party has recognised this and revamped its structures to be less bureaucratic. One new member observed the overhang of some of the internal personal issues meant that: ‘We feel we are constantly revisiting an ancient argument that happened a decade ago and not understanding why some people can’t just rub along.’

Ian Dommett thinks that the Greens have changed but have further to go: ‘The Greens seem to be less willing to learn from beyond themselves and their beliefs, far less willing to change than the SNP were, when the SNP embraced the idea of winning’ over a decade ago. If that sounds too harsh, Dommett thinks that the party has to embrace a different kind of political operation, culture and psychology to have greater impact. This entails for him taking on ‘the politics of persuasion – understanding the need for strategy and message development, and understanding how this interfaces with the politics of personality.’

The current leadership contest comes against the backdrop of a wider debate initiated by the Green Future Group formed in light of the Euro elections. Laura Moodie of the group thinks the party gains from ‘a protest vote with many voters choosing the Greens as the least worst option’. She feels that many people in the party don’t grasp what the Greens are about, which she summarises as: ‘We are here to win elections. That is what we are here for.’ There is also, she thinks, a need for more local activism that builds on successes in representation in Edinburgh and Glasgow: ‘We are not very good at being visibly Green. Lots of people do things locally, and unlike other parties don’t make a deal of being Green.’

A pivotal issue for the Greens is differentiating themselves from the SNP, having leverage in Parliament, and a distinctive vision on independence. The party gained traction on the latter in the 2014 campaign, offering a version of independence very different from the Scottish Government’s White Paper, ‘Scotland’s Future’. Subsequently, the SNP’s Growth Commission with its conventional growth and economic rationale offers another opportunity to the party for a more radical prospectus. As Moodie puts it – ‘We are not nationalists. We don’t care about flags’.

Tellingly, polling by YouGov in May 2017 found that only 48% of Scottish Green voters knew that the party stood for independence; 12% thought it pro-union and 31% didn’t know. The figures for SNP and Scottish Tory voters respectively were that 88% knew the SNP’s pro-independence stance while 90% knew the Tories anti-independence position.

This has consequences as many voters are only prepared to vote for a party they agree with on the constitutional question; 41% of those who would only vote for a party of independence don’t know the position of the Scottish Greens. Thus, the Greens are losing out in two ways – not maximalising their potential vote with independence supporters, while already losing other voters put off by their pro-independence stand.

This is not some marginal issue, but a key faultline in the independence coalition. A decisive majority for independence is not possible based on SNP voters alone. It needs the support of Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and others. That 48% figure – 40% lower than the SNP figure – is a weak pillar in the overall popular coalition and has to be significantly closed before any future indyref, and any prospect of winning well.

Leadership, Co-Leaders and the Future

It is more than likely that Harvie and Chapman will be re-elected next Wednesday, but this is the age of upsets and of outsiders challenging incumbents. The election has started a much needed internal debate about how the party evolves, adapts and reflects to growth and success; the changing relationship between the parliamentary party and grass roots; and the future challenges facing green politics – from Brexit to independence, the climate emergency, and the limits of conventional politics to address these.

For some the Harvie-Chapman dual leadership carries baggage and divisions, aggravated by perceptions of personality and power politics – with some believing that others assume an automatic right to be at the top of the party. One activist who didn’t want to be named said that for some in and around the leadership ‘power within the party was an end in itself’ and that it was ‘far worse than Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell’.

The Greens have the potential to offer a distinctive and far-reaching politics, more relevant and radical than the other parties. If they are to live up to this the Greens need to change some of the charming, but idiosyncratic, ways they do politics that also paradoxically provide for some their unique selling point.

They need to develop a bolder, sharper, more honest politics, and that requires embracing the idea of leadership, professionalism and messaging, and not seeing these as antithetical to democratic politics. Dommett thinks that the Greens need a mindset of ‘One party. One leader. One simple set of eye-catching policies.’ If that is too far a jump in the first instance, the party at least needs co-leaders who co-lead and work together, which would be a big improvement on recent times.

The Greens have come far from the margins they once inhabited and have brought welcome freshness, candour and new ideas, along with new voices, to the centre of our politics. The next decade offers the Greens the chance to remake Scottish politics and in so doing play a major role in the future direction of Scotland and the UK.