"For me, it’s got nothing to do with flags, or 300 years of history": the Greens' Patrick Harvie. Photo: James Glossop
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Leader of the Scottish Greens: "You don’t need to like Alex Salmond to vote Yes"

The co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, on why his party supports Scottish independence, and how it's not all about the SNP.

Patrick Harvie MSP is the co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, and, perhaps more memorably, the “voice of the irresponsible left-led anti-family anti-Christian gay whales against the bomb coalition”, according to the Daily Mail.

“My mum was very proud of that, yes,” grins Harvie when I mention this description. “It was hysterical. More or less as soon as I got elected [to the Scottish Parliament] in 2003, I got involved in the issue of civil partnership – we felt very clearly, family law being devolved, that the Scottish Parliament should at least debate the issue... And I think that the Daily Mail fairly quickly decided, ‘ok, that’s the gay one, we’ll have a go at him every few months.’”

One of the reasons Harvie entered politics was the campaign to repeal Section 28, and he had worked as an LGBT youth worker before becoming a politician. He is visibly proud of Scotland, 15 years after devolution, for passing equal marriage legislation with the third biggest majority of any parliament in the world. “That was a real moment of unity,” he smiles.

In a year when Scottish-American actor John Barrowman’s “Glasgow kiss” in the opening ceremony defined Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, a Scottish politician with concerns like Harvie’s has much to be optimistic about. However, Harvie has a whole other political struggle on his hands, which despite the odds, he seems really rather cheery about: Scottish independence.

The Greens are in favour of an independent Scotland, a stance which continues to surprise some people, being from a leftwing party perhaps thought to be less enthusiastic about borders than the mainstream parties are. Harvie himself admits that support for the break-up of the Union is “not universal” in the party.

The general idea is that such a change would sufficiently shake up Britain’s political and constitutional establishment, which the party believes is wedded far too closely to Westminster’s whims. “Given that our political framework hasn’t significantly changed in nearly a century, since women got the vote”, Green party leader Natalie Bennett explained recently, “this is an opportunity to push for a written constitution with rights for citizens enshrined within it.”

In a similar vein, the Greens also support an EU referendum – although they would campaign for an “In” vote were it to come about. Their reasoning here is similar; an opportunity to rethink Brussels’ influence and the vested interests operating within the EU.

Harvie, who began leading the Scottish Greens in 2008 (his co-convener is Maggie Chapman), is up-front about the fact that the Greens’ pro-independence stance comes from a need for “dramatic change in our politics, our economy and our society”.

He says: “For me, it’s got nothing to do with flags, or 300 years of history; it’s about the future. And I think that the best way, not only of changing Scotland, but actually challenging the nature of UK politics and the way that it works at present, throughout these islands, is Scottish independence. It doesn’t give a guarantee of a utopian future, but it offers up possibilities that are closed to us at the moment.”

Harvie’s refusal to play on patriotism is a markedly different approach from his partner-in-cause, Scotland’s First Minister and notorious Saltire-huckster Alex Salmond. And although they are both fighting for the same outcome in the upcoming referendum, Harvie is quite clear about steering his campaigning and politics away from the combative mainstream debate:

“I think one of the things I’m happiest about with the way we’ve [the Green party] conducted ourselves is that we’ve shown it’s possible to disagree about independence in a spirit of respect and friendship, and I think that’s the tone of debate that Scotland deserves.”

Harvie is clear that Salmond has “won a really impressive mandate”, and is keen to acknowledge his “right to put forward his own view on the monarchy, or on retaining a shared currency – I’d rather see an independent Scottish pound – on a whole host of issues.”

However, he also argues that the Scottish independence debate on the “Yes” side shouldn’t be all about Salmond.

“The referendum is on one question only: should Scotland be an independent country? It’s not a referendum on everything on his [Salmond's] white paper on independence. It doesn’t endorse every SNP policy. But I think the smart folk in the SNP also understand that the Yes cause needs to reach beyond the people who have only ever voted SNP, or who like Alex Salmond as First Minister.”

Harvie, who is smartly dressed in a floral tie and waistcoat, down in London to deliver a speech alongside Bennett in the evening, decries the way the debate has been playing out in the media.

“These kind of, slightly artificial, mano-a-mano, one-on-one TV debates, I think, fail to capture the breadth of either argument. Alistair Darling wasn’t able to capture the breadth of the various flavours of devolution that the three UK parties are putting forward... And Alex Salmond didn’t capture the breadth of the arguments, the possible visions for Scotland’s future. These sterile, one-on-one debates – middle-aged man shouting at middle-aged man – are not the kind of debate that is happening throughout the country, in every town hall, church hall, school, or doorstep.”

Harvie doesn’t accept that the devolution offers from the main three parties in Westminster are enough for Scotland. His argument mainly stems from the Greens’ anti-austerity stance. “We don’t have budget control over Scotland’s finances,” he says, “so when the UK government cuts funding on higher education, or housing, or any of the services we call devolved, our budget goes down as well. And we can’t do anything to really fundamentally get away from that austerity agenda.” He champions what he claims would see a “demonstrable shift away from the political centre, ie not just the southeast, but the City of London, and the vested interests that are at the heart of the finance capital model.”

One challenge for Harvie and the Greens in the build-up to 18 September, other than achieving their desired outcome in the referendum, is to have their distinctive arguments heard above the louder voices in the SNP. Harvie is emphatic about this, conceding, “I don’t think there’s any great secret that I’m not a personal fan of Alex Salmond. It’s really important to remind people that you don’t need to like Alex Salmond to vote yes. Because this isn’t about him. This is about the country.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.