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17 May 2021

Will the Scottish Greens’ forward march continue?

The rising support for the Greens among young, principled voters is a warning to Scottish Labour.  

By Rory Scothorne

The Scottish Greens aren’t winning fast enough. They recorded their best-ever result in the recent Scottish parliament election, winning eight of the country’s 129 MSPs and just over 8 per cent of the vote. They pushed the Liberal Democrats into fifth place in 2016 and have kept them there, and polls occasionally show them snapping at Labour’s heels for third. As fellow independence supporters, they are the first party the SNP turns to for support as a minority government, giving the Greens an influence on policy that far outstrips their representation. They are serious players, not just in devolved terms, but also within the alliance that could break up the Union, a status which earns them surprisingly little attention from either the UK or the Scottish press. But as environmentalists, they know that time isn’t on their side. 

“By the nature of our politics, winning slowly is the same as losing,” Ross Greer, the party’s education spokesman, tells me, quoting the American environmentalist Bill McKibben. “There are only nine years left to save the world, so if this is a slow burn, where 20 years from now we finally hit that major [electoral] tipping point, that is too late. The ultimate judgement of success for our movement, globally, is the position we’ll be in in 2030.”

In trying to bring that electoral “tipping point” closer than the bigger environmental one, the Greens are following an established – and often successful – formula: prove you can get things done. The last five years were “the first time we’ve ever had substantial political influence in Scotland”, says Greer, and the goal has been to “maximise that influence” through budget deals with the SNP – deals that have led to accusations by unionist opponents of them being the “gardening wing” of the governing party. 

An earlier breakthrough, in which the party leapt from one seat to seven in 2003, proved to be something of a false dawn. “Labour looked tired in office and the Iraq war was going on, the SNP didn’t look like a government, and there was a bit of ‘well, what the hell, might as well’ from the voters, suggests James Mackenzie, the Greens’ former head of communications. This boosted the public profile and popularity of the Greens’ then-leader and first MSP, Robin Harper, but was “not a robust basis for a political party”, says Mackenzie. 

From the birth of the Scottish parliament in 1999, the Greens have been helped by its electoral system, in which 56 regional seats are elected by proportional representation, compensating for some of the disproportionality that emerges in the 73 constituency seats elected under first-past-the-post. Yet with a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition keeping the Greens on the margins in 1999 and 2003, there was little hope of turning “what the hell” into something more sustainable. In 2007, a more professionalised SNP put “Alex Salmond for first minister” on the regional ballots and the Green cohort was squeezed to just two as the SNP surged into first place. In 2011 it proved impossible to expand on this as the SNP, having proved its own governing abilities, won a majority.

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[see also: What the SNP by-election win tells us about Labour’s predicament]

So what changed? The most obvious factor is circumstantial. The 2014 independence referendum transformed Scottish politics, and the Greens’ prominent role on the left flank of the cross-party “Yes Scotland” campaign meant their membership soared from 1,200 in 2013 to more than 9,000 by the end of 2015 (it has since shrunk slightly to around 8,000).

Mackenzie argues that the referendum entrenched the popular sense of “an alignment between independence and being on the left”, which rendered Labour’s fidelity to Westminster intolerable for many progressive Scots. The Greens also offered a means for voters to support independence electorally without having to settle for the SNP, whom Greer describes as “managerial” and reluctant to translate their dominance into substantive change. The voting system, which lets voters split their votes between constituency and regional votes, has encouraged the Greens to act as “your backup party, your conscience if you like”, according to another party source, balancing out more pragmatic, tactical choices in the first-past-the-post seats. Yet this is also what underpins those gardening wing criticisms, and the party is now trying to establish a more solid political base. 

The Greens are also dogged by another criticism, one familiar to environmentalists across the world: the party is too middle class and too quirky to generate a truly mass appeal. It’s true that the Greens do especially well in places such as Edinburgh Central and Glasgow Kelvin, where barely a month goes by without a new “artisan” coffee shop or vegan restaurant emerging. 

Yet this doesn’t fairly capture the deeper demographic changes, aided by strategic nous and good fortune, that are behind the Greens’ new prominence in Scottish politics. Greer predicts that the forthcoming Scottish Election Study will show the party coming second among under-25s in a country where all over-16s can vote; Mackenzie argues this support base, as well as backing by older millennials, might often be “culturally middle class” but is economically far more precarious. 

Greer argues that Greens across Europe are winning this demographic round by defending “open societies” against the rise of the far right, as more established left parties seek to compromise on immigration and multiculturalism. Yet in Scotland, the Greens have to compete with the SNP on this ground, and they do so with a more direct appeal to people’s interests. In budget deals they have negotiated for free bus travel for under-22s, the expansion of free school meals in primary schools and a reformed income tax system that cuts taxes for lower earners while raising them for the rich. They have also matched and often exceeded Labour’s support for rent controls and the abolition of zero-hours contracts, and helped force a U-turn over the release of government legal advice after threatening to support a no-confidence vote in the SNP’s education secretary John Swinney. 

They have been rewarded for this not just with a more stable and growing base of electoral support, but enhanced respect in parts of the labour movement too: both Greer and the party’s co-convener, Patrick Harvie, received campaign donations from the RMT transport union, and Green representatives can frequently be found addressing rallies of EIS-FELA, the teachers’ and college lecturers’ union. 

In the long term, Scottish Labour should be troubled by this. The party’s support in Scotland is ageing and is artificially inflated by tactical unionist voters who seem comfortable flitting between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. The Greens’ support is young and principled, with little time for Labour so long as it is irrevocably opposed to a second referendum. 

Yet when it comes to halting the climate crisis, the long term is too long, and the biggest breakthrough the Greens can hope for between now and 2030 is not electoral but constitutional. Should the SNP achieve its dream of independence, the Greens may be able to better claim the cause of Scotland’s “open society” for themselves.

[see also: How the debate over trans rights is splitting the SNP]

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