Following the European elections in Scotland last month, I have mixed feelings. Obviously, I was disappointed in the result and the fact that Scotland won’t have a strong Green voice in the European Parliament. However, the Scottish Greens achieved our highest-ever vote share in any election, narrowly beating our previous best in the same elections five years ago. We ran a decent campaign, with three key themes: stopping Brexit, tackling climate breakdown with a Green New Deal, and a pro-immigration, anti-racism position of hope over hate. And we energised new activists and supporters in what was a much-curtailed campaign period.
We know we attracted votes from a range of people who had never voted Green before. Our vote increased by more than 20,000 from 2014. But we were squeezed out of the last seat, losing votes from people who had voted Green in the past to the pro-independence, pro-EU SNP and the anti-independence, pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
The Brexit Party scooped up much of the pro-Brexit vote from UKIP and the Conservatives. And Labour’s vote plummeted. Its position of trying to please both sides of the Brexit debate demonstrates what happens when a party triangulates. As Nye Bevan said: “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.” Labour must rue its failure to heed Bevan’s warning.
But the Greens did well elsewhere. In England, the Green Party is the natural home of anti-austerity, pro-EU voters. In Ireland, the Greens made gains (in Dublin and southern constituencies), pushing out Sinn Féin, which had opposed a carbon tax designed to help tackle climate breakdown. And across the continent, more people voted Green than ever before, delivering the largest-ever group of Green MEPs.
This success is, in no small measure, due to the awakening of the public consciousness about the climate emergency. Greta Thunberg, the schoolgirl leading the School Strike for Climate movement, and other activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, have shifted popular opinion more quickly than party politics has managed, highlighting the importance of social movements and an inclusive approach to politics. Greens need to work much more closely with progressive social movements which can help to make the case for change in the way that no political party can.
In Scotland, our context was a little different – a little more complex – than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is worth reflecting on how we achieved what we did in 2014. Five years ago, we ran an unapologetically pro-immigration campaign: Vote Green for a Just and Welcoming Scotland. This was a brave move given the broader context of other parties either being too timid to talk about immigration, or being overtly in favour of stoking up anti-immigrant and racist hate (remember Labour’s “controls on immigration” mugs?).
It was popular, too. Scotland was one of only two European constituencies in which Greens increased their vote in 2014. In doing this, we changed British politics. We were the first parliamentary party to run an election campaign explicitly in favour of immigration. And other parties followed us; the SNP started talking about immigration in a way it had not done prior to our campaign. This shows the power of a strong message that was distinctive and resonant. It may not have delivered electoral success for us then, but it changed the nature of our politics.
The Scottish Greens have a track record of leading the way on the big, decisive (and often brave) issues of politics. We did it with immigration in 2014. We did it with participatory budgeting in Edinburgh (as a councillor I championed the Leith Decides – now Leith Chooses – project). We did it on payment of the Living Wage (I was the first politician in Scotland to call for this, back in 2008). And we did it on the scrapping of tuition fees. Other parties, perhaps especially the SNP, have tracked us on these issues, making them “normal” and often taking them up as their own ideas.
Now that the severity of the climate emergency is becoming clear, we need to shift the debate further. We need to move from rhetoric to action on climate breakdown. And we need to do that by being much clearer on the way forward, and having a coherent and systematic plan. And that is the Green New Deal, something which Greens in the UK have been talking about for over a decade. A Green New Deal would deliver a massive increase in renewable energy generation and storage. It would transform our labour market, providing high-quality, well-paid, sustainable jobs, improved living conditions and better environmental and public health.
And it would see investment in social infrastructure to enable us to do the things we are good at (and are not valued in our current economic model): caring, creating and cooperating with each other. We need to make the case that the free market cannot and will not deliver this.
Political parties must recognise how angry citizens are at our broken economy. But we also need to work with social movements to develop real solutions to that broken economy. A Green New Deal would shift government (and private) investment so that it becomes all about decarbonising and re-socialising the economy. That way, when we pull other parties into our space (again) they will actually be transforming the economy and dealing with climate breakdown, rather than just setting targets.
Greens do not yet hold the outcome of our elections in our own hands. We will always be subject to the broader political weather. But we do control what we do and what we talk about. We need to have the courage of our convictions. From making the case for immigration, to our work over the past decade on a Green New Deal, Greens have led progressive politics. But we need to keep bringing transformative ideas to the fore, and we need not to be cowed by centrist demands.
We need a new economy and a new society. Not just to deal with the climate emergency, but to create a world where increasing social wellbeing and protecting the environment are what our economy exists to deliver. The free market has failed and we need to create a new economy based on human needs and sustaining an environment in which we can survive. The Green Party is the only party that has that vision, and we need to work with social movements to make this vision a reality.