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The Green Party’s Electoral Bungee Jump

21/10/2010

Sometimes, I get the feeling that I’m eavesdropping when I check my Twitter feed, certainly it felt that way when I caught a conversation between James and Paul tonight, about the Scottish Green Party’s drop from seven MSPs to two back in 2007. So what happened?

Firstly, we need to start this by looking further back. What we ought to be asking is why the Greens went from one MSP to seven in 2003.

Let’s start with the obvious one: Iraq. The Greens were opposed, of course, and Labour were always going to take a hit. Plus which, there was a wider disenchantment: the Holyrood project, a sense that MSPs were disconnected from the public, the death of Donald Dewar, the disgrace of Henry McLeish and an Executive whose motto was “Do less, better”.

But ordinarily, that would go to the main opposition party the SNP. This didn’t happen: it didn’t help that John Swinney wasn’t able to capture the public’s imagination and appear as a credible First Minister. The party just wasn’t able to turn Labour’s problems into their gains, and so despite the abyss that Labour was staring into, there didn’t yet appear to be an alternative administration.

And of course, this hit both sides: people who would vote Labour in a straight choice between their party and the SNP realised that there was no need to do so in this case – their side was basically in control and it might make more sense to vote for a party like the SSP or Greens, who might draw Labour leftwards. Conversely, those who would choose the SNP felt there was no point – the campaign wasn’t great, victory was unlikely, and the SSP and Greens both backed independence.

Besides, for the first time, it felt like there was a point in voting Green. After all, in the Lothians, doing so had actually yielded a result in the election of Robin Harper, who was in Holyrood already, advocating Green policies, and tapping into people’s frustrations at the mainstream Big 4. Tommy Sheridan was doing something similar for the SSP.

So there was a Green standard-bearer for the first time, and that helped too. Think about it: Jack McConnell might not inspire, Tony Blair was infuriating, well, everyone, John Swinney wasn’t setting the heather alight, and for many, Tommy Sheridan would appear terrifying. Into this vacuum of credibility walked the quiet, yet principled, Robin Harper. Result: the number of Green votes increased by more than 50%, from 84,024 to 128,026.

And this increase was augmented by two factors: firstly, the lower turnout, which meant that one vote went further. Secondly, in five of the regions, a threshold of sorts was crossed (it had been crossed in the Lothians in 1999). Holyrood doesn’t have a 5% rule like the Bundestag, for example, but the way seats are allocated – on a regional basis rather than national, and relative to other parties’ votes rather than as a straight percentage – meant that a change from 3.6% to 6.7% of the vote propelled the Greens to a group of seven.

In short: other parties were weak, there wasn’t a real contest for Government, the Greens were in a position to capitalise for the first time, the lower turnout meant a Green vote counted for more and the electoral system worked in their favour.

So what happened in 2007?

Firstly, people were still pissed off with Labour; Jack McConnell might have ditched “Do Less, Better” but still wasn’t inspiring people and still had Tony Blair as a Prime Ministerial albatross. However, the SNP were going for it, pushing Alex Salmond as a credible First Minister and getting a favourable reaction. So one of the factors benefiting the Greens was gone. Moreover, as we now had a credible contest for Government, both SNP and Labour sympathisers had to wake up and smell the coffee: any vote against Labour was almost as good as a vote for the SNP, and vice versa. This time, we had a fight.

Then there were the MSPs. It didn’t help that the 2003 Election yielded another majority Coalition, so the Greens, as the third-largest opposition party, and with a spot at FMQs behind John Swinney (replaced by Nicola Sturgeon) and David McLetchie (replaced by Annabel Goldie) every couple of weeks, still weren’t given much opportunity to make waves. Seven MSPs proved to have the same influence on proceedings as one.

As well as that, well, they weren’t that good. Don’t get me wrong, Robin Harper is a good standard-bearer, Patrick Harvie is an effective, serious politician, and Mark Ballard is a nice guy, but the Group as a whole was not as effective at putting its policies forward. Listen to Caroline Lucas’s speech on the day she became Leader of the GPEW. It caught the imagination; it showed that Green politicians had the answers, a way forward, a vision we could buy into. The Scottish Greens, by contrast, had a glummer approach: we don’t like X; there’s too much of Y. Now, the problems they raise are problems and they need to be tackled. But we only heard about the problems, we never got the solutions. The party can be too negative at times and it’s hard to see what alternative being offered. We know what they’re against, but it was harder to figure out what they were for and as such, for outsiders, it was harder to be caught up in the excitement, as there was no excitement to be caught up in, just a long list of things that the ordinary public had to stop doing, a new, 21st Century Puritanism that seemed completely out of step with what were better times, with our rising house prices, easy credit and affordable foreign holidays that were just a toxic short-haul flight away.

All that meant that the Green vote actually went down to 82,584 (not counting the 2,971 Constituency votes in Glasgow Kelvin) – fewer than in 1999! On that alone, it seems fortunate that the Greens have two MSPs rather than just one (and had it not been for the Socialists’ orgy of self-destruction which split their vote, Patrick Harvie would have joined his colleagues on the outside as well). But to almost make the decline certain, the electoral factors that gave them a fair wind in 2003 turned against them. Turnout, though lower than in 1999, was up on 2003, despite the many spoiled papers. That one Green vote was less effective. And again, just as the Greens climbed above the de facto electoral threshold in five regions in 2003, they ducked beneath it again in four of them four years later. A drop from 6.7% to just over 4% was catastrophic.

In short, almost every factor that went with them in 2003 – a weak opposition, a credible presence, a message in keeping with the times, a low turnout and a support level that was just high enough – was gone: the opposition was stronger, the group no more influential than the lone voice had been, a message that few really wanted to hear, an increased turnout and a support level that was short of what was needed everywhere but in the Lothians and Glasgow.

So what factors can we look for next year?

Firstly, check out the opposition again: the SNP have been in Government for four years so it’s inevitable that some of the shine will have worn off, especially given the budget that John Swinney as Finance Secretary will soon have to deliver; the LibDems are tainted by their association with the Coalition Government (and a poll rating of 8% in the Scotsman’s recent poll is proof of that: the last time the LibDems were that low in a Holyrood poll was 2001 and I don’t think they’ve ever polled that low on a question about the Regional vote); and it’s doubtful that Iain Gray has ‘First Ministerial’ written all over him. It’s certainly telling that as the focus shifts from the Labour-Tory contest at Westminster to the Labour-SNP contest at Holyrood, that Scotsman poll shows Labour’s lead over the SNP halving. So we have an opposition that’s not as powerful as it was in 2007 (and indeed, a potentially highly productive third front opening for the Greens against the LibDems).

As for the Greens, their hand is stronger. The wider Parliamentary arithmetic has given their two MSPs more power than their seven had in the 2003-07 Parliament. And there are actual, positive Green proposals that will help coming forward and being given a little more of an airing – both of those were evidenced in the fall of the 2009 budget over insulation. Meanwhile, Patrick Harvie might not have the same X-factor status of Robin Harper, but he’s an astute politician and can benefit from both being in Parliament but not one of the established Big 4, making him an almost undisputed leader of the None of the Above Party.

So the underlying factors look positive for the Greens – indeed, that Scotsman poll puts them on 6%: not all the way there, but enough for them to re-claim seats in the Highlands & Islands and Mid Scotland & Fife. The question is, can they turn those advantages into actual votes in sufficient number to bounce back?

We’ll find out in May.

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