Why, How and What Now: the Greens
This was seen as a disappointing night for the Greens. They were supposed to make the breakthrough; they were supposed to overtake the LibDems; they were supposed to pick up a seat in every region. Instead, they didn’t pick up any new seats, and their vote increased only marginally. So what went wrong?
Actually, hold that thought. After all, they were the only part (except the SNP) whose vote increased, and the only party (except the SNP) not to lose any seats. So although they came fifth, they had the second best performance. On that basis, maybe the question is, did it really go all that wrong?
Well, yes. The campaign was by no means a disaster, but it could certainly have gone far better.
The debate debacle didn’t help: like the SNP last year, the Greens were locked out of the TV debates, and so denied the primary means of getting their point across. And like the SNP last year, the main thing that became notable from the Greens’ platform was their indignation that they weren’t invited to the debates. Now, in both cases, the exasperation was justified, but the problem was that it overshadowed everything else: they used the limited platform they had to put their points across to lament that they didn’t have a wider platform to put their points across. The Greens patently failed to learn from the mistake the SNP made the year before, and so got a result broadly equivalent to what the SNP got the year before. It was a debate double-whammy.
Then what little we got seemed incomplete. We got the part of the message that said that there was an alternative to the cuts, but somehow – and it may be more to do with media reporting and focusing on the first half than the second – we never really ended up clear on what that was. The message didn’t come through in full, and the only point of the plan we could pick out was a 3% jack in income tax, following which the hardest hit would be those the Greens were trying to help. As in 2007, all we got were the problems. We know the problems, what we want to hear are the solutions. The Scottish Greens are not so good at this.
The messengers didn’t help: we hear from the Greens how they’re serious, and how they want to be taken seriously as a political force. Then they spend four years carping from the sidelines, to the ridiculous extent that from 2009 onwards, the Green Party, which abhors nuclear power, supports renewable energy, dislikes the Council Tax and favours a referendum on independence ended up routinely throwing their lot in with Labour, a party which is in favour of nuclear power, pooh-poohed ambitious targets on renewables, supports (and until the campaign began, wanted to increase) the Council Tax and opposes a referendum, because the SNP, which abhors nuclear power, wants a 100% renewable energy mix, passed the most ambitious climate change legislation ever, would rather be rid of the Council Tax and wants a referendum couldn’t find an extra £7million from a fixed budget for pipe lagging. You see the problem: if Patrick Harvie had got his debate time, I’m certain that he would have succeeded only in tipping viewers, who were already worn down by Iain Gray’s unremitting dreariness, over the edge completely.
Of course, not everything was of the Greens’ own making: had he been on the debates, Harvie would at least have looked like an island of sanity when compared with Tavish Scott and the Harvie/Goldie clashes would have been fascinating – when most of the campaign generated only heat, we may actually have seen some light there. It could have been that which finally launched them into fourth place.
And the polarised SNP v. Labour nature of the campaign hurt them just at it did in 2007: the SNP made a pitch for the Regional Votes, pointing out that they were what made the difference. Meanwhile, the Salmond v. Gray dynamic, the question of who would be the next FM was on everyone’s lips – even when it became clear just what the answer to that question was. This actually pushed Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott out, so how did Patrick Harvie stand a chance? Even on the vexed question of where all those lost LibDem votes would go, all the pundits focused on was how they’d be split between the SNP and Labour. It occurred to no one that they could conceivably go to the Greens. The press wrote the SGP out of the narrative, and few in the media got excited at the prospect of the Greens moving into fourth place as they were all pre-occupied with who would come first. Had matters at the top been wrapped up long before the campaign even started, the Greens might have got more attention, gained more momentum and made more progress. As it was, they were frozen out.
Then factor in the false-dawn syndrome that always seems to nobble them: in 2007, they were on the verge of double figures according to polls a week before polling day. The only double figures they ended up with were Robin Harper and Patrick Harvie. In 2009, they were about to break the mould and elect an MEP, either at Labour or the LibDems’ expense. It wasn’t to be, and what would have otherwise been considered a respectable result ended up being felt as a crushing blow. 2011 was just another chapter in that story. I get the feeling that one week before next year’s local elections, the Greens will appear to be on the brink of holding the balance of power in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with Councillors popping up all over the place, only to end up almost exactly where they were at the start of the campaign. Funnily enough, that might still give them the balance of power in Glasgow, while just a modest advance could be enough to get them into a Coalition in the Capital should they wish to take part, but whatever the result, it’ll seem like a disappointment compared with what people are saying in the last week of April.
This is why staying where they are is a bad result: their most prominent figure has retired, they’re still only a party of two MSPs, and the SNP majority means that the Greens do not hold the balance of power and so lose the influence they had in the last Parliament – at least until they overplayed their hand in the 2009 Budget process. They lose their Committee Convenership and unless one of the LibDems becomes Presiding Officer or either Liam McArthur or Tavish Scott fall off the island ferry and trigger a By-Election which the LibDems lose, forcing the Liberal Democrats to form a Technical Group with the Greens and Margo MacDonald, the Greens are still without a seat on the all-important Parliamentary Bureau. In 2003, they were a group of seven in a Parliament with a majority Coalition; they went to a group of two where the the leading party was ahead by only one seat, and the only viable two-party pairings were still two seats short of a majority, so it wasn’t all bad. They’re now a group of two where the governing party has an eight-seat majority. I was exasperated at the Greens’ penchant for carping at the sidelines before the election. After it, carping from the sidelines will be all that they can do.
So what’s the answer? Compare and contrast with the Greens in England, who gained extra Councillors last week and are now the largest group on Brighton and Hove Council. Scotland’s Councils may be elected by PR, but there are more twice as many Green Councillors in First Past the Post Brighton alone than there are in the whole of Scotland. What can the Scottish Greens learn from down south?
Try listening to Caroline Lucas. I remember being almost captivated by her first speech as Green Party Leader, when she set out the Green New Deal, imagining a better, fairer, greener society with a smile on her face. Yes, there was an alternative… and there it was! While the Scottish Greens are prophesying doom, Caroline Lucas seems to be taking the English Greens forward to a better tomorrow. The SGP is a relentless downpour of bad news and imminent apocalypse. Their English counterparts offer the promise of a new dawn around the corner. I know which one I want to hear. I could vote (and, when the opportunity has arisen, have voted) for the English Greens very easily – I’ve never been enthused by the SGP. Where’s the inspiration? The bold new direction? It’s not coming from Harvie, I’m afraid.
So the Greens could have done a lot better, but things could have been far worse and given their current approach, they should count themselves very fortunate. But, as they themselves might say, another way is possible – and it’s being demonstrated in England. It’s down to the SGP to learn from those successes.