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05 October 2013
Fighting talk

Fighting talk

As Patrick Harvie maps out how the Scottish Green Party is attempting to build its profile across the country, he uses a couple of phrases that might sound a little surprising.

For a party that fundamentally embraces pacifism, the idea of the “air war” of social media campaigning, added to a “ground war” of grassroots campaigning and knocking on people’s doors, might create a slightly jarring image. But maybe that is because the party has had to fight doggedly to make itself heard – above the clamour of the other more established parties – and the newcomers who make a good headline.

For the two Green MSPs, Alison Johnstone and Patrick Harvie, as it is across the party, the subject of the attention, whether from the media or in the parliament is never far away.
Harvie, a list MSP for Glasgow, has been in the parliament since the party’s 2003 heyday of seven MSPs; now, it has just two members – Johnstone was elected in 2011, replacing Robin Harper for the Lothians region.

“There’s a tendency to look at what three or four political parties are saying rather than what the full spread of political opinion is,” says Harvie, as he and Johnstone speak to Holyrood ahead of their party conference in Inverness

“It’s not just frustrating because we want to be heard – obviously, if you’re active in politics you want to be heard and want to get your ideas across – it’s frustrating because so often the ideas that those three or four centre-ground parties represent is pretty much the same.”

Harvie, who is a supporter of independence and led the calls at last year’s conference to sign up to the Yes campaign, adds: “If it wasn’t for the debate about independence at the moment I don’t know what we’d be debating, because so much of the other four parties’ policies in here are occupying the same centre ground.”

This is the message the party is trying very hard to get across, that they are the only ones calling for a radical policy of a new economic model.
Their fight to be heard is in stark contrast to that of UKIP and its leader, Nigel Farage. As Harvie says: “All Nigel Farage has to do is lift a pint and a fag and he gets on telly.”

UKIP is a party with no representation in Scotland, but when Farage visited Scotland in June for a photocall in a Royal Mile pub, it brought the media out in force (along with a baying crowd urging him to ‘go home’).

Johnstone adds: “I simply cannot understand myself what the [media] fascination is and I suppose, yeah, there is a bit of envy there – if they gave the Greens a fraction of that coverage, no doubt we’d have a very positive impact on our performance at the next election.”

Harvie says: “In some ways, the unpleasant phenomenon of UKIP is less about policy and more about a rejection of politics, a kind of cynical, anti-politics stance.
“Green politics is affirmatively pro-politics, it’s got to be trying to recapture the idea that politics can make a positive difference in the world and people’s lives.”

But he admits: “The focus on personality is a problem for us, the media is more interested in somebody saying something outrageous rather than what are the ideas that could be the solutions to the problems in current life, the economy and social policy.”

That doesn’t mean that the party will be breaking with its philosophy, though a website, Vote for Policies, which was set up for the 2010 elections shows that from 342,000 people surveyed across the UK shown just the policies and not the parties, more than 24 per cent favoured the Greens – although being UK-wide, it did not feature policies from the SNP.

Harvie says the party has to instead concentrate on building relationships with “green-minded people”, that has worked so successfully in places like Stirling and Aberdeenshire.

With limited means, like all other small parties – although the two MSPs advocate the public funding of parties to get a fairer balance – the party can also use social media like Twitter to get its message across and Harvie pays tributes to the successes of newly elected councillors last year, conducting a good “air war” combined with a good “ground war” to make breakthroughs.

Johnstone, who was a former Green councillor on Edinburgh Council – where the party now has six councillors – says: “We have gone from eight local authority councillors to 14. I think the advent of PR and understanding amongst our activists that if they work hard on their patch they will find themselves on their local council, gain all sorts of experience and will start to have an even bigger impact.

“I think when people realise they can go to you because they’re concerned their child’s school is going to close or they’re worried about their local hospital, we have something to say on all subjects.”

She is confident the party in Edinburgh can see its councillors rise to as many as 10 or even a dozen by the next elections but the emphasis is on “healthy sustainable” growth.

Brighton and Hove Council in the south of England is now run by a minority Green administration, but it has been beset by problems, including strikes by bin collectors earlier this year that were even criticised by the city’s Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

Harvie says: “It’s possible to argue that Brighton overreached themselves. It’s been really tough to not only have been the first-ever Green administration, but to be a minority administration with no friends in the opposition parties.”

They hope that campaigns, like the by-election campaign being run in Dunfermline at the moment (where Johnstone describes the Greens’ candidate as “one of the most able and engaging candidates you could possibly put up”) can help “put the bricks in place” to future success.

So is the party moving away from its image of being a single-issue party or even of being more of a campaign group than a political party? Harvie laughs at the suggestion and points out that the same accusations have been made of the SNP on independence.

He adds: “I am sure there will always be some people who think the Green Party is all about the environment, in the same way there will be some people who think the SNP is just about independence – or the Labour Party just about representing the unions.

“I think we’ve reduced that substantially.”

Johnstone, who sits on the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, says it is because of the Green influence in the parliament that some of the party’s core issues are being considered.

“It was Greens who first suggested to John Swinney that he might want to look at who he’s awarded contracts to – should companies who use zero-hour contracts be awarded public money?

“The government is now looking at the economy through a wider perspective than just purely GDP. That’s absolutely as a result of us being here.

“I’m fairly certain that if we weren’t here you wouldn’t be hearing so much about Oxfam’s Humankind Index and the government wouldn’t have brought forward the National Performance Framework.”

The Dunfermline by-election, called because of the resignation of Bill Walker following his conviction for domestic abuse, has become a focus for the issue of women’s politics and the majority of party’s fielding candidates did so from all-women shortlists.

The issue is a divisive one, with the argument against being that candidates selected should be the best for the job, regardless of their gender.

Greens have a policy of a minimum of 50 per cent of candidates in every winnable seat should be women. So are selection panels for political parties unable to make a fair choice?

Harvie says: “Well, if you take the view that politics needs the skills and abilities of women and men and if you take the view that – unlike Godfrey Bloom or somebody – women are capable of being very inspiring high quality politicians, then the only assumption you can make is that selection processes are skewed against women.”

In the Scottish Parliament, 34 per cent of candidates are women, on local authorities, it is one in five, with only two women council leaders in Scotland – despite just under half of council chief executives being female.

Johnstone says it is important to hear women’s voices in debates, especially when often it is women who are most affected and engaged with the issues being discussed.

“Parliamentary hours here are pretty family friendly. Local authority hours aren’t as friendly. Certainly in Edinburgh, full councils have been known to go on until quarter to 11 at night – how does that fit in with family life?

“If you want to get involved with community councils as a stepping stone, all those meetings happen at night. It would be quite nice to have a rethink and get away from a ‘everything has to happen at 7pm’ kind of mentality.”

So she stresses the need for positive action to get more women into politics.
“If we don’t take steps to address these kinds of issues, we’re not going to progress,” she adds. “And if we keep making the progress we’re making, it’s going to be a long, long time before we have equal numbers of men and women in politics.”

Maybe it is scant consolation to a party which has ambitions for greater electoral success, but many of its policies have been assimilated by their rivals.

The most recent has been the idea of a Land Value Tax an alternative to the Council Tax which, though many believe it unfair, has still to be replaced and has remained frozen since 2008.

Labour’s Johann Lamont has said she is interested in looking at the tax. Harvie says it is a good thing that Green policies might find broader appeal, but worries that if it is adopted by Labour it might become a hybrid land and property tax which fails in one of their main objectives – to bring disused land back into use.

But both MSPs agree that reform is needed in taxation and Johnstone says it is “central to what happens next” and should allow local authorities to make their own financial decisions – devolving power closer to the people.

“We have been absolutely clear we do not want to see a mini-Westminster here. We’ve got to have the self-confidence to say to local authorities and local communities, “we trust you to know what you need and to raise the money equitably and sensibly.”
“It could be transformative.”

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