Turning Scotland green
As the Lib Dems at their UK conference debated overturning historic opposition to nuclear power, one delegate insisted his party was still “the real Green Party.”
The jibe was meant to reinforce the difference between his party and their Conservative coalition partners over environmental policy.
But it also served up another truth – nowadays, every party has taken on a bit of green.
The SNP Scottish Government has committed to creating a low-carbon economy and both it and the UK Government boast of tough targets to cut carbon emissions and stop the onslaught of climate change.
Often these claims can be dismissed by environmentalists as “greenwash” – paying lip service to being greener – how can a government pursue a complete switch to renewable energy in Scotland, for example, while it advocates maximum exploration of North Sea oil and gas, and how can a UK government which promised to be the “greenest government ever” support the controversial process of fracking and burning shale gas for energy?
The Scottish Green Party was formed in 1990, when both it and its Northern Irish counterpart split off from the main UK party and all three have their roots in the Ecology Party of the 1970s which, while it failed to get politicians elected, lobbied to push green issues up the agenda.
The party has been arguing for decades for a more sustainable economy relying on renewable resources, but has watched as other parties have assimilated some of the policies it has become best known for.
As it gathers for its annual conference in Inverness, the party is looking ahead to, arguably, one of the most crucial periods in its history, with the European elections in May and the independence referendum only months later providing a crucial platform to get its policies heard and emphasise more than ever that it is a party to be taken seriously.
Before the 2007 election, in an effort to ‘level the playing field’, Sir Tom Farmer donated £100,000 to the SNP – a cash injection from the Kwik-Fit founder to help the party he was not a member of stand up to the big bank balances of the UK-wide parties.
Only a few years on from that donation and the Nationalists are now the principal party in Scotland. By comparison, that £100,000 would have paid for the entire campaign for the Scottish Greens’ Holyrood election campaign in 2011.
That gulf in wealth of the two parties is a sign of exactly what the party is up against as it attempts to break the barrier and see greater success in the polls.
It is clear, though, that activists and members believe the party is on the verge of something far greater.
With its membership of about 1,300 apparently on the up, so are the numbers of elected representatives and while there are still only two MSPs, there were 14 Green councillors returned in the local elections last year and party members told Holyrood they were hoping for far larger gains in the future.
Mark Ruskell, who was a Green MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife between 2003 and 2007 and is now a Stirling councillor, says the party has concentrated on building up more support from the ground.
“We’re a serious political party that wants to be in a position to affect change, but we want to make change in a way that carries people with us.
“I think a time will come in Holyrood where we will be in government and we will be in local government and we’ll be in control in local government, probably in coalition, in Scotland at the next election.
“Our time will come as it has come for Greens across Europe, but the manner in which we will take that position of responsibility is we will be working with people and engaging with them.”
In some ways, this breakthrough moment should have been expected earlier for the party, as 10 years ago, a total of seven Green MSPs, including Ruskell, were elected to the Scottish Parliament.
But the next election and the rise of the SNP wiped out all but two of their members and the party had to start again.
Ruskell said: “The maths of the regional vote is quite complicated and tight so we didn’t lose too much in 2007 compared to 2003, but there was clearly a shift towards change and the SNP managed to capture that vote from all parties.
“A percentage swing here or there and we could end up with nine or 10 MSPs back in parliament again.
“What I’ve learned from that is we need to build up from the base and that’s why I stood for local council last year, it was a recognition that that’s what we hadn’t done for Holyrood is refocus back on the communities we’re representing, refocusing on local communities and build up our councillor base.”
Last year’s council elections represented a definite high-point for the party, winning 14 council seats, with first-ever seats won in Midlothian, Stirling and Aberdeenshire, proving the party was moving out of its safe havens of Glasgow and Edinburgh. For some, it was the culmination of decades of campaigning.
Ian Baxter, who was elected to Midlothian’s Bonnyrigg ward, joined the Ecology Party in 1979 just after the Scottish branch was formed, and stood for election three years later – winning just 0.3 per cent of the vote.
“That was a pain barrier for me,” he said. “That was difficult having done so much work and getting such a small percentage of the vote.”
The success last year was built over 30 years of campaigning, and knocking on 7,000 doors.
While two other candidates got about 5 per cent of the vote, which Baxter said shows a “bedrock support” for Greens and their policies, he got double that.
“Probably the main factor was going back to old-style politics – I knocked on doors,” he said.
“I felt that particularly in Midlothian, councillors, once they were elected didn’t engage with the people they represented and I felt that was a gap I could easily plug.”
Baxter admits that this style of campaigning is difficult for a smaller party. Before the 2011 election, the SNP unveiled Activate, software that allowed activists to target voter groups more efficiently.
With fewer activists, and less money to spend, this is an avenue not open to the Greens.
A comparison between the Greens and SNP finances for 2012 showed the SNP’s central office had a total income of £2.3m including donations of £751,795 and more than half a million from its membership fees.
Greens total income of £100,000, included £56,496 donations and £21,447 from members.
The two Green MSPs, Alison Johnstone and party co-convener Patrick Harvie, donate large chunks of their parliamentary salary to the party funds but have no other large donors.
While this may mean the party is beholden to no one, Baxter, who is also the party’s treasurer, said it can be frustrating.
“Most of the large corporations, the companies and trade unions who donate to major parties probably don’t see a vested interest in voting Green.
“The trade unions, for example, should look at the Greens, if you look at our policies compared to what the Labour Party are doing, they would probably see a much closer correlation between what we say and what they say.”
Zara Kitson, who is standing in the Dunfermline by-election called after Bill Walker quit, has funded her campaign via pledges on the internet to pay for the essential costs, including the election deposit of £500 and leaflets to stuff through voters’ doors.
She is relatively new to politics and the party, having joined up only two years ago, but hopes that fresh faces can draw people’s interest back in.
“I think people are totally disillusioned about party politics because it is quite ego driven and in terms of the general public, there is a political class of people who engage with politics but it is quite small.”
Kitson, from a mining family near Stirling, said: there are barriers to engaging with voters and said: “as a smaller party with limited means we have huge challenges and barriers to overcome but we definitely punch above our weight.
“There is a lot that could be improved that could make politics more accessible to more people.”
Baxter describes the Green philosophy of a “sustainable and fair society based on renewable resources” and all its policies have to be consistent with that.
The party advocates giving power and responsibility back, not just to local authorities, but to individual communities, and a fairer society that judges its success based on not just in financial terms and GDP, but on its attitude to social values.
Speaking at the conference will be Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, on its Common Weal economic model for Scotland – which reflects many of the Green values.
But a key source of frustration throughout the party is that their views often go unheard.
Many are quick to point the finger at the media, who often only call on Green politicians for comment when there is an environmental aspect to a story.
At last year’s conference, the Greens voted overwhelmingly to join the Yes Scotland board, and support Scottish independence– although support in the party is about two thirds for independence and one third against.
But members of the party have said the increased exposure offered by the independence campaign puts their policies on a wider platform.
Kitson says: “I think more and more, with Patrick Harvie having more air time in terms of independence, people are beginning to see we have a range of policies and views on everything.
“We are a whole party rather than just a single-issue party, but I think it is a challenge in terms of how the media treat us and we get shoe-boxed in.
“More and more young activists are joining the party because they’ve seen Green politics is the only way to reclaim the future - to work for everyone and not the few.”