I’m risking the wrath of my former Better Nation colleague James for what’s coming here… but I really do think that Scottish “Greens” is a misnomer for the party who held onto their 2 MSPs in May’s election.  I’d suggest “Scottish Lefties who occasionally talk about the environment” would be a more appropriate (if slightly lengthy) name for the party.  And that for me, is the biggest issue facing the party at the moment.  I know James will tell me that the party “don’t just pick policies out of thin air – they are principles” and that’s all well and good.  But there are ways of maintaining those principles without radically changing.

When the party was led (well, okay, co-convened) by Robin Harper from his first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 until he stood down as co-convenor in 2008, the party actually talked about green issues. But since he was replaced by Patrick Harvie, the party has focused much more on left-wing, social issues rather than environmental issues.  Now, as I mentioned above, this IS a principled position (the Scottish Greens have always had a left-wing tendency) but I also perceive it to be something of an electoral strategy as well.

Here’s my thinking:

In 2007, Patrick Harvie won the final list seat in Glasgow by a narrow margin, and on the Denver projections for 2011, stood to lose out (hence, as an aside, the Greens notionally gained one seat by Denver’s reckoning).  Glasgow, as perceived by most political commentators, tends to the left of politics more so than parts of the rest of the country, and with the absence of a coherent socialist message from any of the myriad of leftist parties in the city, there was a gap in the electoral market here – and this was, clearly, an area which the Greens could exploit in order to get Patrick Harvie re-elected (with the added bonus that this was mostly what their activists supported anyway).  In the event, the Greens secured over 12,000 list votes in Glasgow, giving Harvie the fourth allocated seat (and making his position a bit more secure).  So, the electoral strategy worked in Glasgow.

However, across the rest of Scotland, leftist politics did not play quite as well, at least in my opinion.  Unfortunately, the Scottish Election Study focuses only on the “Big Four” (Ed – should that now be “Big Three and a Half”?) so there’s no data available to support my argument here.  But here’s some numbers.

The Greens won 87,060 list votes in May 2011.  Of those, 12,454 were won in Glasgow (electing Patrick Harvie and supporting the thesis that lefty policies were electorally usefulthere).  The remainder were split as follows:

Central Scotland – 5,634
Highlands & Islands – 9,076 (missed out by under 400 votes)
Lothian – 21,505 (elected Alison Johnstone on fourth allocation)
Mid-Scotland & Fife – 10,914
North-East Scotland – 10,407
South Scotland – 8,656
West Scotland – 8,414

(Data from Better Nation’s Election Results Service)

Again, I have nothing but hunches to support my thesis here, but I’d argue that the 21,000 votes in the Lothians were not based upon lefty politics (since lefty politics in the capital are not that popular).  Similarly, there are plenty of Conservative voters (farmers etc) in the North-East and Highlands – voters whose concerns would be more likely to coincide with environmental concerns than leftist political ideology.  So in my view – and again, I stress, with no data, this is purely conjecture – those voting Green in the Lothians, the North-East, the Highlands, and to an extent in Mid-Scotland and Fife, likely did so in spite of the party’s left-wing politics, rather than because of them.

In the 2007-11 Scottish Parliamentary term, the Scottish Greens benefited from being in a position where the minority SNP Government needed their votes if they didn’t want to court Labour – and they benefited to the extent that the SNP Government made some concessions on some issues in order to secure their support for key legislation.  However, with that minority becoming a majority, the blackmail potential (a phrase coined by Giovanni Sartori) the party had with just two MSPs is now gone.  Indeed, with a majority government in place in a PR system, you could make a case that none of the opposition parties project any kind of Sartorian relevance, but that’s another post.  The bottom line is that what worked for the party between 2007 and 2011 will no longer work.

So, Patrick Harvie can attack the SNP for “passing on Tory cuts” until he is blue green in the face, it won’t really make any real difference to government policy in practical terms.  I’ve written before (on Better Nation, again!) about the conundrum facing the Scottish Greens – which of power or influence (or as Müller and Strøm put it, policy, office or votes) was more attractive to the party in the pre-2011 election period.  The outcome has really given them neither, but a further, unresolved issue, is whether the Scottish Greens are a political party or a political movement.

The two aren’t necessarily exclusive (indeed, many Labour activists would argue that their party is simply an extension of the labour movement) but the distinction might well shape how to approach elections – and, indeed, shape how policy is adopted.  If the Scottish Greens are predominantly a party, then policy might tend to the more moderate, potentially populist and electorally viable positions.  If movement is the dominant factor, then it might be more principled, uncompromising, not necessarily electorally helpful policies that we might see more of.  In an era of centrist, catch-all parties, the former might provide the Greens with more electoral success, though the latter is an undoubtedly more satisfying, if frustrating, place to be in.

Either way, for me, the party have to re-evaluate what they stand for.  I’d argue (though I haven’t really done so here) that they have lost the reason that people voted for them in 1999 and in 2003 – an environmental conscience.  If they re-discover that (and if it is at the expense of some of the more leftist political mantas that Patrick Harvie’s leadership has led to) then we might well see a bright Green future.  But if not then environmentalism in Scotland is likely to return to where it was prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999: political oblivion.