Political Promise

Lean, Mean, Green Machine: Scottish Green Party Come Out Fighting

In Matthew Wheavil on November 12, 2010 at 7:00 am

Matt Wheavil was at the Scottish green party conference last week. The mood in the camp is positive.

The media always display an eager interest in party conferences when they involve the big guns (i.e. Labour or the Conservatives). And for those parties, it’s been a dramatic run this year – from the Cain and Able style betrayal of the Labour leadership contest to the Tories’ internal wrangling with child benefit.

Up in Scotland, most of the conference coverage was spent on Harriet Harman’s apparent distaste for Lib Dem rodents of the ginger variety. The media seem to have almost forgotten there’s a Scottish election around the corner and with the SNP looking a little glum in the polls; Scotland’s opposition parties are feeling rather optimistic – especially those with a desire to paint the nation Green.

In 2007, the Scottish Green Party lost five Scottish Parliament seats to the SNP, bringing their MSP total down to just two. Since then, they’ve bounced back. With Caroline Lucas elected as the Green Party’s first ever Westminster MP in the May 2010 election, there is now a hunger in the party to at the very least gain those seats back from the SNP.

Their annual conference, held last weekend in Edinburgh, teemed with a mixture of emotions – jubilation at their recent success in Westminster, caution over how to position themselves in the run up to what will likely be yet another knife edge Scottish election and despair at the recent spate of Con-Dem cuts.

Patrick Harvie (Green MSP for Glasgow) reflected all of this in the conference’s opening speech. He expressed anger at the Government for cutting £18 billion from the welfare budget and continuing to drill for oil rather than replacing it with renewable energy. He praised Caroline Lucas as a source of inspiration whilst warning that people will not vote Green unless they put a face to the party. He attacked the other parties for their failings, but mostly the Liberal Democrats who are now just two points ahead of the Greens in Scottish polls.

In an effort to nibble away at that two point margin, it seems that the Scottish Greens are making a considerable effort to differentiate themselves from Nick Clegg’s merry band of blue Lib Dems.

The main focus at the Scottish Green conference positioned the party away from ‘Con-Dem cuts’ by advocating use of the Scottish Parliament’s tax-varying power (up to 3p in the pound) to protect public services from facing the axe.

While on the surface this policy seems to hit the right note, it may prove a slightly uncomfortable fit with the Green’s progressive ethos. On the one hand using Holyrood’s tax-varying power could protect Scotland’s free University education, which will come under serious pressure since Nick Clegg’s recent u-turn on tuition fees south of the border.

However, raising income tax hits everyone regardless of their level of earnings and thus isn’t a particularly progressive option.

I put this to former Scottish Green Party leader Robin Harper, who had this to say: “It’s a very difficult one…. very difficult one. But the thing is, we could use it in such a way that it was redistributed to the poor and the needy after it was collected, in other words they get the money back in terms of improved services. And it wouldn’t affect the very poorest because the ones in the lowest tax bands will still pay the least if we did exercise our right to impose 3% more tax.

“We would be on the same tax bands we have at the moment but the important thing would be where the money would go once it was collected. And it wouldn’t be into nice comfy Green middle class projects; it would be focused on the poorest people in our society, that’s the whole point of it.”

In essence, the Greens want to look pragmatic whilst denouncing public service cuts. With this being the first time any party has flirted with the idea of using the Scottish Parliament’s limited tax varying power, it’ll be interesting to see how many seats the Greens can win in 2011. If all goes well, it could be as many as eight… enough to keep Alex Salmond up at night?

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