by Mike Feinstein, advisor, International Committee of the Green Party of the United States
Despite falling from seven to two members in the Scottish parliament, the Scottish Green Party has helped to determine who will govern the country over the next four years.
On May 3rd, Scotland held elections for the 129 seats in its parliament, informally called Holyrood. In 1999, Scottish Green Robin Harper became the first Green elected, after the British government had approved the use of proportional representation for parliamentary election there. In 2003, six more Greens were elected, giving the party seven MSPs (Members of Scottish Parliament) in the 129 member body.
This time the party hoped to continue increase its share, but instead was met with a rising wave support for Scottish nationalism, reflected as an increase of 20 seats for moderately left-of-center Scottish National Party (SNP), making SNP the largest Holyrood party with 47 seats. As a result, only Harper (Lothians) and fellow Green Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) held their seats, but Harper moved quickly to negotiate with the SNP.
On May 11th, the two parties published a Cooperation Agreement, which committed the Greens to vote for SNP leader Alex Salmond as Scottish First Minister, in exchange for an SNP commitment to nominate a Green MSP to chair a Holyrood committee. The Co-operation Agreement also committed both parties to working constructively together on policy areas where there was common ground.
On May 16, Salmond was elected First Minster with Green Support. Harper said “we voted for Alex Salmond today because we believe the people have voted for a change of government and it signals our intent to engage constructively in the interests of the electorate. We look forward to working with the SNP administration on areas of common agreement whilst at the same time working with all parties to deliver positive Green action over the next four years.
“There are of course significant policy differences between the SNP and the Greens, on transport policy in particular, and on those issues we will continue to promote our distinctive policies.”
Harvie added: “The situation is not ideal for any party, but the central concern of everyone today should be to meet the expectations of the electorate who want politicians to work together and get things done. It is unchartered territory for Scotland, but there are many urgent issues that require politicians to work together in the public interest, not for their own party political interests. We promise to hold the minority administration to account, and to press for change as best we can.”
Salmond added, “The Scottish Greens represent a substantial body of opinion in Scotland, regardless of MSP numbers. Their formula for co-operation across parties short of formal coalition is an excellent example of the consensus we are seeking to build in the Parliament, and sets a positive tone for the incoming Government.”
As part of its Cooperation Agreement, the SNP and Greens committed to working together to enact early legislation to enact binding annual cuts in carbon emissions and to oppose the building of new nuclear power plants. On June 7th, Harvie was appointed Convener of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee of the Parliament. As a fierce critic of new road-building projects and a strong advocate of public transport, Harvie was a controversial choice to some, but one that pleased the Greens. “Members of the committees must strive to work constructively,” said Harvie, “putting the interests of the country and, in this case, the planet, before short-term political objectives. The decisions we take will have far-reaching impacts long beyond the term of this Parliament, and I welcome the opportunity personally to play a crucial role in this process.”
Despite these positive developments, the original intention of both the Greens and SNP was to establish a stable majority in Parliament for a shared program of government, either under formal coalition or under what is called a “confidence and supply” arrangement, which in a parliamentary system means a minor party or independent MP will support the government in motions of confidence and budget votes.
However, without a legislative majority between the Greens, SNP and enough other parties, this could not be accomplished, leaving the two to work together as other opportunities arise. One such example has already come about, as the SNP also moved forward on proposed action by the Greens to stop a controversial ship-to-ship oil transfer project in the Firth of Forth, which is the estuary of Scotland’s River Forth, where it flows into the North Sea past several key Scottish cities and towns, and serves as host to over 90,000 breeding seabirds every year.
The Forth plan, by Melbourne Marine Services Ltd, aims to transfer Russian oil into ‘Ultra Large Crude Carriers’ en route to the United States and the Far East. Greens argue it could cause massive oil spills by attempting transfer of millions of barrels of oil every year between ships at swinging anchor.
In local elections, also held on May 3, the Greens won seats for the first time, electing three City Councilors in Edinburgh and five in Glasgow, as Scotland changed to Single Transferable Vote (STV) for municipal elections. The three Edinburgh Greens were initially involved in coalition talks with other parties but which eventually fell through.
According to Steve Burgess, who was elected in Edinburgh’s Ward 15, “We stood in all 17 wards in Edinburgh for the first time, some of which were 3-member, some 4-member. All were elected by STV. The three seats were won using a ‘target to win’ strategy used with success by the Green Party of England and Wales, whereby volunteer time and funds are focused on winning in the most promising electoral area rather than being spread across all areas. Once one area is secured, the neighboring areas are targeted next. This time we targeted four priority wards relatively intensively over the course of a year, while a further four wards (“second tier) received a partial leaflet drop in the final month. Relatively little activity was focused on the remaining nine wards.”
Alison Johnstone, elected to represent Edinburgh’s Ward 10, said the change in voting system allowed the true Green vote to show through. “This is an historic day for this city. All over the world the Green movement is growing and, in Edinburgh, thousands of people have been Green supporters for years but their views have been ignored because of an unfair voting system. At last we can start making Edinburgh a leader in the fight against climate change – by tackling waste, reshaping the way we use energy and delivering real quality of life into the bargain.
It is worth noting that the only two places where Green MSP were re-elected – Glasgow and Edinburgh – were also the only places where the party ran full slates of City Council candidates and elected new members, suggesting synergy between municipal and parliamentary campaigns.
In keeping with this synergy, soon after the election Edinburgh Councilors joined MSP Harper to support a tram system for the city. “Modern hi-tech trams are a 21st-century solution providing high quality, comfortable and rapid public transport across the city,” said Harper. “This is part of the necessary move to a low carbon economy and delivering viable alternatives to the private car. That is what the frustrated motorist sitting in a traffic jam wants, and that’s what we want.
For more information: www.scottishgreens.org.uk