A marriage not made in heaven: marking the SNP-Scottish Greens coalition scorecard

Stella Rooney critically assesses what the parliamentary pact is about and what is has delivered and not delivered.

Following last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, a green and yellow alliance between the SNP and Scottish Greens was forged. Working towards the aim of a ‘Greener, Fairer Independent Scotland’, the shared programme for government contained significant gains for tenants and workers, such as rent controls and collective bargaining in the care sector. Months on, while we have seen some movement on these promises, progress is slow and cautious. In the face of a cost-of-living crisis, soaring rents and rising poverty, tepid politics is not good enough. The Scottish Government’s agenda falls short of articulating the bold economic agenda that Scotland’s working class deserve.

Last year’s Holyrood elections were dominated by the constitution, with tactical voting for pro-independence and unionist parties seen across every part of Scotland. In aligning themselves with the Greens, the SNP are theoretically able to pass a referendum bill and present a united front on independence in Parliament. But the grounds for an alliance also run deeper than the constitution. The Greens have set tackling the climate emergency and furthering social justice as key priorities in their parliamentary agenda. As a part of the Scottish Government, the Greens may well feel closer to the decision-making powers that be, and more able to influence policy. In their choice to go into government, they face a dilemma: does working closely with those in power move you further away from those outside the Parliament?

This strategy is not without risk for the Greens. Could entering partnership with the Scottish government deliver an outcome akin to that faced by the Liberal Democrats as part of the Coalition? Though unlikely to be as catastrophic as getting into bed with the Tories, it is undeniable that a degree of responsibility for the Scottish Government’s actions must now be taken by the Greens.

So how is the building of our greener, fairer, independent Scotland progressing? To its credit, the shared programme for government did propose ambitious plans to invest in decarbonising rail, retrofitting, and a Just Transition fund for the North East of Scotland. Although these proposals are positive, the lack of detail falls short of tackling the challenges we face. Vague mentions of ‘green jobs’ and the ‘Scottish supply chain’ will not fill workers with confidence when considering the SNP’s past failures to harness Scotland’s manufacturing capability for green energy (e.g., BiFab).

Recent figures on the creation of green jobs in Scotland are not promising: new statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that the number of full-time jobs in the low carbon and renewable sector fell from 21,700 in 2019 to 20,500 in 2020 – a drop from 23,200 in 2014. As the world faces rising global temperatures, and Scotland sees endemic low wages at home, workers in Scotland are crying out for good quality jobs in the green economy. Yet again, the Scottish Government neglects to invest in publicly-owned infrastructures for job creation and instead, looks to the free market for solutions.

A new development in the green economy is Scottish Government support for two Westminster backed ‘green freeports’ to be established in Scotland. Proposed as part of the UK government’s levelling up agenda, these ports are created with lower tax rates and tariffs and are notorious for low wages and poor working conditions. Support for green freeports has not been without backlash, becoming one of the first major disagreements between the Greens and SNP in government, with greens outspokenly criticising the policy. While the greens may rightly disagree, the question remains, will they be able to change anything about it?

The recent auction of ScotWind, a significantly large offshore territory for the development of wind energy, has followed a similar trajectory of privatisation. While the development of new offshore wind sites is promising, a massive opportunity was missed by the Scottish Government for these profits to be shared with the people of Scotland. By auctioning the site off to the highest bidder, we are effectively witnessing the selling off of future renewable energy assets before they have even been built. The answers to our current energy and fuel poverty crisis require the vast profits generated by energy production to be distributed fairly, not hoarded by the rich. For the people of Scotland to reap the benefits of the green economy, public ownership is a necessity.

Apart from rail, the SNP and Greens shared programme on transport is also entirely reliant on the private sector. The huge potential of free and municipal-owned bus travel, as championed by Glaswegian campaign ‘Free Our City’, is a missed opportunity to meet both working-class communities’ and climate emergency needs. Months on from COP26, which saw the introduction of free integrated transport tickets for delegates, Glasgow City Council has been informed there is no funding for a pilot scheme for free public transport. In this instance, the council’s Greens group presented the proposal which was supported by council leader, Susan Aitken of the SNP, but which was then blocked by the Scottish Government. This exposes a dynamic where, despite the good intentions of both SNP and Green politicians, transformative policies for social and environmental change are blocked by the political tumbleweed of post-devolution Scotland.

One of the most significant policy proposals is within housing, where rent controls, protections against illegal and winter evictions, and the right to own a pet in private lets were announced. These policies would demonstrate a significant transfer of power from private landlords, making an undeniable difference to the lives of tenants. But this advance was not handed down to tenants as a kindness: it is the result of years of campaigning and branch-building by Living Rent, Scotland’s tenant union.

This articulates something crucial about the political landscape of devolution. When consistent, strong pressure is applied from below, the SNP can be pushed to the left and important concessions can be won. But we should be under no illusion: the long timeframe for these reforms to be implemented, with rent controls not due before 2025, demonstrates that the SNP will not be moved an inch too far.

These reforms are already facing resistance from Scotland’s sizeable landlord lobby, but tenants cannot afford to wait for change. There is no reason that emergency measures could not be introduced sooner while so many Scots face unaffordable rents and eviction. Is it any wonder that there is no urgency to protect renters when so many members of the Scottish Parliament are landlords themselves? Hesitation by policy-makers will only push more people into desperate and unsafe housing situations. When you have a secure and comfortable house live in, enough money to pay the bills and put food on the table it must be easy to approach legislation such as this with little haste. The fight continues to make sure the measures are far-reaching and delivered with a sense of urgency.

On economic recovery, another opportunity was missed. The SNP/Greens policy document proposed a condition of real living wage for all employed through public sector grants. However, this is already supported by the Fair Work Convention, the issue being it is simply not enforced. The document also stops short of outlawing zero-hour contracts and only criticises their ‘inappropriate use’, which is not language that gives any significant power back to workers. In publicly-owned and funded workplaces across Scotland, such as the SEC in Glasgow, workers are employed in precarious conditions where unionising efforts are met with hostility. These proposals fall very short of improving the reality for low paid workers in Scotland; it will not make their wages higher or their lives more secure.

On independence progress continues, but at a slow pace. The promise of a new referendum being sought after the Covid crisis presents a number of political problems, particularly the unlikelihood the pandemic will be resolved soon and the vagueness of this promise. When faced with possible new waves and variants, a recovery which priorities eradicating poverty and restoring dignity to workers cannot be separated from the question of Scottish independence. The case for independence presented by the shared programme is also predicated on membership of the EU, presenting issues on public ownership and currency which must be urgently resolved. The potential independent Scotland toward which the Greens and SNP are jointly working for has some glaring omissions concerning private schools, NATO, drug and alcohol addiction policy and, significantly, principles related to economic growth are excluded from the programme.

This gets to the heart of the predicament socialists face when assessing the pact and the record of the Scottish Government. While advances on housing, the green economy, and bargaining for care should be celebrated, they fall short of meeting the challenges of modern Scotland. Absent from this co-operation agreement is any serious attempt to reckon with the key questions of economic ownership and class conflict. Tinkering around the edges will not redistribute wealth and power from the millionaires into the hands of the millions.

The Greens may feel they are contributing towards a fairer and more progressive Scottish Government but without addressing the contradictions of class society, their good intentions are merely a plaster over a capitalist crisis. Politicians will never be able to please everyone while class conflict exists between bosses and workers, landlords and tenants, capital and labour. While the Scottish Government attempts this balancing act, a gap emerges for genuine working-class representation. Scottish Labour in its current form, is unable to fill this gap. Its inability to carve out a meaningful political identity for itself, one that relates to the political landscape of modern Scotland, undermines the work of its MSPs in holding the government to account. Strong hostility to the right to a referendum, a position supported across the socialist and union movement, alienates the party from much of its former electoral base.

Independence, though still a key political issue, should no longer be a dividing line amongst socialists. The potential for an independent Scotland cannot be separated from the economic circumstances it will inherit. Any proposals which signal genuine independence must address the burning issues: who owns the economy, and who is it run for? Socialists on both sides of the national question must confront the cosy relationship between the Scottish state and capital, or else we risk becoming unable to influence the future. Thus far, the record of the new SNP/Greens Scottish Government does not meet the challenge of our economic and climate crises with the urgency and ambition required. When socialists build power in workplaces and communities, we can achieve significant and meaningful change. We shouldn’t be under any illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead. We cannot rely on the promises of politicians: it is down to our collective movement to transform Scotland in the interest of the working class.

Stella Rooney is an artist, college lecturer and trade unionist