How the left won the Scottish Green Party and how that will change Scottish politics

Maggie Chapman looks back on not just a quantitative but also qualitative shift for the Scottish Greens.

The Holyrood 2021 election reflected a number of trends that we have seen in previous elections, but gives significant hope for workers’ rights, a just transition, a second referendum and the left in Scottish politics.

The first trend is that the Greens have a fully developed analysis of what needs to be done. This is partly due to a broader development in the environmental movement, and partly due to the broader shifts in politics. But it is, in no small part, due to a concerted intervention by radicals in the Scottish Greens over the past decade and a half. This has allowed the development of a political programme based on a just transition from fossil fuel dependence to zero carbon. When contrasted with the emerging ‘green capitalism’, this becomes globally significant.

Those of us in the Greens who argued that our politics should be first and foremost about the transition of the economy to one based on care, creativity and collaboration have finally won the argument in our party. Policies that were historically contentious, like free public transport, have become Green wins. Combining social justice with decarbonisation is essential to make sure that the transition to zero carbon becomes a driver of equality, rather than just another fix for capital. We see from the Gilet Jaunes (yellow vests) protests in France how attempts to divorce climate justice from workers lives will end. The engagement of the left in the Greens shows how a progressive party can be comprehensively won for the left.

There can be no social justice without climate justice. Climate action without social justice will become a site of resistance by workers. So, we must take a just transition approach to build a Green economy. One that values peace, human rights and human dignity as well as tackling the climate and nature emergencies.

The second trend is that this election crystallised the current culture war in a contest for list seats in the Scottish Parliament. The Alba Party’s intervention on a platform opposing what they called ‘the Queer agenda’ created a very clear division for pro-independence voters on the list: either Greens with a substantial history of fighting for equality or Alba rehashing arguments from the 1980s campaign against gay liberation. I was delighted that voters across the country chose equality. For some time, people have made the argument that the Scottish public is resistant to trans rights. The contention was that the electorate would vote out those who support trans people given the chance. It turns out that much of the assertion that trans people’s rights were unpopular was based on social media bubbles and a misunderstanding of the issues. That’s not to underplay the ongoing assault on trans people, who still need our solidarity. It is just to note that those who saw attacking trans rights as an easy ticket to parliament lost and lost badly, despite their assertion that this was widely popular. Both Alba and the Greens are committed to a second referendum, so the seats won by the Greens show that the agenda in that referendum must be a progressive one, rather than that pursued by Alba.

The third trend is that the Greens have, for the first time since devolution in Scotland, run a campaign on the basis of policies rather than personalities or tactical voting messages. And gratifyingly, it delivered a much better result than at previous elections. This is a reflection of the end of the long 1990s, the era in which personality came to dominate politics. The left has persisted with personality politics long since it ceased being effective for progressive parties. Especially without the platform offered by government.

The focus on a transformational agenda always offered more for Greens. It is great that we were able to put this at the heart of our campaign. It resonated with everyone I spoke to during the election.

While Greens benefitted hugely from an effectively deployed tactical voting message in 2003, this has become more of a problem than an opportunity for Greens in subsequent elections. Focusing on tactical voting messages distracts from the core political messages of any campaign – and that is now much truer of other particular parties! The current electoral system encourages far too much focus on tactical voting, and the intervention of Alba aiming to game the system should be a signal that we need to change. The system should be there to reflect voter intentions, not to create new political dynamics of its own. Obviously, there are other important issues, but one aim of proportional systems is to prevent considerations about how to game the electoral system becoming the focus of an election. The aim should be to have a system that enables more authentic political choices to be exercised. Most significantly, this would end the status of the Tories as an anti-independence list party, and allow a debate about what each party actually stands for.

There are challenging times ahead. We know that we have less than a decade to act decisively to halt the climate emergency. It is never too soon to stop abuses of human rights, and when we can do both things at once we need to seize the opportunity. The big challenge for the coming parliament will be reorienting away from the policies of the past. We have to move from road building to allowing more people to work from home in a way that increases their wellbeing. We must pivot rapidly from oil and gas to renewables, storage and the development of the caring economy. We need to build public support for these changes too. But the 2021 election was a good starting point. Scotland can become the place where the just transition is prefigured. It is time to get to work!

Maggie Chapman is the Green MSP for north-east Scotland and a member of the editorial committee of Scottish Left Review