It’s like the first day of school. Walking through the doors of Craiglockhart Campus, Edinburgh, I’m guided by support staff. Name crossed off. Access granted. Democratic enrolment complete.
Many new faces will enter the Scottish Green Party conference this weekend. Their membership has tripled. The conference was quickly oversubscribed and the challenging responsibility of education in formal party processes will fall to its veteran members.
This burden would be welcomed by any party across the Western world. Most face a spiral of declining membership correlating to deep apathy and distrust. Scotland – especially the pro-independence fraternity – have bucked the trend. So the Green Party, which advocated a Yes vote, swept up a large section of a new generation of activists into its membership. Over 6000 members and growing.
This is the most significant development on the green-left political axis since the 2003 breakthrough when the Greens won 7 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. Since then they been relegated to 2 members – Alison Johnstone and Partick Harvie for Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively. Will the membership increase lead to electoral success? For the Greens this will remain a challenge of relevance and resources.
Their status as outsiders and radicals gives the Greens a purpose – but also limits its appeal. As the SNP found for decades, peripheral status means you’re unlikely to be taken seriously as a potential government by many voters. Even the ‘2nd vote green strategy’ adopted in Scotland has cemented the Greens as a creative accessory for Labour or SNP supporters with a left wing tint. Constituency seats remain beyond the horizon.
However the Greens do have strengths in purpose and coherence. They have a determined agenda to combat inequality, environmental destruction, corporate inequality and centralisation. Unlike individuals in other parties, they’re not afraid to say it. Similarly they are upfront when it comes to tax and spending. For stronger public services and to reduce poverty tax and social social requires reform. In Green Party plans this will require higher taxes on big businesses and the wealthy. They don’t duck these tough choices. Unsurprisingly the Green also know what environmental side they are on. They oppose oil, coal, fracking and nuclear in favour of renewables production in tidal, wave, wind, solar, biomass and energy efficiency. In response opponents charge them with economic naivety and Utopianism.
It’s true that Scotland reaps huge benefits from fossil fuels in revenue, jobs, skills and energy (even if the fruits have been unevenly distributed). It’s also true that few countries also benefit from a vast array of renewable energy potential and the research base to develop these opportunities for sustainable jobs and cheaper energy. Of course the added necessity of saving the planet from climate change seals the deal for those who advocate a Green New Deal.
It’s this agenda which has changed government. The SNP seized on renewables expansion as an example of Scotland’s economic potential. Where does this changing climate leave the Green program before the 2015 and 2016 elections?
With fluctuating polls it if difficult to determine whether the Greens will surge or stagnate. Yet the membership boost may provide the Greens with resources and activists to launch their strongest campaign yet by May 2016. The threat of fracking contracts – imposed by Westminster – will also create a passionate environmental dividing line to grow Green support.
The potential increase in Green support may pose a challenge of future coalitions at Holyrood. Greens in Ireland found this difficult and now carry toxic baggage as a result. Greens in Germany enjoyed spells of considerable influence and recently dragged Merkel’s government to bin nuclear power.
Where will the Greens be by 2016? Those gathered in Edinburgh are hopeful that the Green surge is about to begin.