By Dominic Hinde

When Patrick Harvie became Green co-convener in 2008 his election barely raised an eyebrow in the political press. Now though the Greens are engaged in a fierce struggle for the soul of the party as they begin choosing a female co-convener between new comer Zara Kitson and incumbent Maggie Chapman. The winner will be the face of the Holyrood election campaign along with Harvie, and the intensity of the contest shows just how far the party has come in the year since the independence referendum.

Despite being only a few years apart in age, Zimbabwe-born Chapman and Kitson have very different political styles.

From a working class mining family in Stirling, Kitson is relatively new to party politics. She achieved prominence in the independence referendum through her involvement in National Collective, the pro-Yes movement made up of writers and artists, and her assertive media appearances, as well as her work on LGBT youth issues. She first cut her teeth as a candidate in the 2013 Holyrood by-election following the resignation of disgraced MSP Bill Walker and is second behind Patrick Harvie on the party’s Glasgow list.

Chapman is a veteran left campaigner of over a decade and strongly profiles herself as a socialist, working with other left groups such as the SSP, The Radical Independence Campaign and RISE. Elected without opposition as co-convener before the last European elections to increase her profile as the top Green candidate, she narrowly lost out on a seat to UKIP's David Cockburn. Since then she has cemented her place as a prominent activist on Scotland's radical left, a strategy that saw her chosen as Rector of Aberdeen University and take a place on the North East Holyrood list after moving from Edinburgh.

Both candidates are devoting time and resources to the election battle, engaging with members and travelling around the country on an unprecedented scale. The winner will take charge of a machine with more members than the Lib Dems and a war chest to rival the other parties. For the first time the Greens have a paid national election team after a surge in membership to almost 10,000, giving them new financial clout and a young and enthusiastic volunteer base.

Patrick Harvie has spoken of the importance of making the Greens a mass party of the progressive left rather than a permanent Holyrood minority and has chosen to endorse Kitson, as has Lothians MSP Alison Johnstone. Both have though done so as individual members to avoid controversy.

The Green co-leadership system was developed as a means of ensuring gender balance and preventing domination by one single figure. Green members will return their ballots by this Thursday, November 26, with the new co-convener announced shortly after. Chapman has welcomed the challenge, saying it will be good for the party.

“I'm really excited by this year's election, which has received much more coverage than any previous co-convener election. That reflects the dramatically increased significance of the Greens in Scottish politics, and highlights the role of women in that politics,” she said.

If Kitson defeats Chapman it will be a significant loss for the radical socialists within the Greens, but still leave them firmly to the left of the SNP.

“Greens punch above our weight. I am ready to punch above mine”, Kitson said about the prospect of co-leading the party.

Whoever wins, they have a large task ahead of them, highlighting areas where the Greens perceive the SNP to be failing, such as land reform, transport and climate change. The Greens also argue that the SNP’s council tax freeze favours richer property owners and puts pressure on public services.

Gender equality, rent controls and a sustainable 'industrial renaissance' are the other issues at the heart of the Green pitch to voters. Internal party figures admit that the key to Green success lies in persuading progressive and left wing SNP constituency voters to vote Green on regional lists. One in ten new Green members have also come from Labour, they claim.

A trump card for the Greens is land reform campaigner Andy Wightman, who is standing second on the party’s list in Edinburgh. A popular figure in the Yes movement, he says they are best placed to provide a constructive opposition to another SNP government with the powers granted in the new Scotland Bill. Even without independence, there is still much that Holyrood could do, he argues.

“We need to do a lot more on land reform, on fiscal reform, on housing and on local democracy. The next parliament is a five year parliament with the chance to do a lot of stuff with a range of new powers. Any party that chooses not to exercise these new powers to the full is selling the voters short,” says Wightman,.

A recent TNS poll had the Greens on just five per cent nationwide, but the party believe they can increase their vote substantially once the leadership team is confirmed. Despite their alliance in the independence referendum, the SNP have been pursuing a ‘both votes SNP’ strategy as a safeguard, which could result in an SNP government but favour Labour and the Conservatives on regional lists.

It is also still unclear whether the BBC and STV will allow equal coverage to the Greens and invite them to leadership debates.

The coming Holyrood election and the local authority elections in 2017 represent the best chance yet for the Greens to establish themselves as a force in Scottish politics. All they need now is the trust of the voters, they argue.