The Green Party is feeling pretty ambitious right now and reckons it can elbow its way in front of Labour as it struggles north of the Border. Is it all just talk? Patrick Harvie speaks to our Writer at Large Neil Mackay

IT seems a fitting time to ask just what sort of force the Scottish Greens can become at Holyrood. After all, the Dalai Lama, no less, has just endorsed the movement worldwide, saying: “Buddha would be green.” There aren’t many political organisations in history which have got the backing of a beloved global religious leader.

The Greens in Scotland are really ramping up their ambitions right now – setting their sights on overtaking Scottish Labour and pitching the party as the left-wing alternative to the SNP. Can that really happen or is it all talk? To find out, I caught up with the party’s co-leader Patrick Harvie in his unassuming two-bedroom tenement flat in Glasgow’s west end for a chat over Zoom.

Harvie – one of the most influential Greens in Britain, along with the movement’s only MP, Caroline Lucas – has a lot on his mind. The stars may be aligning for the Greens. The world has never been so focused on climate change – the pandemic has made ideas like the Green New Deal part of the political Zeitgeist. Scottish Labour continues its decline – offering a chance, Harvie believes, for left-wing Greens to eventually become the progressive opposition in Scotland. And support for independence, one of the party’s core beliefs, is on the up.

Independence question

So, how do the Greens go about superseding Labour? As with so much in Scotland, a lot rests on the question of independence. “Labour,” says Harvie, “knows an increasing proportion of its voters either already support independence or are moving in that direction. A great many who have voted Labour – but who didn’t vote for independence – aren’t implacably hostile. They may not have been convinced in 2014 but they’re open to being convinced.”

Although Labour are well ahead of the Greens when it comes to Scotland’s constituency vote, margins are closing on the regional list. The best recent polling figures see the Greens hitting 11 per cent regionally. The worst polls for Labour on the regional list come in at 13%, with the highest on 19%.

The Greens think Labour is stuck electorally because it’s “focused on fighting the Tories for a declining share of the hardline anti-independence vote. They don’t even seem willing to explicitly court the votes of people who are open-minded – soft Yes voters”.

But the strategy isn’t just about scooping up disenchanted progressive, pro-independence voters looking for a Labour alternative. Greens think they can target jaded nationalists too.

Some SNP supporters, Harvie believes, are recognising that the Nationalists “may be the dominant party, they may be likely to form the Government after the election, but they’re not necessarily providing the radical direction that a lot of people want … There’s an appeal we can make which says independence is a good thing but it isn’t the be all and end all of Green politics”.

Harvie is realistic about the future, though. He’s not making any outlandish claims that he or his co-leader Lorna Slater will become First Minister in May. “We can overtake Labour and be the dominant left-of-centre opposition voice in the Scottish Parliament,” he says, adding: “We’re not there yet. I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy or that we can necessarily achieve it in the next six months, but I think it’s achievable. I think if we don’t do it this time, we’re likely to next time. Right across Europe, old-school centre-left parties are disappearing and the Greens are making significant ground. I think that can happen in Scotland as well.”

As a mark of his cautious ambition, and a nod to possible coalition, he adds that the Greens “have a future as part of Government” as voters tire of a status quo SNP.

Too radical?

The pandemic has underscored glaring economic failings and inequalities, and the Greens believe they’re in a prime position to harness public fear and anger. The party wants to shake things up: green the economy, increase state involvement and tame free-market economics. But is that platform too radical? Is Scotland too cautious?

Greens take hope from the fact that other parties are stealing their environmental and economic language – talking of “green new deals” and “transitioning away from fossil fuels” to clean energy. Harvie thinks that’s just window dressing to tick a green box, though. “What they’re doing,” he says, “is defending the status quo and saying let’s have some renewables on top. That’s not what transition is – it means moving away from what’s toxic, damaging, unhealthy and unsustainable, and investing instead in the alternatives.”

This is where the Green prospectus becomes difficult as the party crashes up against a prevailing public perception that it will put jobs at risk. Harvie rebuts this, saying Greens would invest in new jobs as old industries were replaced. He points to the demise of Longannet coal-fired power station in Fife as an example of what not to do and how the Greens would have done things better.

“The last 10 years of its operation should have been committed to investing in what the local community would need when it came to the end of its life, but instead what we got when it closed was ‘now we’ll set up a jobs taskforce’. We’re in danger right now of doing that to the entire Scottish economy which is massively over-exposed to oil and gas,” says Harvie.

Moving away from fossil fuels – which most economists see as inevitable – means state investment “in high-quality, long-lasting sustainable jobs that are going to be needed to replace [oil and gas]”.

Some of the party’s more aggressive attacks on big business might play against it, however, if it wishes to woo average centre-left voters. MSP Ross Greer recently said on social media that Shell should have its assets seized and executives prosecuted. However, many staunch Greens would agree with him – and there’s a possibility such full-throated positions may work in today’s more robust political landscape.

Much Green economic thinking focuses on greater financial equality. The pandemic, Harvie believes, means people want to hear about “what needs to change”. Among Green priorities are tackling precarious and insecure work and housing – policies likely to appeal to many young voters. “Huge numbers of people are working for poverty wages … we should be recognising that kind of thing is intolerable. Care work, folk who do cleaning in our society and put food on supermarket shelves, we’re now clearly aware this is mission-critical to our wellbeing, so why’s that poverty-wage work?”

The Greens have no desire to hide their radical edge – and while that may deter some voters it could also give them an electoral advantage in an era of political upheaval. “The economy we had,” Harvie says, “that’s not what we want to reboot, we want to rebuild something that’s fundamentally different and meets people’s needs … I don’t think most people support the status quo.”

In the SNP shadow?

Post-pandemic – a period which could coincide with the Scottish May elections if a vaccine really works – the Greens believe people will want to “vote on what kind of country we want to be now. “If people start to look forward … there’s a huge opportunity to say, ‘let’s contrast a Green vision with the status quo’,” Harvie adds.

So why hasn’t the Green message broken through more strongly in Scotland? There’s a perception the party languishes in the SNP’s shadow. Harvie points to those recent poll improvements but admits that while “it’s good progress” it’s not what the Greens have achieved in Germany, for instance, where the party is a powerful force and has been in government.

Like all small parties, Greens complain about the first-past-the-post Westminster voting system. “It’s really hard to make that breakthrough when people believe voting for a smaller party is a wasted vote,” Harvie says. “In the Scottish Parliament, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in councils where we’ve a good foothold, we’ve demonstrated what we can do.”

So what have they done? The party is proud of its track record – particularly in holding the SNP’s feet to the fire from the left. Among their biggest wins, Greens claim, are: pushing income tax reform so the “rich pay more but [the] majority of Scots pay less”; free bus travel for under-19s; and “at every Budget … [forcing] the Scottish Government to reverse their council cuts”. Outside Parliament, Greens celebrate contesting developments opposed by the public, such as recent plans at Loch Lomond.

The public, though, don’t know much about these successes. When you speak to Greens, there’s almost a reticence about boasting. Harvie agrees: “We need to scale up how we talk about our achievements. We need to be communicating that to people really clearly and shouting from the rooftops about what elected Greens get done.”

There’s also a sense the party just isn’t ruthless enough to make a real grab for power. It harks on its success in opposition and its willingness to collaborate across party lines, but does that mean other parties run rings round Greens? Harvie worries that if it became ruthlessly focused on power that the Greens may lose public trust – it’s certainly true that trust levels are high and there’s little sign of Blairite spin.

“There’s a sense that people who vote Green want something other than just a different flavour of politics, they want politics to be done differently,” Harvie says. “We don’t take opportunistic stances, we don’t just try to say everything the Government is doing is terrible, we don’t say we’re the only ones with a good idea.”

When asked if that means “nice guys come last”, Harvie replies: “The LibDems, you mean?” His point is well made – the LibDems came fifth in the 2016 Scottish elections with five seats, overtaken by the Greens on six. Moreover, he does not accept that the Greens prop up the SNP in Holyrood.

“The SNP aren’t cutting it on the question of demonstrating ‘what do you want to achieve with independence’,” he says, claiming: “The SNP vote with the Tories more often than they do with us … if you look at the voting record you’ll see the Tory trope of ‘Greens and the SNP voting together’ is one they’re more guilty of than we are.”

The anti-growth issue

It’s the perception of the Greens as anti-business and anti-growth which most clouds the party’s horizons, though. Harvie has a robust defence to put forward. “The people who are benefiting from growth over the last few decades are overwhelmingly people who are hoarding and accumulating wealth and that’s what’s actually anti-business – it’s the Amazons of this world who are destroying real independent business with their roots in the community. If you’ve got more of your economy owned and managed by independent businesses they’re not going to pack up and leave your high streets empty simply because profit margins have changed, they’re going to struggle and work to make a go of it, they’re going to have a commitment to that local community because that’s where they’re from.

“We want to have vibrant local economies where if you want to set up your own business you’ve a fighting chance instead of always having to compete against a giant global multinational which registers all its profits in tax havens and so can undercut you. It’s current free-market economics which are anti-business.”

The Greens believe a Universal Basic Income would also stimulate entrepreneurialism. “So many of us are unable to put our natural talents into practice because our current economy stifles creativity, innovation and risk-taking, as so many people can’t afford anything other than a private rent. If people have that vulnerability they know they don’t have the space in their lives to be creative.” Critics of UBI, however, say it would institutionalise poverty. Harvie says the Greens aren’t promising “some sort of utopia is just around the corner”, their argument is the current system just doesn’t work and things can – and must – get better.

He cites the post-war generation which built the NHS and welfare state. “We’re capable of making society a better place [too]. For the last few decades we’ve had that knocked out of us, as if politics is only capable of managing the status quo a little bit better or worse. Green politics has to be about saying not just that the status quo is going to die, but it should die, and we need to be building the economy and society that’s to come – and that has to be about sustainably meeting everybody’s needs, not making Jeff Bezos richer.”

Harvie’s biggest challenge is convincing prospective voters in May that the party’s plans for an environmentally friendly economy won’t mean job losses in the teeth of financial chaos caused by Covid. He cites Green public transport plans: there would be less road building, for sure, but better and more buses and trains which are publicly owned, regulated, and subsidised like in many other European countries. The intention is a job-for-job swap – similar to the energy sector: an oil job here, for a green energy job there.

He accepts some Green ideas are “challenging”, but adds: “Unless we start having the conversation, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to benefit.” Job creation would be stimulated by policies like making all housing energy efficient, Greens also claim.

“Look at the assumptions around the oil and gas industry,” he says. “People just want to kid on it’ll last for decades but we know that won’t, can’t and shouldn’t happen. We need to be looking at investing in alternatives. Think of the amount of public money still invested in the fossil fuel industry – we could be shifting that into sustainable industries.”

The woke agenda

The Greens are also seen as just too “woke” – that it’s guilty of that old trope “political correctness gone mad”. Harvie’s position, though, may surprise some critics: bigotry should be tackled head on but political parties shouldn’t sound like “the thought police”.

Harvie doesn’t like the term “culture war” but says: “People on both sides are mistaken if they see it as a kind of war where you just have to dig yourselves into your own trenches and defend your territory and treat everyone on the other side as though they’re implacable foes.

“There are a great many people who can see a bit of both sides, and who are there to be persuaded, and who don’t want our society to be discriminatory or prejudiced, but they also don’t want to feel as if they’re having a finger waved at them about getting language a bit wrong. I get the language wrong sometimes as well – everybody does – and I think trying to take the most generous interpretation of people’s motives is often very useful. But, at the same time, it would be absolutely wrong for a political party not to engage with those issues. We absolutely wouldn’t have seen the progress on gender equality and racial justice – progress which still needs to be continued – if political parties had been hands-off.”

For Harvie, the “torrent of abuse and stereotyping” which trans people are “on the receiving end of … is so reminiscent of the way gay men in particular were talked about in the 80s – it’s appalling”.