This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

I was probably not the only journalist to be taken by surprise when the Scottish Greens announced they would be standing in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.

It marked quite a twist in the campaign and came after reporters' eyes were elsewhere – on whether or not Alba would enter the race. The party is to decide this weekend.

The Greens' statement also seemed to catch Scottish Labour on the hop with their deputy leader Dame Jackie Baillie quoted in a press release just earlier mocking the Greens if they didn't run and almost goading them to do so.

So why after weeks of deliberation have the Scottish Greens decided to put forward a Westminster hopeful? After all they didn't stand in the constituency in 2019, in 2017 or in 2015. In fact they haven't stood for the constituency ever before.

Co-leader Lorna Slater told the BBC this morning that the party had decided to stand now because of the acute climate crisis.

But as the Greens would surely point out, global warming didn't simply become a grave situation in the summer of 2023.

Ms Slater's answer was only the partial story. So what really are the reasons?

Well, there are many benefits that can come the Greens way if they stand in elections – and in particular such a high profile by-election as this one – even if they have next to no chance of winning.

Primarily, the party has an opportunity to get attention and prepare the ground for the general election expected next year and the Holyrood poll in 2026. All those photo-calls, press huddles, broadcast interviews, and hustings are chances to grab the headlines.

There are even some concrete benefits such as getting postage paid for leaflets to constituents. In the case of Rutherglen and Hamilton West that's postage paid on 80,000 possible Greens’ fliers which will go through letterboxes.

Many may well end up with the junk mail but others may persuade.

Another reason for the Greens standing in the by-election – and against the SNP – is a chance to rebut the claim that they are simply Humza Yousaf's sidekicks or a "branch office" of the SNP, as Scottish Labour accused them of being yesterday.

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The Greens are sensitive to the issue and standing against their partners in government is a chance for them to demonstrate that they are not the SNP's toadies.

"It's always important for parties, especially the smaller ones in a coalition to show their distinctiveness," one Scottish Greens insider told The Herald.

But what about the accusation, which is likely to be made among some in the SNP, that the Greens will split the pro-independence vote and reduce the larger party's chances of holding onto the seat at a time when the party is facing the biggest crisis in decades? In essence they will be helping a Labour or pro-Union victory.

It's a charge that was levelled well before the SNP were hit by trouble. It was made against the Greens in the 2016 Holyrood election when the party decided to stand against the SNP in the hotly contested Edinburgh Central seat where the then Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was going all out to win. Some suggested the Greens should not run in a bid to stop a Tory triumph. Ms Davidson did take the seat, beating the SNP by 610 votes. The Greens' Alison Johnstone – the current Presiding Officer – came fourth with 4,644 votes.

The Herald:

Similar arguments were made too in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale in the 2015 general election when the Greens stood and the Tories won by 798 votes over SNP. The Greens got 839 votes. Of course 799 Greens’ votes may not have gone to the SNP anyway had the Greens not stood. But it didn't stop some SNP ill feeling.

"Greens are used to these accusations. But they're water off a duck's back," said the insider.

"The issues surrounding the SNP's polling are nothing to do with the Greens."

The Greens' decision to stand marks a confidence too in the party currently. While there is an intense debate inside the SNP about whether the Bute House Agreement has been helpful, among the Greens the thinking is that it has led to increased support. The same assessment was made by polling expert Sir John Curtice last week.

Across much of middle Scotland, the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, the Deposit Return Scheme and the marine protection plans (all now shelved) may be controversial, but among some on the left, these are policies with strong appeal and they are pleased to see the Greens championing them.

The Greens' decision to stand in Rutherglen and Hamilton West won't change the fact that the main fight will be between the SNP and Labour, but it does add a new and unexpected dimension which will make the contest even more worthy of attention.

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