Cara Hilton is now firmly ensconced in Holyrood after what turned out to be a reasonable majority in the Dunfermline by-election. Her victory was assured using a scattergun approach to campaigning that entailed being selective about what Scottish Labour’s current policy platform says and relying heavily on ‘I’m no SNP, so I must be Labour’ identity politics.
I know this because I was responsible in part for organising Zara Kitson’s campaign for the Greens and saw it all unfold before me first hand. How do you fight half-truths with truth when nobody recognises the legitimacy of what you are saying? On that same note it would take a Scottish Labour spin doctor to dress the Greens’ result up as a victory, but neither was it the disaster some naysayers made out.
Looking at the question of legitimacy, I was rather disappointed with Brian Taylor for lending his voice to a piece beginning ‘Meanwhile, the Greens had an environmental message’. The clip took one quote from Zara Kitson and pretended it was a manifesto. Had the BBC checked their own footage they would have found hours of interviews with the Green candidate in which she talked about local democracy, the bedroom tax, community football, properly funded schools and well-paid jobs. I know because I was there when it was filmed.
Perhaps it serves the Greens right for running an honest campaign in which they attempted to talk about what needed to be talked about. Zara Kitson made no promises about bridge tolls she would never have individual control over or the policies of a council she would not sit on. Should the Greens have followed the UKIP route and ploughed money (but precious few activists) into the kind of bitter, dishonest and intellectually bankrupt reactionary politics designed to garner as many votes as possible on as little policy as can be inserted into a leaflet made on the 1997 version of Microsoft Publisher? Probably not.
UKIP’s voters will have gone and voted and then retired to their armchairs or slipped their driving gloves back on and taken a ride out in their Saab 95 to check there were still no wind turbines. The Green voters, however, were part of a planned-out process of capacity building and a strategy that went beyond securing votes and getting back on the motorway to Edinburgh or London. This was misconstrued by the BBC on election night when they quoted Zara Kitson saying ‘it had been all about the campaigning’. She did not just mean that it was the taking part that counted; this was a longer battle than the media were prepared to accept in their finite narrative.
The interesting thing about the Green vote in Dunfermline is that nobody had ever been given the chance to elect a constituency MSP before, and the group of people who did choose to vote Green were galvanised by the election into knowing that there were hundreds of people across the area like them. Were Holyrood by-elections contested using the AV system the results could have been radically different. First past the post traps people into tactical voting and creates the same two-party politics that dominates Westminster. It is almost inevitable that the end result will be hastily printed flyers with big pictures of bridges on and wild promises that can never be kept and will never need to be kept.
It is about the illusion of localism and the belief that constituency MSPs are local leaders, rather than parliamentary legislators. Even more so, the first past the post element of the Scottish electoral system perpetuates the kind of thinking that Holyrood was supposed to leave behind. Why it cannot be replaced with sixteen smaller regions electing lists is a question we should probably all be asking ourselves. Local government should perhaps be left to local government and we should not pretend that Cara Hilton or any other MSP has the ability to change things by themselves.
Any such reform would also present a challenge for the Greens, it has to be recognised. There is very little data showing whether people first vote Green and then opt for a constituency candidate of their choice or whether the reverse is true. The BBC did not help, but what Zara Kitson tried to do in Dunfermline and will no doubt do again in the future was show that Green votes are not second preferences but first steps toward something altogether different. We need an election system that liberates people to vote freely and demands that smaller parties ready themselves for government.