This post was inspired by the comment I made on James’ Scottish Green Party post yesterday, but its really something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  And the question is this: what role do the Scottish Greens want to play in Holyrood?

2003 Parliament

The party has, arguably (and you will probably debate this point) secured more in the way of concessions to an environmental agenda from the current Scottish Government than the previous one, despite only having 2 MSPs in this session to 7 previously.  Now I’d argue that is mostly because the parliamentary arithmetic has placed the Greens in a position whereby their 2 MSPs have a disproportionate amount of influence for their size – they have, in essence, become kingmakers.  While this hasn’t always worked to their advantage (when the other, larger parties agree – see Trump development, AWPR, Forth Bridge) they have forced the agenda at times (home insulation stuff, climate change targets – though the latter are not ambitious enough for many Greens).  Thus it seems  that, through fortunate circumstances of electoral mathematics, the Greens wield some influence in Holyrood, evidence that the wider environmental movement does influence the politics of Scotland.

2007 Parliament

Yet, with May 2011 and the coming Holyrood election on the horizon I’m led to consider that the party may face a trade-off.  If we look towards recent poll numbers (and, indeed, the historical precedents of 2003 and 2007) we’ll recognise that any increase in Green votes and, ultimately, seats, leads to a corresponding decrease in SNP votes and seats.  They are, historically speaking, inversely proportional.  When the Greens go up, they take SNP votes (witness 2003).  When the SNP poll well, the Greens suffer.  Thus I’d wager that the Greens may pick up a couple of seats in May – and the SNP will maybe lose a couple at their expense.  My question really though is, regardless of who wins the election, will the Greens be better off?

My answer, somewhat paradoxically for a political party increasing their representation, is probably not.  Depending how the election works out (and I’d be very surprised if the parliamentary arithmetic works out quite as tight next time around) the four potential Green MSPs would find themselves in a situation whereby they couldn’t influence budgets and bills in quite the way they currently do with two.  And that is interesting.

It begs a further question – are the Greens a party or a movement? In many ways this can be asked of any party which is part of a wider ideological movement.  Indeed, I’d argue that you don’t necessarily have to answer in the definitive to be influential (though I would argue that the SNP have, with their ditching of the referendum bill, defined their existence and priorities much more as a party than a movement dedicated to independence – but I digress).  But at its heart is a fundamental paradox of green politics.  Do the party need parliamentary representation to move a more environmental agenda or can influence be brought to bear on the political process without wielding power?

In some ways this taps into a post I wrote about the Lib Dems taking office in May, but in particular the analysis of Wolfgang Muller and Kaare Strom regarding the motivations of political parties – the so called “Policy-Office-Votes” triangle.  For political buffs, it is worth a read, and I won’t go into too much detail here.  The point I will make though, is that, as a movement and, crucially, as a party, the Greens focus is clearly on policy – and that can be achieved without necessarily gaining votes or office success, though they will be proximate goals on that path.

Final conundrum.

From what I’ve said in this post, it may be implied that I don’t think there’s any point voting for the Greens.  This would be entirely misconstrued.  I’ll leave it to the party members in our ranks to explain why, on policy terms, you should vote Green.  All I’ve done is show from a structural perspective that the parliamentary arithmetic has provided influence without power.  However, if we look again at the Policy-Office-Votes triangle, the one thing that is clear is that far from being exclusive, the concepts compliment each other.  Votes provided the basis for office success which provide the platform to deliver policies.  If policies are the ultimate goal of the party – and I think they are – then that journey begins with votes.

I think that’s a long way round to tell you that voting Green actually does help the environment!

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