Scottish Greens 2011: Election Review
It would be a mistake to think that the Scottish Green Party’s performance in the 2011 election was anything other than a profound failure. As Green blogger Jeff Breslin said the day after the election “the Greens are stuck in the mud. I’m aghast that the Greens have fared so badly, not even moving on from the two MSPs that they currently have.” That’s the feeling that many observers, both in and outside the Green Party seem to share.
Most damningly Kate Higgins suggests on Green blog Better Nation that Greens lost the battle for a green vision for Scotland to the SNP. She says “on the little stuff – on recycling, on community-based issues, the Scottish Greens were solid and worthy. But on the big stuff – the renewable vision thing, of how it could create a real Scottish economic identity, and jobs – real jobs – in the future, well, the SNP won hands down.” This is a serious criticism of a party that should be more focused on how to change not just Scotland but the world. If Greens are to have a hope of improving on the two seats we hold in the Scottish Parliament we must find ways to convince sympathetic observers like Kate of our vision.
While it is true that, the SNP aside, all the other parties lost seats and votes the opportunities for the Greens were so much greater. For at least the past eight years Greens have focused on picking up Liberal Democrat votes. Yet the Liberal Democrats collapsed in such numbers that Greens should have picked up as many seats, if not more, than the seven won in 2003. The failure to pick up Liberal Democrat voters was compounded by the failure to pick up Labour voters. With two of the three other parties that attract centre-left voters performing abysmally, Greens should have been in a position to prosper. But we didn’t.
In 2007 the Greens lost more seats than any other party. That was due to a weak campaign and a serious squeeze between the SNP and Labour. Many swing voters in the electorate saw the vote as a serious choice about whether to get rid of Labour or risk independence by letting the SNP win. In this context the flow of altruistic votes that Greens had picked up in previous elections dried up. People needed to use their list votes as well as their constituency votes to vote for the party they wanted to form the government.
There was an important lesson in 2007. Unfortunately the Green Party failed to learn that lesson. As Kate Higgins points out “the [Green Party] contented itself with being the home for protest votes. And the problem with being the erstwhile recipient of the protest vote is that it is fly-by-night. It cannot be relied upon. Given its relative youth in party years, this might suffice but it does not provide a solid springboard for increased membership or indeed, representation.”
If we as Greens want to thrive and be in a position to enact our policies we need to win people’s votes outright. We can’t rely on supporters of other parties donating us their list votes. We have to build a support base that will support us whatever the context of the election.
It was only latterly in the 2007-11 term that Greens started to move to policies that built the sort of durable support we need. The 2010 General Election was an important learning experience. In the constituencies where Greens pursued socio-economic issues they put their vote up, often substantially. In the constituencies where Greens persisted with campaigns on recycling, green spaces and other stereotypical issues the vote went down – again often substantially. In Brighton the campaign which elected Caroline Lucas as an MP was based on the full range of social and economic policy.
As Kate Higgins says “the Scottish Greens have to decide if they wish to become a serious electoral threat. The right strategy and tactics can pay dividends, as Caroline Lucas and the Brighton Greens can testify. To replicate their success, the Scottish Greens need to grow and broaden their appeal.”
After losing votes and percentage in all of the constituencies in which Greens stood in 2010 there was a reconsideration of the issues on which we were campaigning. The focus was more on raising tax and less on opposing road projects or other planning issues. While raising tax was better than the issues it replaced, at best it looked more like a first stab at relevance than a well-though-through policy position. At worst it seemed a caricature of a progressive policy. It’s here that we in the Greens needed a big vision for the country and for the world. Where we focused on pragmatic policies like insulation, we needed to tell a bigger story of what we were about. The message that ‘Greens would raise tax’ communicated was insufficiently visionary. And we talked too little about how we’d change Scotland for the better with that money.
Then there are the serious structural problems with the Green Party. The party is heavily over-centralised. There is too much focus on press coverage and almost none on real campaigning. The number of activists has reduced in the past four years. There may be a number of reasons for this, but the most important is a focus on ‘professionalisation’. Professionalism here means people being paid to do things, rather than doing things more competently. Instead of fostering and promoting a culture of campaigning, the party too often focuses on Parliamentary activity and press coverage. This over-focus on Parliament wins some plaudits from journalists – but it wins very few votes. Extraordinarily, the Party employed more press officers in the election campaign than staff to help deliver ground campaigns. At times it seemed that the campaign was being planned on the basis of story lines from “The Thick of It” and “The West Wing”.
While it is seductive to think that a party can be run by a small number of paid staff commissioning work from paid contractors, it is difficult to achieve. The money to pay for this is hard to raise and bought campaigns simply aren’t as effective as real grassroots campaigns. The Scottish Green Party must focus more on developing more grassroots campaigns and less on press coverage or parliamentary work. As important as press coverage and parliament might be – we now know that they don’t win elections. It is especially foolish to believe that Greens can compete with the larger parties on press coverage. While it might feel good to look at the clippings, we are almost always drowned out by other parties. It may explain why Greens fail to turn good poll ratings into good election results.
That the Green campaign in 2011 had two competing slogans tells us a lot about what went wrong. The fault was not so much with the campaign itself, but in the internal culture of the Party. Each of the slogans speaks to a way of understanding Green politics that is resilient, but simply neither popular nor resonant enough to win the additional seats that should have come to the Greens in this election.
The first of these slogans was “The Only Alternative.” It didn’t really make it into much of the election material but is a good explanation of one strand of Green thought. The Only Alternative was an articulation of Green triangulation. The aim was to point out that, other than Labour, all of the other parties in Parliament were in power, either at Westminster or in Scotland, and that they were therefore responsible for the economic crisis. The Greens were “The Only Alternative” to parties in government.
Underpinning this was a belief that everyone was sick of the other parties. The electorate had no choice but to turn to the Greens. This was true in the case of the Liberal Democrats, and to a great extent with Labour. The great folly was to underestimate how well the SNP had done. At one stage the news had just broken that John Swinney had failed to renew the powers required for the Scottish Government to vary the Standard Variable Rate of income tax. I thought this was unlikely to make any real difference to the election. Not enough people cared. But some Greens believed that this would mean that pro-independence voters would abandon the SNP and vote Green. This was always nothing short of delusional.
It wasn’t, though, delusional to think that Greens could pick up Liberal Democrat voters. And it’s there that the massive failure in the campaign becomes obvious. Where we needed to make positive statements about what we believed in we instead poured abuse onto other parties. This was so extensive that the Party Facebook page repeatedly received complaints about how negative the coverage was.
The SNP, which seems have picked up all those former Liberal Democrat voters, were unfailingly positive. Instead, Green press releases in the run-up to the election were unfailingly negative. One of the reasons why being negative is a bad idea is that you end up talking about other people, not yourself. The electorate is therefore denied the opportunity to find out what Greens are about. With “The Only Alternative” we’d set ourselves up to talk about others failings, rather than our own proposals. We fell into exactly the pattern that Kate Higgins warned against. We presented ourselves as a home for protest votes, rather than a party of government.
The second election message was a return to “Second Vote Green”. This had worked in 1999 and seemed to work very well in 2003. In fact it worked so well that the SNP spent a couple of years trying to work out how to win list votes in 2007. They produced the brilliant “Alex Salmond for First Minister” slogan. This not only played their trump card (Alex Salmond) but also got them to the top of the ballot paper. In 2007 Greens, hampered by a ballot paper redesign, had to adapt the slogan, and ran with “First Vote Green”. This had little of the resonance of “Second Vote Green” and with a competitive election Greens recorded fewer votes than in 1999.
This led some Greens to believe that a return to “Second Vote Green” would mean a return to electoral success. But this was always pretty wishful thinking. While “Second Vote Green” works where no other parties contest the list (as was the case in 1999 and 2003), when other parties contest the list it is much less successful. In 2011 all four other parliamentary parties put serious effort into the list. And they were always going to – we knew that the SNP’s ingenious “Alex Salmond for First Minister” tagline in 2007 was always going to be improved upon. But we chose to test “Second Vote Green” to destruction.
There were a wide range of reasons why “Second Vote Green” wasn’t a good idea. It confused a lot of people – one of the main messages we were getting on the doors was that people didn’t understand it. A more serious problem was that the election was being held on the same day as the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Serious concerns about “Second Vote Green” leading people to vote in the Scottish election as if it were an AV election, thus depriving the Greens of votes that would be discounted (where people used 1, 2, 3 etc to vote on the list, giving Greens the ‘2’). Luckily this didn’t seem to happen, but lack of ballot papers spoiled this way points to the conclusion that people simply didn’t hear the message.
The next five years will be very difficult for the Party. Robbed of Parliamentary influence and stuck at two MSPs the Party has to refocus on relevant grassroots campaigning. But having spent the four years from 2003-07 with a sizeable Parliamentary group, followed by four years from 2007-11 holding part of the balance of power it will be difficult to go back to those campaigns. It has little of the glamour of pretending you’re in “The West Wing”. But the Green Party is a not a party for “West Wing” wannabes, it’s a party so radical that it wants to solve the economic and environmental crises facing the world. That requires a commitment to very real ground campaigning. And with the right arguments we should be able to deliver those ground campaigns.
This article first appeared in the SLR.
I do not think ‘2nd Vote Green’ will ever see the light of day again.
The point it most certainly missed was that there was no ‘second’ vote. The ballot papers were given to voters in whatever order the person at the polling station handed them over.
Emphasising the list vote was also done entirely incorrectly. Obviously, 2nd makes it sound inferior but we were only standing on the list across the country. We were not standing in a single constituency and as a result we were only on one ballot paper. If voters go into the polling station intending to vote Green then surely we can trust them well enough to vote Green on the only piece of parer they can, the peach one.
Our broadcast this year was impressive enough but I do not think it explained enough or gave a clear enough vision of what we can offer. The Tories broadcast was downright bizzare but it explains exactly what they had done in the previous 4 years and what they intend to do in the next 5. Ours did not do that. it also did not explain why we wanted a 2nd vote, which even the Pensioners party managed to do. If it only takes 6% of the list vote to get a Green in then why not tell people this as much as possible, making it seem if not easy, at least not impossible.
We did struggle with getting activists out at some points, particularly in the West of Scotland but the only simple way to solve that is to recruit more members. We are not growing enough as a party to mount really successful on the ground campaigning outside of Edinburgh, where a third of the party live.
Without local councillors in most regions we had no local record to show and with the local council elections under a year away I fear that we might be in the same situation as we were this year. Local council wins create bases of support and we just are not building these outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
We have 3 years until the European elections and 4 until Westminster. An MEP in 2014 and strong results in the general election are key to putting us back on strong ground in time for the next Scottish government election, which is realistically where we would see the highest likelyhood of gaining seats.
We failed to pick up the Lib Dem votes we coveted so much this yeat but without them we are unlikely to return an MEP. I would hope that we begin to think about how we can do this in the next few years.
I also think that dwelling too much on the relevance of the minutiae of the campaign and blaming one tactic or another is almost irrelevant.The voter and media are entrenched with the big parties regardless of any tweeking we may do in a campaign.If we persist in contesting first past the post elections then we give credibility to our corrupt political system.However we have to,to avoid the “second vote” problem.We need to secure big finance to stand in FPTP and ensure that local activism all year long saves the deposits by educating the electorate about the political process and subsequently increasing the vote sufficiently to make this threshold.
We must also put more emphasis on devolution of power from the parliament to “communities” by at least suggesting a Devolution Committee.
Centralised and local post holders must have the time and commitment to give to the party and not take on remits that they cannot fulfill simply for the prestige.
The party is made up of members that are far too establishment and middle class and only want to do a wee bit at elections.
This has been the case since 1989 when we became an independant Green Party.
Methods must be agreed to change this by seriously looking at membership rates and recruitment with those who just want to donate subsidising regular activism.
The national campaigning activities (and probably local too),outwith elections,of the SGP have been almost totally non existent since 1989.Local party development and support has been a joke.
We must be prepared to speak out and communicate the unfair electoral system even if it means standing on that single platform.I agree with much of what you say Peter.Take care,Mike.
I agree with a lot of what you said. I like a lot of the Green policies and even agree with a fair few of them.
Now, as a Lib Dem I knew we would be fair game at that election and for many more to come. What I didnt understand was the Green campaign to make them the natural home of the protest vote against the Coalition. It was clear this wasnt working for Labour so why did the Greens continue with it? Also how many of the policies were actually attractive to Lib Dem voters and members. We want the lowest paid to not pay taxes and as a party we are happy with that. The SGP policy of raising taxes was hardly likely to appeal to those same voters and members.
This is a very good analysis of what went wrong for the Greens.
The effort expended on the student vote was high but the SNP offered the exactly the same policy. Yes, the Lib Dems were easy targets but surely fewer students would back the Lib Dems anyway. So why not offer them something positive for Scotland as opposed to the fear, doom and gloom of fees?
The SNP offered the most attractive (if unaffordable) package for Scotland with a campaign that sounded positive at most levels.
I was wondering if there had been any analysis to see if 2nd Vote Green had resulted in many (or any) ballots marked “SGP – with a 2 in the box” and a 1 next to another party as I heard a few people in my local polling stations say thats what they were going to do.
I realise just how hard building grassroots campaigns are… but too often Greens ignore genuine work in building campaigns while obsessing over getting a mention in the paper, or having a Green on TV.
While the media is important, we can never, ever get the level of coverage other parties do. We’re simply not big or bad enough to get media coverage that is significant.
And if you hold up as heroes those covered in the media and those who get coverage in the media while ignoring the hard work of grassroots campaigners, you just make the existing situation worse.
We need to do much more obsessing over real campaigns and less over whether we got a mention on page 8 of the News of the World, had someone on Newsnight Scotland at 11.15pm or even just put out a press release.
As we lead community campaigns we’ll get plenty of coverage.
I do agree that the SNP do attack other parties, but it was in the context of a campaign with a vision and level of optimism that no one else came close to. You’re quite right to say it’s not their main media strategy, which it has been too often for Greens.
Harsh criticism, but mostly accurate. Building a grassroots campaign is easier said than done however.
One quibble: the SNP campaign was not ‘unremittingly positive’ – as someone who has the misfortune to be on the SNP press release mailing list, I can assure you they dish the dirt on their opponents just as everyone else does. The difference is they don’t rely on that as their main media strategy.