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.