Scottish Green Party conference kicks off today in Aberdeen. Many party members will be hoping to regroup after the disappointment of May’s election. Having failed to pick up the masses of voters abandoning the Liberal Democrats, the Greens have serious thinking to do. Our strategy for the 8 years that I’ve been involved with the party has been to wait for the Liberal Democrats to mess up.

Bright Green at SGP Conference 2010

For years Greens avoided supporting a wide range of radical policies in order to appeal to Liberal Democrat voters. From Living Wage to opposing the war in Afghanistan we’ve been late or reluctant to say anything that might be unpopular with anyone on the assumption that this would mean that we’d pile up Liberal Democrat voters at some point in the future. It’s a body blow that when the crunch came, those Liberal Democrat voters went by a huge majority to the SNP or Labour. I hope there’ll be a serious opportunity through the sessions and in the fringes to work out a new strategy that secures a real increase in votes at the next election. Scotland’s people, its communities and the world can’t afford another Green failure.

The 2011 Conference is an important starting point for Local Election campaigns around the country with elections coming up next May for all Scotland’s Councillors. It is vital that the Scottish Party increases the number of seats it wins. The 8 Green Councillors elected in 2007 were our first serious engagement with local government, and we’ll be hoping to build on that. It will be interesting to see what Brighton Council leader Bill Randall – Britain’s first Green Council leader – has to say about Greens in Local Government. There will certainly be a lot of thinking to be done and a lot of work for Greens in Scotland seeking to break through to new Councils and consolidating existing areas of strength.

The Conference will be discussing a wide range of policy. Green conferences are one of the few places where it’s still possible to see open debate in a political party. It’s exhilarating to get open debate on conference floor, and this is an important aspect of Green politics shared across these islands, that we should appreciate more.

One of the most exciting policy motions is on Participatory Democracy. Despite participatory democracy being a founding principle of the Scottish Green Party, there’s no specific policy on what we’d do to give people more power over how their government makes decisions and spends money.

Building on Councillor Maggie Chapman’s excellent £eith Decides Participatory Budgeting project in Edinburgh, there motion proposes policy to empower communities. The policy will promote citizen’s assemblies, street committees and devolution of decision making to other community bodies. We’ll support participatory planning for decisions, allow elected Greens to hold public meetings at which they will determine their position on policy and spending decisions. This motion also supports personalisation for social care to give individuals control over their own care.

Other interesting policy includes a new section on tax avoidance and evasion. This will bring the Scottish Greens into line with the Bill being proposed by Caroline Lucas at Westminster to prevent tax evasion and avoidance. It is based on a range of measures to encourage corporations and individuals to sign a tax code of conduct in which they would agree to pay the right amount of tax, that they would not use artificial structures not explicitly encouraged in law and that they would not use tax havens. It also encourages the adoption of country-by-country reporting of accounts to prevent profits being moved offshore.

There is a motion seeking to remove the statement in Scottish Green policy that we would “take up any opportunity to participate in [the House of Lords] before [reforms to directly elect the Upper House] took place.” This will end the anomaly of the Scottish Greens seeking to be represented in an undemocratic House of Lords while another major Scottish party actively prevent its members from taking seats in an undemocratic House.

A ‘cute’ policy that we’ll be discussing is one to incorporate community transport into the concessionary transport scheme. At the moment people who are over 60 get free bus transport – but only if they get on public transport. This is particularly problematic for people in rural areas and for those who find it particularly difficult to get out of the house, who have to pay for community transport. An organisation providing community transport for the standard rate of 40p a mile will also be substantially cheaper than a standard bus.

The most interesting policy is probably that on hutting. The Scottish Green Party has been keen on the “Thousand Huts Campaign” being run by Lesley Riddoch and Andy Wightman. Huts are informal summer or weekend dwellings in the country. Scotland is the only country at this northern latitude that doesn’t have a substantial hutting culture. Hutting could create more sustainable rural communities by encouraging Scots to spend weekends and holidays in our countryside. It could ease pressure on rural housing by reducing demand for second homes. And it could help us to enjoy a closer relationship with our depopulated glens straths.

The motion on hutting suggests a new planning designation for ‘hut’, as promoted by the campaign. It also proposed retrospective planning permission for all huts – allowing hutters at Barry Downs and other threatened sites to continue to succeed.

This conference is vital for the Scottish Green Party. It will set the tone for our important Local Authority elections. Hearing Brighton Green’s Bill Randall should give these elections the priority they deserve. And there’ll be plenty of fascinating policy discussion as always. We’ll be keeping you posted on Bright Green, and through Twitter if you can’t be there.