It’s been a hell of a few years for the Scottish Green Party. From the decision to run a distinct Green Yes campaign during the independence referendum through growing the membership fivefold to last week’s Scottish Parliamentary election where the party received more votes than ever before for a second best ever return in terms of vote percentage and winning six MSPs – it’s been quite a ride.
However, that expanded membership and MSP group leaves the Scottish Green Party at a crossroads as to where it goes next, and how it chooses to go there.
It must have been a real culture shock for the pre-Green surge cadre to see all these new members joining and wanting to be involved. While there will have undoubtedly been elation at the burst of enthusiasm and resources, there must also have been some concerns that their party was evolving past them, that the positions and networks which were established in a smaller party would have to change…
I was one of those Surgers, joining the first day after the referendum on the back of the Green Yes campaign, and I remember the first meeting I attended – the now semi-legendary Glasgow branch meeting at the West of Scotland cricket ground. There were easily a few hundred people there, with a good third of the attendees having to stand outside in the dark and the rain because the venue was too small and the floodlights weren’t working.
I remember listening to Patrick Harvie talk about how the Greens were different from the bigger parties as they are led by their members and I was just as enthused by that idea as by any single part of the policy platform. Not just a cog in a machine, but helping to decide the direction of the tribe.
That sentiment was also echoed recently in Natalie Bennett’s message as she announced she would not be standing to remain leader of the Green Party of England & Wales – “Every member of the Green Party is a leader.”
In the time since, the party has striven to adapt to its new scale, with the party’s old IT systems woefully inadequate (and having since been rebuilt with herculean effort) and the old, informal networks which had organised activism overwhelmed. It has seemed that ever since I became an active member that an honest discussion about the future structure of the party has been forever delayed, until after the 2015 Westminster election and the 2016 Holyrood election.
Those hurdles are past us now, and while we must not overlook the local authority elections next May, the need to decide about the kind of party we now are and want to be in the future is one that can no longer be postponed.
There is undoubtedly an opportunity and a need for the Scottish Green Party to up its game, to become better at the craft of politics, more effective, more efficient, to utilise the resources and finance offered by the increased membership and expanded MSP group to contest future elections on a more even footing with the traditionally larger parties.
However, I worry that the party is on the cusp of losing something very special, namely the idea that the membership are in charge and that the various committees and ultimately, elected representatives are the servants of that group, rather than it’s masters.
This was not such an issue in the days when there was little distinction between the grassroots membership and post holders, but with a larger membership, the need arises to be consciously inclusive rather than top-down.
Of course, regressing into the shadows and becoming a minor, single-issue party again is a bridge that nobody wants to go back over…
…well, some folks might be more comfortable if we did, but seriously, just no.
I can’t help but look at Labour and the way they abandoned principle to chase electoral success – and didn’t that work out well in the long run? That’s a dramatic example, but the end result of certain choices at this fork in the road could be just that significant.
Obviously there must always be a degree of hierarchy in this kind of movement, but smooth organisation cannot be allowed to come at the cost of inclusivity, equality and participative democracy.
Apart from anything else, radical parties are only electorally successful if they manage to find ways to excite and empower lots of people to get involved and take ownership; if they unleash the genius of thousands rather than relying on the ideas of some spin doctor at the centre.
We need to find a way to be a grassroots-led, yet cohesive movement which uses its resources to involve the membership and promote a truly progressive and radical policy platform.
I believe that our party needs to have a principled, open review where we talk about our decision making systems, about how inclusive and equal our meetings and processes are, about how we deal with internal elections and about how we hold our paid staff and elected representatives to account.
A constitutional convention, which involves every member and comes to clear conclusions and definite, accessible structures is an absolute necessity after years of flying by the seat of our pants.
It’s been a hell of a few years for the Scottish Green Party and the years ahead can be even more successful, but we must not sell out the soul of the party as we chase that success.
Stop Press: The long awaited structural review is now in progress and members can contribute to that discussion here.