This May’s election will be the most important in Scotland’s history. Much of the media focus will be on the constitution and the possibility of a second independence referendum. It’s an important question, but there will be far more on the ballot paper. More than any other election since Scottish devolution, this one will have repercussions that will be felt for years to come.
Climate scientists say that we have only nine years to stop the climate crisis.The next Scottish Parliamentary term will last five years, covering the majority of that time and shaping Scotland’s contribution to avoiding it. With the oil industry in decline, this is the time when Scotland’s vast renewable potential must be realised. For far too long, successive Scottish governments have talked a good game when it comes to addressing climate change, but, all too often, there is a huge gulf between their rhetoric and the reality of what is delivered.
It will also be the parliament that shapes Scotland’s Covid-19 recovery. It won’t just make choices about the timings and manner of the immediate re-opening and rebuilding, but also many of the longer-term decisions about how we move on and what assumptions are at the heart of the society we are building.
Covid-19 is often talked about in terms of being an ‘equaliser’ but its impacts have been felt disproportionately by people on low incomes and in insecure housing and employment. It has also been felt disproportionately by women, who are more likely to be employed in less secure work arrangements, such as zero-hours contracts or temporary employment, and who have carried a greater burden of unpaid care for children or elderly relatives. For disabled people, the pandemic has supercharged existing inequalities, with acute isolation, greater poverty and more barriers to accessing vital services.
Unfortunately the government response has failed to live up to the challenge, whether in Westminster or Scotland. The handling of the pandemic itself was catastrophic, with the UK having one of the worst death rates in the world. All of the signs suggest that our governments are failing to learn the lessons of the last 12 months.
Little has been done to address the structural inequalities that were made so clear. Yet, only days after the UK government had ruled out providing free school meals for the worst-hit families over the holiday period, it pledged to spend an extra £16 billion on top of what was already one of the highest military budgets in the world.
Inequality was already rampant across the UK before Covid-19 struck, and, in many parts of the country, it was already getting worse. From April 2019 to March 2020 there was an 18 per cent rise in the number of food parcels being distributed across the country, with household incomes for the poorest households falling by 4.3 per cent in that time.
The symptoms of this inequality are around us. To cite just one particularly horrific outcome, in Scotland we have seen a disturbing increase in drug deaths, with 1,200 people dying from the misuse of drugs in 2019 alone. One-third of those deaths occurred here in Glasgow. The governments in Holyrood and Westminster have dragged their heels, refusing to take the action that is needed to start to address this terrible trend.
This May, people in Scotland will have a choice about if we want to continue down this path, or if we want to do things differently. Over the last five years, my Scottish Green colleagues and I have worked hard to do everything we can to support progressive policies and implement positive and meaningful change for the people and communities we represent.
The SNP Government is different from the Tory Government in Westminster, but time and again it has shown a timidity and it has taken pressure from Green MSPs to force it to take more bold, progressive action.
That was evident in this year’s budget negotiations when Green MSPs managed to secure COVID relief payments worth up to £330 for the hardest-hit families, free school meals for all primary school age children, free bus travel for everyone 21 or under, a pay rise for the public sector workers who have done so much for us, and £40 million worth of extra funding to promote walking, cycling and green projects.
These are all important changes. They will set positive precedents and have a positive impact that will endure long beyond the lifetime of this parliament. But they are also only the beginning in terms of the rebuilding that we need to do.
This year we will be presenting our most ambitious programme to date. It will be one that re-frames and rethinks what Scotland can be. We will be arguing for a major investment in green jobs and the technology of the future. We will be arguing for major investment in our rail and infrastructure. And we will be arguing to secure more powers and an independence referendum, so that Scotland can win independence with a purpose.
We cannot limit our voice to the issues that the Scottish Parliament controls, not when the consequences of decisions made in London are so severe for so many people. We are always being told that the UK is a force for human rights and democracy around the world. But nothing could be further from the truth. Not when the UK Government is responsible for the implementation of racist and reactionary 'hostile environment' policies which are targeting migrants while sending drones out to sea to intimidate people who have fled war and are crossing the Channel to be with loved ones.
Right now, Saudi Arabian-led forces are using UK-made fighter jets to drop UK-made bombs and fire UK-made missiles on Yemen. The bombardment had created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Many of the missiles being used were made here in Scotland. They were made by Raytheon, a multinational arms company, in a factory in Fife. The fact that weapons made in Scotland are doing so much damage is appalling, and there is nothing that the Scottish Parliament can do to stop it.
We want Scotland to have the full powers to address the most serious issues, whether it is our role in war and peace, the disgraceful levels of child poverty or response to the climate emergency. We want to see Scotland leading the way with a peaceful and empathetic foreign policy and bold domestic policies like a Universal Basic Income and a reduced working week, which can help us to restructure our economy.
There is no question that we have achieved a lot with only 5 MSPs. And we want to do even more. Think how much we could do if we had twice as many, and if the Scottish Parliament that we are part of has the full range of powers. We do not have a monopoly on wisdom or good ideas, but we do know that the more Scottish Green voices there are in the room making decisions, the greater chance there is of progressive policies and outcomes.
The polls suggest that this year could see our best ever result. They indicate that we may be on course to double the size of our parliamentary group. If that happens it will be a breakthrough for us as a party, but, more importantly, it could be an important step towards achieving vast changes across Scotland.
But there is still a long way to go between now and the election. Politics is volatile, especially at the moment. We need to run our best ever campaign. We will be taking inspiration from the successes of Green parties across the continent, but we will also be taking it from the people and activists that we work with day in and day out. It is their stories we will tell, and their voices that we will work to amplify.
The issues that the next parliament will deal with are too important for business as usual. It's important that we don't go back to how things were, because, for a lot of people, it was unsustainable. This May we’re asking Scottish people to vote like our future depends on it – because we believe that it does.