"Westminster looks dysfunctional to Scotland”

Green World’s Alan Story interviews Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, discussing proportional representation, the climate emergency, the upcoming 2021 elections and attracting a greater breadth of voters to the Green cause.

Lorna Slater in Antartica
Lorna Slater in Antartica

Lorna Slater on a work expedition in Antartica.

Alan Story

How much do you know about the on-the-ground political situation in Scotland? Or about the Scottish Greens? Yes, we are seeing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on telly a lot more than normal these days as she reports on the Covid-19 pandemic. But there is a lot more to Scotland than its comparative R factor. And when I asked a few mates in Sheffield the other week, “what is the name of the leader of the Scottish Greens?” and neither they nor I knew, it was lesson number 37 in how poorly Green and Scottish politics are reported in the UK. 

So we arranged an in-depth interview with Lorna Slater, the relatively recent co-leader of the Scottish Greens. MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) Patrick Harvie, who has been party co-convenor since 2008, is Slater’s co-leader. Greens in Scotland were part of the same party as Greens in England and Wales until 1990 when an amicable separation took place. At present, the Scottish Green Party has about 6,500 members.   

Due to the parliamentary arithmetic of Holyrood since the last election in 2016, Scottish Greens play a relatively significant role. In that election to the 129-member Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) remained in power by winning 63 seats. But that was two seats short of a majority. (The SNP currently has 61 seats.)

In 2016, the Conservatives took 31 seats and Labour slumped to 24 seats. The Scottish Greens took six seats, up from two seats in the previous election. All were elected as a result of the Scottish list voting system. The Lib Dems finished fifth with five MSPs. 

All of this means that when required – say, a vote on the annual budget for Scotland – the Greens are willing to support the SNP. But as Slater stressed in our interview: “I want to clear up the myth that the SNP and the Greens always vote together; they absolutely do not.” The next elections in Scotland are expected in the spring of 2021. 

Slater does not have the cookie cutter bio of a typical Scottish politician. She was born in Canada and has dual British-Canadian citizenship. She is not an elected politician – yet. She is an electromechanical engineer who works as part of a design team for tidal power turbines. (The cover photo above of Lorna was taken in Antarctica when she was at work.) Oh, and one more thing: Lorna takes recreational circus courses in being an amateur trapeze artist. Bet Nicola Sturgeon can’t do that. 

We are publishing this interview in two parts. Here, Lorna answers questions on proportional representation, the climate emergency, the 2021 elections and attracting more working class and BAME people to the Green cause. Next week in Part Two, Lorna will talk about the key question of Scottish independence, distinctions between Scottish Greens and the Green Party of England and Wales and the role of women in the Scottish Greens. 

A Zoom welcome from Sheffield, Lorna. As part of the devolution of powers two decades ago, Westminster created a form of partial proportional representation (PR) for elections to the Scottish Parliament. It is called the ‘additional member’ system, sometimes called the list or “top-up” system. If you did not have PR, or at least partial PR, where would the Scottish Greens be? 

It’s worth first looking at where the Scottish Parliament would be. In the Westminster Parliament, we all look on in horror as you have the Red Team and the Blue Team swapping insults. Each new administration spends the next term undoing all the work of the previous administration. There’s insults being thrown across the aisle, there’s animal noises, it’s all very insulting and hostile. When you have a PR system not only do you get rid of that two-parties-across-the-aisle type of politics, you make it a much more collaborative consensus and negotiation sort of space. You can pick who is on your team.  

In the Scottish Parliament, no party has an absolute majority and different parties vote with each other depending on the issues. So, on constitutional issues, the Greens and the SNP vote together, on social issues Labour and the Greens vote together and the SNP vote with the Tories and so on. There isn’t any of that hideous name calling and cat calling because whoever/someone you are voting against this week will be your ally next week – you have to maintain a civil relationship. There is a much greater atmosphere of cooperation and negotiation. What we have is ‘grown up’ politics, not that childish screaming and howling that you see in Westminster.  

You have to understand how dysfunctional Westminster looks to Scotland. It looks childish, it looks petty, and it looks like you can’t achieve any sort of consensus. It’s all about winning and grinding your opponent into the ground and that is not what proportional politics looks like.  

Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie
Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie, Scottish Green Party co-leaders

Most of the progressive gains in the Scottish Parliament and in Scottish Law have been because a small number of Green MSPs worked very, very hard and their staff worked very, very hard and pushed the SNP to make good on their progressive promises. The SNP make promises and then back down on them and it takes the Greens to push them through. So even a small number of Greens makes a difference and PR absolutely gets you there.  

Parliaments around the world that have proportional systems have much more diverse parliaments. Many more women, more disabled people, more ethnic minorities. If that’s something you value then you absolutely have to get PR in. We are lucky that in Scotland all our councils also have PR. We have Greens in councils all over Scotland and it just changes politics.

If you had operated under first-past-the-post (FPTP) in the 2016 elections, it appears the Scottish Greens would not have won a single seat, despite winning 6.6 per cent of the overall vote. How does it feel to have six MSPs, 4.7 per cent of the total seats, instead of zero seats? 

It’s fantastic. It means that we are a major political party. We have more MSPs than the Lib Dems do. We are considered as one of the big four political parties in Scotland. We get more questions at the First Minister’s Questions. Patrick [Harvie] and I get invited on the telly more. It means that people will listen to what we say, we get a whole lot more representation and that we have a lot more voices being heard.

Parliaments that have been created in the last 150 years, younger parliaments, are proportional ones. India, Australia and New Zealand have PR. The UK, Canada and the USA have these very decrepit old structures. It goes back to when there were barons and landed gentry.

Tackling climate breakdown is a global Green priority. Some say the focus should be on changing our lifestyles. Others say the focus should be on structural changes and transforming how we produce energy and so on. What do you think are the main things we need to do to fight for climate justice? 

We need to tell a really clear story. All the other parties are being dishonest with the state of play. All the countries in the world that have signed up to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change of 2015 have done so to agree to try and keep global warming to 1.5ºC and below 2ºC. That’s not because 2ºC is safe – 2ºC is not safe – but because 4ºC is terrifying.  

With 4ºC, coastal cities are inundated, there are world shortages of food and the coral reefs are dead. With 6ºC of warming, 95 per cent of life on earth is extinct. Covid- 19 is nothing compared to climate change.  

In order to prevent that disaster, in order to keep the world at 1.5ºC of warming, we, each of us, every human in the world, have to shrink our carbon footprint to 1.5 tonnes of carbon per year. On average, every person in the world currently has a carbon footprint of 7.5 tonnes of carbon per year. 

Imagine if your income had to shrink to 15 per cent or 20 per cent of what it is now; that’s the kind of change we are talking about. This is not reducing your income by five per cent, this is reducing your carbon consumption by 75 per cent to 80 per cent. In fact, it is worse than that. Those of us in Europe, because we live in big houses, because we have gardens, because we travel on our holidays, have carbon footprints that are generally more like 12 to 15 tonnes of carbon. So we are talking about living on a 10 per cent carbon budget of what we did. That is a significant change.  

Nobody is saying you could switch to that tomorrow. If I had told you had to live on 10 per cent of your income tomorrow, you’d really struggle. But if I told you that you need to reduce your income by five per cent this year and five per cent the year after, and five per cent the year after, then you could probably manage. You would find ways to change your life. 

The truth is nobody can shrink their carbon budget to 1.5 tonnes of carbon on their own. You just can’t do it because of how our steel is smelted, because of how our energy is made and how goods are shipped on diesel ships. You cannot, by yourself, shrink your carbon footprint enough. The whole system has to change. I hope that by giving that context, by trying to say how much things have to change and why you have to start now because changing your carbon footprint by five per cent this year is easy enough, we can all do that.  

Changing it by 80 per cent is difficult and, every year we leave it, every year our carbon footprints go up. That’s going to make it harder to change in the end or it’s going to make that 95 per cent of life on earth extinction more likely. That’s why people like Extinction Rebellion are using the language that they are using. This is a danger, an actual existential threat to humanity and we need to start treating it as such.

So, yes, recycling plastic bags is a good thing to do, but it is absolutely not going to save our planet. 

Let’s change topics. Pretend it is the 2021 election. What would you tell SNP or Labour voters as to why they should vote Green? 

I would listen to what they were saying. I might need to clear up the myth that the SNP and the Greens always vote together: they absolutely do not. If you look at the voting record in the Holyrood Parliament, it is more likely that Labour and the Greens vote together and the SNP and the Tories vote together – Scotland definitely does not have a coalition government. 

I would also tell them the value of having Scottish Greens in the Scottish Parliament and then list some of the accomplishments we’ve had. We’ve had some really significant wins as part of the budget process. For example, the Scottish Greens pushed for and won a five-band income tax system in Scotland so that the wealthiest people in Scotland are taxed a little bit more and the lowest income people in Scotland are taxed a bit less than people in England are. 

Council budgets in Scotland had been in long-term decline. And although the SNP have not increased funding, pressure from the Greens stopped the decline if you like and that has gone to saving support services, libraries and that kind of thing. As a result of pressure from us, everyone in Scotland aged 18 and under will have free bus transportation starting from next year. Then there is the Anti-Fracking bill and the work our MSPs did to have fracking banned in Scotland. It’s quite a long list, there is more on our website

And specifically to an SNP voter? 

There is a lot of frustration with the SNP at the moment for chickening out on land reform and planning reform, as well as for not taking a clear stand on trans rights and backing down on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

The SNP conference was sponsored by BP and Heathrow. Anyone with any consideration for the climate crisis can see that the SNP is not taking it seriously. They set eye-catching targets, but actually don’t do anything to implement them. They’ve committed to oil and gas extracting past 2050. When given the chance to enact even the most modest progressive policies, they tend to side with the Tories and vote them down. They talk like a progressive party, but fail to act like one and this really frustrates left-leaning voters. If people believe in the environment and believe in the lefty policies, it’s got to be Greens.

What would you say to a usual Labour voter? 

Scottish Labour has been in decline since the 2014 referendum. The sight of them sharing the platform with the Tories and all that business with “The Vow” ruined their vote in Scotland.  

What was “The Vow”?  

In the last couple of weeks before the 2014 Scottish referendum, the ‘Yes’ side, the pro-independence side, was polling very, very well and so Gordon Brown was wheeled out and the Labour party and the Tory party got on a joint platform. The cover of our best-selling tabloid carried a joint pledge called the “The Vow” and the two parties “vowed” that, if Scotland didn’t vote for independence, we would get all sorts of new devolved powers, that we would be a respected partner in the Union. It has turned out to be hogwash. Just the sight of Labour sharing a platform with the hated Tory party was too much and in every single election since 2014 the Labour vote has dropped to the point where we hope to be equal to or have more Green MSPs than Labour MSPs in the next Scottish election. 

They’ve had a series of uninspiring leaders and no one is really sure what they stand for. Labour’s stance that “we respect the results of the Brexit referendum” is really toxic in Scotland. It appears to be pro-Brexit and many of their leftist policies overlap with SNP or Green policies. They just don’t have a unique selling point. As a result, Scottish Greens are well positioned to take over Labour voters in Scotland in 2021. 

You talked a few minutes ago about the climate emergency. Working class people and members of the BAME community have suffered – and will suffer – the most from climate change. And in an interview you gave last year, you said that you would like to see a more “diverse politics” that embraces “fewer old, rich, white men, more ordinary people, more women, more disabled people, more people of colour, more people of all different backgrounds”. What progress have Scottish Greens made in recruiting more working class and BAME members?  

There is a differentiation there between Scottish Green members and Scottish Green voters. Certainly in terms of members there was a really good study that came out maybe last year that showed that the Scottish Greens are not as middle class in reality as we are perceived as being. Income levels of SGP members are on average lower than members of the SNP, the Tories, and Labour. So compared to the other parties we are not an overwhelmingly middle class party in terms of our membership. However, the fact that our membership is significantly younger and more likely to be female probably does skew that a bit.  

We aren’t doing as well as I’d like to be with BAME Scots. We do have BAME members. The Imam in my local mosque is a Green, but they are not well represented among our active members. Our active membership is overwhelmingly white, which is something that I’d always try to improve on. It is something we talk about continually, we come up with ideas and it isn’t something we’ve made very much progress on. I’d be the first to put up my hands and say that. I am also open to suggestions and recommendations as to how we can improve that because I think it’s an urgent thing for us to get better at.

You can view Part Two of our interview with Lorna Slater here.