A Natural Fit? The Greens in Government

Being a junior partner in government can be a painful and difficult experience. Just ask the Liberal Democrats, who still have to recover from the fallout from their decision in 2010 to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives at Westminster. Yet, so far at least, the decision of the Scottish Greens, who meet in conference in Stirling this weekend, to take two junior ministerial positions in the SNP-led Scottish Government does not seem to have done them any harm at all.

Since the agreement between the two parties was announced at the very end of August last year, the party’s poll rating for the Holyrood regional list vote has averaged 11%. Not only is this up on the 8% that the party secured in last May’s election, but it continues to match at least the ratings the party was enjoying during the previous parliament. The party’s supporters have evidently not taken umbrage at its new role.

This should not come as a surprise. For though the party’s principal raison d’être may be concern about the environment, in practice its support, like that of every other party in Scotland these days, is heavily shaped by the constitutional debate. According to the British Election Study internet panel, over three-quarters (78%) of those who backed the party on the list vote in last year’s Holyrood election would currently vote Yes in another independence referendum, while around three-quarters (76%) backed the SNP on the constituency vote. The Greens were already tied to the electoral hip of the SNP, and consequently many of their supporters probably regarded the arrangement between the two parties as a natural fit. Certainly, shortly after the cooperation agreement between the two parties was announced Opinium found that 94% of Green supporters thought that it would be ‘good for Scotland’.

Recent polls show no sign of any change to these patterns. On average, they suggest that the party enjoys 17% support on the list vote among current Yes supporters, while just 3% of No voters are backing the party. Similarly, around 17% of those who would vote for the SNP on the constituency vote say they would vote Green on the list. Of course, what is more difficult to tell is how many of these SNP-Green voters regard the Greens as their first preference but back the SNP on a constituency ballot that the Greens have never opted to contest systematically, and how many are primarily SNP supporters who are inclined to vote tactically for the Greens on the list vote.

The most immediate challenge facing the party will be the local government elections in May. Because most wards elect only three or four councillors, the level of support that a party needs to win seats under the Single Transferable Vote system is markedly higher (20-25% via a combination of first preferences and transfers) than the 5-6% that is usually sufficient to claim a regional list seat at Holyrood. Thus, although the party contested just over 60% of Scotland’s 354 wards at the last local elections in 2017, the 4% of the total first preference vote that it won garnered it just 19 seats, of which all bar four were gained in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The question mark that faces the party this time around is whether it can make enough of an advance to obtain a significant local government presence outside the country’s two largest cities – and whether it might be assisted in that endeavour by transfers from first preference SNP supporters.

The Greens are, of course, unique in having two co-leaders. The party’s male co-leader, Patrick Harvie, was first elected to Holyrood in 2003 and has held his leadership post since 2008, making him the longest serving of Scotland’s current party leaders. In contrast, his female counterpart, Lorna Slater, only entered Holyrood last year, after becoming co-leader in 2019. Her rise to ministerial office within months of becoming a MSP has been truly meteoric. But inevitably she is still the less well-known of the pairing. In the most recent Savanta ComRes poll, for example, 24% were unable to say whether they regarded Ms Slater favourably or unfavourably, compared with 16% who said the same of Mr Harvie.

Otherwise, the two co-leaders have much the same profile in the minds of the electorate – and thus do not necessarily complement each other. In both cases (see here and here) around twice as many voters have an unfavourable rather than favourable view of them – but then widespread popularity is rarely a bonus afforded leaders of small parties. In both cases too, the attributes that voters are most likely to think they have are intelligence (here and here) and being genuine (here and here) – while they are both least likely to be regarded as strong (here and here) and charismatic (here and here). It would seem that while both are respected for their ability to articulate their convictions, neither is particularly successful in creating a sense of dynamism and direction. But perhaps voters will be looking for the latter as Scotland deals with a post-COVID, Ukraine-exacerbated, energy crisis?

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.