An interview with Patrick Harvie

WANR: You were in a political party at university. What was that like?

PH: Well sort of. I joined the Labour Party for one year while I was at university in Manchester. I never renewed my membership the second year. It was the year that Tony Blair was elected party leader. I guess I was hoping that the party was going to change into something I would have called a modern form of social radicalism. That didn’t happen.

I was 18 at the time. I was partly looking for opportunities to get involved in student politics and being in a political party was just a natural part of that. I never had a great sense of wanting to get involved in local branch meetings, for example. And I think the interpersonal style and tone turned me off of it very quickly. I was more involved with LGBT activism when I was a student. And through friends, a little bit of environmental stuff as well. A couple of weekends in a protest camp, that sort of thing.

WANR: Do you think a left-leaning student in Scotland today should join a political party?

PH: I don’t think that joining a political party is the only way to work towards change in society or to advance the ideas that the left, in the broadest sense, represents. It’s one important way, but most significant social movements have used a range of methods, including party politics, individual action, direct action, and academic argument. And with the kind of change that we need in society now, in the way we’re running our economy and in the debates about the future of Scotland, we will need every tool in the box.

Having said that, it would be a weaker political landscape if parliaments and local councils didn’t hear and didn’t contain arguments on the left against the austerity agenda. And also arguments about new and creative ways of organising. There would be very little chance of success for those ideas in the future if the people who advocate them just disengage from the formal decision-making process. Whether its about care services, or tax levels, or climate change, the people making those decisions need to be challenged face-to-face within parliament, within councils and within political parties, large and small.

WANR: Why should the Green Party in particular appeal to young lefties?

PH:  The Green Party represents an attempt to ask the questions that are really relevant to the problems humanity is facing at the moment. It’s about seeing ourselves, not just as social and economic creatures, but ones which exists within, and have to exist within, ecological limits. It asks what kind of growth creates health and well-being alongside economic value.

If we look at the social, the economic, and the environmental aspects as though they are separate questions I think we’ll fail. I think we wont be able to achieve the kind of change either in our society, our economy, or in our politics that’s required. So, for me, its about the integration of these aspects of the challenges we’re facing as we go through the 21st century.

WANR: The policy section of the Scottish Green Party website states that ‘only when released from immediate poverty can individuals be expected to take responsibility for wider issues.’ Do you agree with this?

PH: I hope its doesn’t imply that people living in poverty are unable to take on those responsibilities, but the expectation can’t be imposed on them. If you’re worried about putting food on the table for your children that’s what you’re going to focus on. And quite rightly.

WANR: As a party dedicated to green issues, does this pose a problem for you in terms of gaining popular support?

PH: It’s all about how you choose to phrase the issues. Take energy, for example. We can talk about the energy crisis that we’re building up for ourselves in terms of CO2 parts per million, or we can talk about how much your energy bill costs you every month, or the jobs in the industry that people depend on. We can talk about food production in terms of organic targets, or ask why some people are reduced to finding horsemeat in their burgers – this is what the worst elements of the free market have done to the food system. We can talk about transport, as well, in terms of congestion levels or overall pollution, or we can bring up the cost of your bus fare.

If you start from the principle of a more equitable society, where things like food, public transport and energy are affordable, you actually end up with many of the same policies. I think the problem is getting over the stereotype and trying to talk about these issues not in terms of far-off or abstract ideas, but as day-to-day practical realities.

WANR: Do you feel first and foremost a Green, or rather a socialist whose ideals are best advanced by being a member of the Green Party?

PH: No, I describe myself as a green. Some people in the Green Party will use both words to describe themselves. I think that can get a wee bit confusing. ‘Socialist’ as a word means different things to different people. There are already several political parties that use that word as a label to define themselves. I think it clutters the landscape if that word is attached to too many parties. What I’m advocating is green politics. It’s clearly a politics that is of the left, but I’d rather label it as green.

WANR: Jean Urquhart, until recently, in the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party, who seem to have very similar politics to yourself, both opted to join one of the bigger parties and then try to steer the party line further left. What do you think about this?

PH: It probably is a reasonable tactic, but it’s not one that I’ve chosen. I suppose partly because of personalities and circumstance. Did you know that the one factor that makes somebody more likely to vote for a candidate, regardless of their politics, is having met them? In the same way, the attitudes that people accumulate over time towards different political traditions or parties is often down to the people they’ve met and the experiences they’ve had.

My mum was a Green Party activist decades ago, before there was any kind of PR system or chance of electoral success, so I’d been taken along to party meetings when I was very young. And in Session One of the Scottish Parliament, before I was elected, I was heavily involved with the Section 28 Campaign,[1] of which Robin Harper, the only green MSP at the time, was very supportive. Sometimes these kinds of personal experiences can lead somebody in one direction over another.

I can entirely understand why somebody with exactly my political leanings, joining a party ten years prior to when I did, might have chosen a larger party. Some of them chose the SNP or the Labour Party; some of them chose the Liberal Democrats. But it’s not something that I would do. I’ve seen too many people, particularly colleagues in the Labour Party, hang on determinedly, but grimly, for so many years in the hope that they’ll get their party back, when I think in their hearts they know that’s never going to happen. I would hate to find myself in that position. If I ever felt that the Green Party and I had parted company on something I don’t think I’d have the stomach to just to keep hanging on.

WANR: Being the leader of a small party, how do you manipulate the system to make sure you still have some sway?

PH: It is difficult. Session Two was when I was first elected. In that parliament there were seven Greens, there were six in the Scottish Socialist Party, and there was a good number of independents as well. Not all lefties: they crossed the spectrum. Having a diverse parliament, that wasn’t so entirely dominated by one or two big groupings, broke open the debate a little bit and allowed us to be heard. It also gave the media a wider range of voices to go to if they got bored of hearing what Labour and the SNP had to say.

Session three was a minority government and a tightly balanced parliament. Very often you would have the SNP and the Conservatives on one side, Labour and the Liberals on the other, and us in the middle able to exert some pressure. We got some substantial change through there. The Home Installation Scheme, for example.

The current session is tough. A government with a majority doesn’t need to compromise. We’re going to be voting on the budget this afternoon and we’ll be implementing cuts that we don’t support. We can’t sit across the table with Mr Swinney and say, “You need our votes. How about a compromise?”

Yet the fact that we’ve got the referendum coming up creates a new opportunity. Even the SNP know that the Yes campaign needs to get beyond the group of people that have ever been tempted to support the SNP. That means that anyone who’s got a different set of ideas about Scotland’s future, and something distinct to say, not just in terms of the constitution but also on questions about what powers are there for, what political powers should be used for, is being offered the chance to get involved.

WANR: What works and what doesn’t in a parliamentary democracy? How would you change Scotland’s current political system?

PH: There are some fairly dry, technical changes I would suggest. For example, in  the current voting system bigger parties are overrepresented; smaller parties, underrepresented. Its closer to being proportional than Westminster, but I’d still like to have ones that’s fairer. But I’d also like a system where independents had more of a chance of getting elected. A proportional representation or ‘top up’ system could make that harder.

Beyond that, we’ve got to find a way of shifting the balance of power between the electorate and the party machine. The Scottish Parliament was created with the notion that it should share power with the people, that there should be a participative engagement. It started out trying to do that.  I mentioned the Section 28 Campaign. My first experience of the Scottish Parliament was as a youth worker, sitting in the old temporary debating chamber up the road talking about the impact this legislation would have on the communities that I was working with. In Westminster, both because of distance and the way the system worked, there’s no chance I would have been able to do that. It felt as though we were welcome into this place to engage in the discussion. It wasn’t just a group of politicians sitting behind closed doors. I think over the years that sense of participation has gone stale. Actually Westminster has overtaken and is better now at some of those processes.

WANR: Did you see the recent press release by the Jimmy Reid Foundation concerning access to political influence?

PH: Yes, I commented on that. It’s true that we have got into the habit of hearing from the usual suspects. All the committees are aware of this as a short coming. But it’s a problem that’s easy to name and then to just carry on repeating.

There’s a lot that we can do to shake the parliament up a bit. If there had been another session with a minority government, where power was balanced across the parties, there might have been the scope to debate how parliament works and to try to change some of those procedures.

The final change I’d like to see is cultural. If you watch parliamentary debates in European countries, and to some extent in Westminster, you’ll hear backbenchers giving their own ministers a hard time. That doesn’t happen here. The SNP, in particular, are a very loyal bunch. We got through the last session without a single backbench rebellion. I don’t think that’s ever happened in Westminster under any party or government.

WANR: Do you think they’re all keeping their lips tight until they get what they want?

PH: I think that is part of it. The SNP have shown that you can be a very successful single issue party. They’ve got people from the hard right to hard left of the political spectrum, and everything in between, who are brought together by this one organising principle of independence. The fact that they’re on the verge of putting this central principle to the electorate, and the electorate saying yes or no, perhaps that’s what leads them to be so loyal.

I think parliamentary democracy, for all of its shortcomings, is at its best when backbenchers are vigorous, when ministers know they’re going to be challenged from all sides, and when the electorate is more powerful than the party machine. The Scottish Parliament started out pretty well on some of those things. 15 years on it needs to have another look at itself.

[1] The Section 28 Campaign fought for the removal of an amendment to the Local Government Act 1986 which stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. It was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of Great Britain in 2003.

Interview by Grace Loncraine

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