The SNP-Green Deal Doesn’t Go Far Enough

The SNP’s deal with the Greens has been praised for tackling the housing crisis – but from the workplace to the climate, its plans elsewhere fall far short of the radicalism we need.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon holds a media briefing with Scottish Greens co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater at Bute House on 20 August 2021 in Edinburgh. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell - Pool / Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Scottish Parliament election, the SNP found themselves one seat short of a majority. Turning to their left-of-centre colleagues the Scottish Greens, the SNP looked to negotiate Holyrood’s first power-sharing arrangement.

Following weeks of negotiations, Friday saw the announcement of a shared programme ‘to build a greener, fairer, independent Scotland’. These proposals include some significant gains for tenants and workers, such as rent controls and collective bargaining in the care sector, but the deal falls short of articulating the bold economic agenda that Scotland’s working class deserves.

Unlike in Westminster, there was no necessity for a ‘coalition of chaos’. Holyrood functions under a form of proportional representation designed not to produce an overall majority. The Scottish Parliament has only had an overall majority once, in 2011, when the SNP won a landslide victory on a platform of delivering an independence referendum.

So why would the SNP go into a power-sharing deal when they could govern with a minority? The answer is complicated. This year’s Holyrood election was dominated by the constitution, with tactical voting for pro-independence and unionist parties seen across every part of Scotland. In aligning themselves with the Scottish Greens, the SNP are able to comfortably pass a referendum bill and present a united front on independence in Parliament.

This strategy is not without risk for the Scottish Greens. Could entering into partnership with the Scottish government deliver an outcome akin to that faced by the Liberal Democrats as part of the Coalition? Though unlikely to be as immediately catastrophic, it is undeniable that a degree of responsibility for the Scottish government’s actions must now be taken by the Greens acting in partnership. In a few days’ time, a membership vote among Scottish Greens will decide whether these proposals are accepted.

The need for an alliance runs deeper than the constitution. With the world climate summit COP26 taking place in Glasgow in mere months, the SNP is due to face increased scrutiny on their environmental record and ambitions for a green transition. The Greens have prioritised tackling the climate emergency, and it could be argued that this partnership provides a convenient cover for the Scottish Government’s less than glowing climate credentials.

To its credit, the joint policy document does propose ambitious plans to invest in decarbonising rail, retrofitting, and a just transition fund for the North East of Scotland. Although these proposals are positive, the lack of detail falls short of tackling the challenges we face. Vague mentions of ‘green jobs’ and the ‘Scottish supply chain’ will not fill workers with confidence when considering the SNP’s past failures to harness Scotland’s manufacturing capability for green energy (Bifab). With the exception of rail, the vast majority of this programme is also entirely reliant on the private sector. The huge potential of free and municipal-owned bus travel, as championed by Glaswegian campaign ‘Free Our City’, is a missed opportunity to meet both the needs of working-class communities and the climate emergency.

On economic recovery, another opportunity is missed. The proposed condition of a real living wage for all employed through public sector grants is already supported by the fair work convention but is simply not enforced. The document also stops short of outlawing zero-hour contracts and only criticises their ‘inappropriate use’, which is not language that gives any significant power back to workers. In publicly owned and funded workplaces across Scotland, such as the SEC in Glasgow, workers are employed in precarious conditions where unionising efforts are met with hostility. These proposals fall very short of improving the reality for low paid workers in Scotland; it will not make their wages higher or their lives more secure.

The national scandal of drug- and alcohol-related death is also absent from the deal – a move that demonstrates a lack of urgency. This will undoubtedly frustrate campaigners and grieving families: after years of inaction, preventable deaths due to addiction are ever-present in working-class communities. The transformative policies necessary to restore some dignity to those suffering from addiction is, yet again, not a priority.

The most significant victory for Scotland’s working class is delivered to the housing sector, where rent controls, protections against illegal and winter evictions, and the right to own a pet in private lets have been announced. These policies demonstrate a significant transfer of power from the hands of private landlords and will make an undeniable difference to the lives of tenants. But this advance was not handed down to tenants as a kindness: it is the result of years of campaigning and branch-building by Living Rent, Scotland’s tenant union.

This articulates something crucial about the political landscape in the devolved Scottish parliament. When consistent, strong pressure is applied from below, the SNP can be pushed to the left and important concessions can be won by the working class. But we should be under no illusion: the long timeframe for these reforms to be implemented, with rent controls not due before 2025, demonstrates that the SNP will not be moved an inch too far. These reforms will also be met with resistance from Scotland’s sizeable landlord lobby, and the detail of the policy will be crucial. The fight now continues to make sure the measures are far-reaching and delivered with a sense of urgency.

On independence progress continues, but at a slow pace. The promise of a new referendum being sought after the Covid crisis presents a number of political problems, particularly the unlikelihood the pandemic will be resolved soon. When faced with possible new waves and variants, a recovery which priorities eradicating poverty and restoring dignity to workers cannot be separated from the question of Scottish independence. The case for independence is also predicated on membership of the EU, presenting issues on public ownership and currency which must be urgently resolved.

The potential independent Scotland toward which the Greens and SNP are jointly working has some glaring omissions: policies on tax-dodging green ports, private schools, NATO, and, most significantly, principles related to economic growth are excluded from the deal. In practice, this means that these more right-wing positions could be passed by the SNP with the help of the Scottish Tories.

And this gets to the heart of the predicament socialists face when assessing this deal. While advances on housing, the green economy, and bargaining for care should be celebrated, they fall short of meeting the challenges of modern Scotland. Absent from this co-operation agreement is any serious attempt to reckon with the key questions of economic ownership and class conflict. Tinkering around the edges will not redistribute wealth and power from the millionaires into the hands of the millions.

The potential for an independent Scotland cannot be separated from the economic circumstances it will inherit. Any proposals which signal real independence must address the real burning issue of the day: who owns the economy, and who is it run for?

Overall, the SNP and Green proposals for the Scottish government do not meet the challenge of our economic and climate crises with the urgency and ambition required. When socialists build power in workplaces and communities, we are able to achieve significant and meaningful change. We shouldn’t be under any illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead. We cannot rely on the promises of politicians: it is down to our collective movement to transform Scotland in the interest of the working class.