Increasingly, the Greens are the adults in the room
As the Lothian MSP and longtime stalwart for Scottish community land and housing reform, Andy Wightman took the floor of the Holyrood chamber, a look of exasperation ran across his face. Three days earlier on 19th May all three of his rent control amendments to the Scottish Coronavirus bill, a package of emergency measures put together by the Scottish government, were defeated by a pro-landlord (and in some cases landlords themselves) bloc of SNP and Scottish Tory MSPs. Juddering with frustration, Wightman delivered an impassioned rebuttal to the Scottish government’s Housing minister, Kevin Stewart, who had previously told him in a condescending manner, perhaps indicative of a party in power for thirteen years, to pipe down. “They do not represent the interests of tenants”, Wightman declared in reference to the propertied interests Stewart had been parroting; “they are landlords!” In under a minute the Green MSP and spokesperson for local government, land and housing, had given the house a much-needed introductory lesson in class politics.
The rejection of rent controls and other emergency measures to stop evictions by SNP MSPs was undoubtedly a sad moment for progressive Scottish politics. The director of the anti-homelessness charity Shelter said in response to the defeated amendments: “it is hard to see now what is going to prevent a tidal wave of evictions sweeping people into homelessness services which were barely coping before the pandemic.” Many on the nationalists’ left flank were outraged with the SNP trade union group leader Rory Steel claiming online that he “[could not] understand why [the] SNP didn’t back a single of Andy Wightman’s amendments”.
As disappointing as the move was, it should not be entirely surprising given the party's often cosy rapport with the private rental sector in the past. Days after the vote the former SNP MP George Kerevan pointed to the revolving-door relationship between the Scottish government and the housing industry. Back in 2014 Nicola Sturgeon appointed the industry man Gerry More as its ‘Private Rental Sector Champion’, a post that involved securing public money for new investments in the private rental sector. Two years later in 2016 More lobbied MSPs in order to stop the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill from introducing rent controls in Scotland.
The point here is not to totally trash the SNP’s progressive credentials nor to deny the very real, concrete good that the party has done for Scotland which ranges from banning fracking to abolishing prescription charges and redistributing income via changes to the tax system. As a Corbyn-supporting Londoner that arrived in Scotland in September 2017 I was deeply impressed and won over by the reforming zeal of the nationalists’ politics as well as the hopeful and avid enthusiasm of its considerable activist base. Instead of blanket criticism, the lesson that progressives and the left in Scotland should take from the recent Holyrood rent debacle is that the SNP cannot be relied upon for everything. Whether it’s greenhouse gas emissions targets that could be more ambitious or real reform to local taxation, often a more radical voice is required. Andy Wightman’s clash with the Scottish government over his challenge to the country’s landlord class also brings up broader, more general issues with the nationalists’ brand of politics. When Mrs Sturgeon plays the populist, she likes to pin most of Scotland’s problems on the Westminster parliament which, after a decade of austerity and lost wage growth imposed from London, often rings true. This however doesn’t work quite so well when, like with the landlordism of the Holyrood government, the problem looks more homegrown.
This might suggest an avenue of possibility for Scottish Labour, which since 2017 has been led by Richard Leonard, a self-described ‘radical’ and ‘socialist’. At the launch of his campaign ahead of the general election last year he promised an “economy that works for all” and, borrowing an archetypal slogan of the independence movement he declared “another Scotland is possible”. The trouble, however with Leonard’s use of such lofty rhetoric involves a perennial flaw in the party’s politics north of the border and something that appeared glaringly obvious to me when I drifted away from my old Labour loyalties. It promises progressive change to the Scottish people and then rejects the most practical and immediate way of delivering it: self-government. Since Scotland’s largest trade union, Unison, voted to back another independence referendum back in February, Leonard has only doubled down on his opposition to self-determination and as ever the party seems more interested in a slavish adherence to unionism than it is with socialism or class. With 54% of Scots now backing independence according to one poll, one has to ask whether the Labour leader is occupying the same political reality as everyone else.
This all brings us back to Mr Wightman’s party: the Scottish Greens, and where my own political allegiances have now wound up at. Between the dogmatic unionism of Labour and the at times, lacking governance of the SNP, green voices at Holyrood have provided an invaluable influence. Being a radicalizing force on the left of Scottish politics and the independence movement, the Greens have managed to secure a number of vitally important policy concessions from the Scottish government. Through a confidence and supply arrangement with the SNP since 2016 local government has been given £428 million of extra funding, low-earners have been given a tax cut paid for by the wealthiest and climate change targets have been considerably strengthened. With a view to the momentous Holyrood elections next year, progressive Scotland should take note.