Opposition parties can achieve so much when they refrain from needlessly posturing or being opportunistic
There are not many greater examples of why a country needs a principled, effective opposition than that of the feeble Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn at Westminster. The Tories have created so much uncertainty over our future relationship with Europe and Theresa May’s government is going unchallenged as she begins to implement tax cuts for big corporations and fossil fuel giants. Further still, her utterly unjust plans to increase the threshold at which higher earners pay the additional rate of income tax, show that now more than ever we need politicians who will stand up and represent the many, not the few.
It can be easy to forget that the Tories won the General Election in 2015 with the narrowest of seat majorities, on just over a third of the vote, yet in 2017 the government is exercising power almost unchecked. We have learned from recent elections not to read too much into opinion polling, but with some polls showing Corbyn’s Labour languishing 17 points behind the Conservatives, it seems that kicking out the Tories at a General Election would be an insurmountable task for Labour alone.
Greens know that the electoral systems in this country create a certain order for achieving government. For example, it is highly unlikely that a party that finishes third or fourth in a previous election could then go on to win the next election. Political parties understandably feel the need to establish themselves as an effective opposition before they can be intrusted with the keys to government.
We are also aware that Greens are not the ‘official’ opposition in the Scottish Parliament, but that does not stop us from trying. 2016 was a good year for our small, but vocal group of MSPs who are determined to use the next four years showing the electorate what a constructive and determined opposition party can achieve when it refrains from needlessly posturing, or being opportunistic in its dealing with the government.
In 2017, Alison Johnstone has already convinced the health secretary to commit to supporting the roll-out of a successful Glasgow anti-poverty project across all of Scotland. The project trains health workers and midwives to assist families to maximise their income. Among other types of help, it does that by helping them access support to apply for benefits to which they are entitled but often don’t claim because of a lack of understanding about benefits or a hesitancy to approach the benefit authorities.
We are proud to have Alison in our ranks, an MSP dedicated to improving public health and boosting incomes for those in most need. At the very end of 2016, she led a Holyrood debate on extending maternity and paternity leave and expenses for parents of premature babies. Alison highlighted how if a baby is born early the mother’s maternity leave starts straight away and the end of that leave is brought forward with current law not allowing it to be extended.
Of course, no part of being a constructive opposition means that you forgo your duties of holding the government to task on a daily basis. For example, analysis by my Green colleague Andy Wightman shows that at the current rate it would take the Scottish Government almost 25 years to help all of the 748,000 homes in fuel poverty in Scotland with its HEEPs programme, which assisted 30,000 homes in 2014-15. Those people living in fuel poverty cannot wait a quarter of a century for government help.
Our opposition is very different to that of Ruth Davidson’s, who wishes we would forget that it’s her party in power at Westminster. It is deeply troubling that the UK's response to the refugee crisis is being led by a Prime Minister who while Home Secretary sent infamous Go Home vans into our communities and who wants to build a wall in Calais. Ross Greer has been doing a fine job of campaigning for asylum policy to be devolved to Holyrood, while highlighting how during the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, Scotland was limited to welcoming 1,000 refugees. Scotland can and would take in many thousands more if only we had the ability to do so.
These are just some of the examples of the hard work of the Green group in Parliament in those short seven months since the election. Every one of our six MSPs believes that opposition parties can make a difference and that it’s a pointless existence if you only go to Holyrood to score points, rather than helping to improve the lives of people in Scotland.
We can’t wait to get started again in 2017, because we need a strong and constructive opposition at Holyrood and we need progressive forces joining together to take on the Tories. If Jeremy Corbyn and Labour won’t do it, someone desperately has to.
This article first appeared in The National.