Welcome to conference. It’s exciting to see so many of you here, ahead of such a key election for our party: elections which will be the culmination of four extraordinary years in Scottish politics.
My original speaking instructions were to speak from the podium on the right of the stage. That didn’t feel particularly politically appropriate. So we moved the podium. But I assure you this is the last time I’ll be moved into the centre in this campaign!
Four years ago, when the independence referendum was announced, a group of white, middle aged men gathered to launch a Yes campaign which, for those who remember it, promised that independence would mean no change, that a yes vote would mean more of the same, and that Scotland leaving the UK wasn’t something the establishment should be afraid of.
We weren’t having any of it. We Greens launched our Green Yes campaign, arguing that bringing power closer to the people meant that they could use it to transform our country.
We worked with friends across the left to build the radical independence movement, and made the case that another Scotland is possible.
The job of the radical is to make hope possible, and that is what we did. And we did it in the face of those convinced by their own despair.
Thousands of people got involved, bringing life and energy to the referendum… and bringing Britain’s elite to its knees.
And we came closer than most had ever imagined. And as the Holyrood election fast approaches, friends, we’re going to have to do it all again.
As the Holyrood election approaches fast, friends, we’re going to have to do it again.
Don’t get me wrong. The SNP are popular because people compare them to the horrors of the Tory government at Westminster. And if that’s the choice, I’d choose Nicola Sturgeon every time.
But everywhere I go in Scotland, people say the same thing to me. We, as a country, are restless for change, but the government is only willing to tinker at the margins.
The SNP are sitting on a record breaking lead in the polls, but they are afraid of confronting Scotland’s biggest challenges, and they are refusing to take on the vested interests in our society.
What I hear is the echo of our message from the referendum. We came out of the referendum with the foundations of a society that expects better from its politics and its institutions. We have communities determined to stand up against injustice. We have a movement, our movement, that gives me and so many others hope – the really inspiring message that another Scotland is possible.
All across the country, we hear that people want Holyrood to be better, to be bolder.
And it’s no wonder. This week, after nine years of promising real reform to local taxation, the SNP announced their proposal: they do want to keep the council tax after all. They just want to make it very slightly more progressive than the current system: a system introduced by John Major in 1993!
Greens demand that Holyrood be bolder. Greens demand a new, fair system of local taxation, capable of raising the money our public services and communities desperately need.
It’s all too easy for this to become an abstract debate about variable rates and cut-off points and gearing.
But let’s remember what this is really about: the failure to confront this problem is what makes it so much harder for Holyrood to block Westminster’s austerity.
The SNP refusal to grasp the thistle of local taxation makes it impossible to cushion the blow of Tory cuts. And that has a real, human cost. We see suicide rates increasing. We see the need for food banks escalating. We see lives being ruined, and in some cases ended, because the Scottish Government has not been bold enough to stand up to Tory cuts.
In Dundee, Scotland’s benefit sanctions capital, I have had the privilege of working with some incredible people struggling to stay alive in the face of austerity. One intelligent young woman, let’s call her Amber, lost her job. She was told she was not entitled to benefits – her family members could support her. The same family members that had been abusing her.
She lost her home. She was told that, because she wasn’t in any immediate danger, she would have to wait for a suitable flat to become available. She lost her health. Her physical and mental wellbeing deteriorated to such an extent that she seriously contemplated suicide. She eventually managed to get a place to live and started receiving some benefits. But she missed an appointment with the Job Centre and was sanctioned. She missed the appointment because she was in bed, in the depths of depression. No one was there for her. There was no social security safety net.
Amber did, eventually, get some support, and is still fighting to stay alive. And she is one of the lucky ones – she is still alive. Just.
What I realised was that people like Amber need the Scottish Parliament to be bolder. And that’s why we need the biggest ever Green group in Holyrood. This week’s council tax disappointment isn’t the only example of the SNP being too cautious.
Last weekend in Arbroath I got speaking to a man out for a walk. Unprompted he raised with me a long list of businesses locally that used to provide good quality jobs. Companies like Keith & Blackman have gone – closed in 1985 and Giddings and Lewis-Fraser also passed into history in the mid 1980s: an industry in the town which once made sails for the Cutty Sark has gone with the wind.
As those jobs went, a new industry emerged offshore. But now, as the oil age winds down, more and more are seeing their livelihoods disappear. And those people need a bold Holyrood too, willing and able to move fast, and embrace the future.
We’ve been working hard to promote a plan for good jobs to replace those lost as the oil price has crashed. While some ask: “crisis, what crisis?” we recognise that action is important and that action must be urgent.
With a transition from fossil fuels to renewables, leading the world in decomissioning oil infrastructure, we can give not just Arbroath those jobs back, but the whole of the north east of Scotland. We can build new industry in the areas of central Scotland being hit by the move from oil. We can regenerate the communities still scarred by the closure of coal and steel in the 1980s and 90s.
We won’t stick our heads in the sand, we won’t ignore the problem and hope it goes away. We are bold enough to give people hope. Hope of a good job for the future. We are bold enough to imagine a future beyond oil. Our parliament needs that vision. That boldness.
When I was the Party’s candidate for Europe, I remember clearly going to Ullapool to campaign. I had a long conversation with the ferry workers about their day to day jobs. Having spent quite a lot of time in the Western Isles I was familiar with many of the issues. But in the 6 or 7 years since I’d been regularly in the Western Isles things have changed.
These ferry workers feared what had happened to their colleagues on the northern isles ferries – privatisation. Northlink has been handed over to Serco. The result has been longer hours, lower wages, less focus on health and safety. I realised then the need for a bold voice. One that would stand up for those ferry workers.
I said then to the ferry workers that we would never support privatisation. And we won’t. We believe that public transport should be in public hands.
That goes for Scotrail too…
I, like many, was very disturbed by the story of Andrew Stoddart in East Lothian. As Sarah Beattie-Smith, our amazing candidate for the South of Scotland, can tell you much better than I can, the Stoddart family had been farming Coulston Mains for 22 years when the lease expired, with no hope of challenging it due to Scotland’s ‘Waygo’ laws. His family lost their home, the farm, their livelihoods. The two workers they had employed also lost their means to survive.
It is clear to me that our governments have failed to protect people like Andrew Stoddart and his family. We need laws that protect those who work the land, who make the land productive, who live off the land and provide for others. Greens wouldn’t cave in to the vested interests on support for tenant farmers.
There has been much discussion over the last few months about standardised testing: the SNP solution is straight from the Blairite playbook. Thinking for the past when we need solutions for the future. Similarly we discover that the Scottish Government is looking to the big corporations who make profit from unemployment to guide their review of social security. Not good enough. Simply not good enough.
These are just some of the challenges that we face in Scotland today. We know that we, as greens, have alternatives to these challenges. Nine years ago, as a councillor in Edinburgh, I proposed that the City Council should pay its workers a Living Wage.
The other parties laughed at the idea. Now, Living Wage is understood, across Scotland, and across the political spectrum, as what we should be doing. Greens were instrumental in bringing radical democratic ideas into the mainstream with our support for participatory budgeting.
In Parliament, Greens have secured significant wins since 1999, including the world-leading climate change targets, the Fans First campaign that gives football fans the right to buy their clubs, and the first Green bill – on aggravation by hate. We were the first party to commit to free higher education following the Tory’s £9,000 tuition fees in 2010. Labour and the SNP followed us.
We’re on a journey. For some of us that started with the first Scottish Parliament, for others with the referendum, and for some since. All the way we have prompted, cajoled and – stage by stage – given Scottish politics its radical edge.
This election is the latest staging post on that journey. It won’t see us reach our destination, but it will get us damn close. The stakes have never been higher. And we have never been stronger.
We must have a bolder Parliament, a braver Holyrood. We must have a Green Holyrood. We have made hope possible. Now we need to make change inevitable. It will be hard work. But it will be fun work. And we know it is the important work that can transform our country and our world.
So join me, join all of our candidates – all of our soon-to-be MSPs – in bringing us a big step closer to a Better Scotland.