Down by the river in Greenock, the bitter remnants of the ‘Beast from the East’ blew the water into a tizzy. The waves crashed and burrowed around, with a few vessels providing those on dry land a spectacle of bravery as they bashed on through the tumult. There are some party gatherings where leaders find themselves in similarly choppy waters, but the Greens spring conference in the Beacon Arts Centre was not such an occasion.
With elections in the far-distance, the Greens used the relative calm to seek answers to policy challenges. The conference was an opportunity to flesh out where the party stood on a range of key issues, with 150 delegates on hand to help its six MSPs do just that. The gathering was therefore a continuation of the party’s recent ambition to “lead the change” in Scottish politics.
With none of the traditional resolutions to debate, the conference largely consisted of policy workshops. Some of these sought ideas on major challenges, such as tax reform, housing and Brexit. Others considered a fox hunting ban and Mark Ruskell’s Members’ Bill on 20 mph zones. Throughout the day, the wins from the recent Budget negotiations were both savoured and downplayed, with the expectation of further prizes to be extracted in a Parliament of minorities.
It was on tax reform that the biggest prize was identified. The party’s rejection of future budget negotiations without “meaningful progress” on local tax reform was explored across the day. It was emphasised repeatedly that a redistribution of tax powers to local authorities needed to become a Government priority. It was felt this would facilitate a wider devolution of powers to local authorities, thereby bring power closer to communities and allowing them a greater say in decisions. This same devolving tendency was on display during the Shelter Big Housing Debate, with calls from Andy Wightman to empower local authorities to plan and build housing which met their needs.
Brexit was also extensively discussed. All the keynote speeches, including from Leader of the Northern Irish Greens, Steven Agnew MLA, gave ample coverage to its numerous perceived negatives. Speaking during an information session about the latest developments in the withdrawal process, Ross Greer argued the concerns of post-industrial towns such as Greenock were often ignored by other parties. It was also emphasised by Patrick Harvie in his address to conference that the party would campaign to return Scotland to the EU “if this thing is done to us”.
Though the conference was a relatively calm affair, a number of policy discussions will doubtless be built on at its autumn equivalent. The hardening of the no negotiations stance would also indicate a storm could well be brewing for the Government. It remains to be seen whether it engages with the party or seeks another partner to do business with come December.
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