GE24 Party Profile: Scottish Green Party


If in my profile for the Lib Dems I talked about them being the invisible party, then at Westminster the Greens are perhaps the irrelevant party. Although they’ve had a prominent role at Holyrood and some councils in recent years, culminating in their not-quite-three-year spell as part of the Scottish Government, their impact in UK elections is negligible. That comes down to two interrelated features of those votes.

Firstly, this is the only entirely non-proportional election we have in Scotland. Although popular narrative attributes their presence at Holyrood to “tactical voting” on the list, in reality the Greens perform consistently better across all other elections. Not just Holyrood but Local and, when we had them, European elections always have much higher Green vote shares. Yet Westminster is purely First Past the Post, giving the party very little chance. They know it, and the public knows it. As a result, they get far fewer votes at these elections than any other.

On top of that and despite the Electoral Commission’s recommendations to the contrary, the UK maintains a system of £500 deposits to stand in the first place. £500 may not sound like a lot, but it adds up pretty quickly to tens of thousands once you’re standing everywhere. That has done the job it is intended to do and has limited the ability of the Greens (and other smaller parties) to even stand candidates, as they balance the benefit of doing so versus the most effective use of limited resources.

All of that said, whilst the Greens aren’t going to win any seats at Westminster, their impact won’t be entirely zero. From the party’s perspective, standing in these elections offers an opportunity to skill-up activists, maintain contact with voters, and work towards more success at those other, proportional elections. There is also the possibility that in some very tight races, the presence (or not) of a Green candidate could make the difference to the outcome.


Seats Contested

To illustrate that point about careful use of resources, the period these pieces tracks started right in the middle of the Scottish Green Party’s pre-referendum peak. In 2003’s “Rainbow Parliament” they had won 7 seats at the Scottish Parliament, a remarkable level of success. Yet despite that, at the 2005 UK election they only stood in just under a third of seats, a relatively low contest rate, because Westminster just wasn’t that worth the money. Although they fell back to 2 MSPs in 2007, they stood an additional candidate in 2010.

As the Greens were the only other Pro-Independence party at Holyrood, their profile was given a huge boost in the run up to 2014. That contributed to a surge in membership after the referendum, and also to a desire on the part of invigorated branches to stand rather more widely in 2015. For example, the Glasgow branch of the party had only intended on standing in 4 of the city’s then-7 seats, with the other 3 being complete no-hopers. After the surge, the excitement led to the branch standing across the city.

That was however followed by a rather mortifying slate of just 3 candidates in 2017. This was entirely down to the cost of deposits, with the close of nominations for the general election coming one week after the local elections. The Greens had already committed most of their resource to what they expected to be the final election in that cycle: 2014 EU, 2015 UK, 2016 Scottish, 2017 Locals, then a break until presumably 2020 due to Brexit and Fixed Term Parliament Act.

They were never going to be able to stump up thousands in deposits for a snap election they couldn’t have planned for, nor would it have made any sense whatsoever to divert resource from a proportional election they could win seats in to an FPTP one they couldn’t. When another snap rolled around in 2019, the Greens were a little better prepared for it, even after unexpected final EU elections earlier that year. They were able to put forward what was to that point their second highest number of candidates, though they still came up short of replicating things like the 2015 full slate in Glasgow.

This year, the Greens are standing in a record 44 constituencies. That’s precisely double their 2019 tally, though due to the slight reduction in Scottish MP numbers, it’s a bit more than double the proportion. Overall, it means there’s a Green candidate in over three-quarters of seats in Scotland, some for the very first time. Indeed, Inverclyde has never had the option to vote Green at anything other than Holyrood regional or European level, but they are standing in the new Inverclyde and Renfrewshire West seat.

Despite that spread, there are some notable absences. Dundee Central is a particularly glaring one to me, as you’d think one of the country’s major cities would be a core Green area, particularly given they did quite well in a few Dundee wards in 2022 and should be looking to build on that to actually win councillors in 2027. Similarly, the Greens were actually the third party across Perthshire in 2021, yet haven’t got any candidates in the Big County. Yet they are present in plenty of key marginals the SNP are defending or want to gain, including all three border seats, the northern Highlands, and Lothian East.

Vote Shares

As the Scottish Greens have never won an MP, obviously this section is only looking at vote shares. Instead of seats, the secondary component to this chart is the Greens’ share across contested seats. Their “actual” share had they stood in every constituency at each election would be somewhere in the middle of the two lines, as they tend to stand in the constituencies they’d do best in anyway.

Despite the varying level of contesting, there are nonetheless some useful things we can see across the elections. The fact the party’s support fell by both measures between 2005 and 2010 despite standing in roughly the same number of seats likely reflects the significant difference between their Rainbow Parliament prominence and their much weaker presence afterwards.

Their 2015 share placed them behind UKIP in raw numbers, but ahead in contested seats. The 2017 spike in share in contested seats is one to just completely ignore, coming as it did from just 3 constituencies, including their strongest in the country. Although the contested share in 2019 matched 2015, it’s notable that was in fewer (and thus a more favourable subset of) seats. That comparatively weaker result then speaks to a particularly intense tactical squeeze that year, failing to hold deposits anywhere they stood.

At time of writing, the BBS poll average for the Greens (last updated on the 10th of June) was 3.9%, representing a quadrupling of their vote compared to 2019. This is however an incomplete picture, due to their limited slate of candidates in 2019 and because not all polls break the Greens out separately. Their “real” 2019 share would thus be somewhat higher, though it’s not possible to say exactly how much, whilst their current average includes a degree of extrapolating “missing” figures for the relevant polls.

Possible Outcomes

Note: Obviously, your personal perception of a good or bad result will depend on how much you like a given party. For the purposes of this piece, good and bad relate to how an impartial observer might view the result, taking into account other elections and the general situation facing that party. They are not a commentary on whether such results would be good or bad for the country.

Good Result

Well, the Greens still aren’t going to win a seat, nor are they going to come anywhere close to doing so. Instead, this is going to be about deposits and vote share. They didn’t get a single deposit back in 2019, or in other words, didn’t get 5% of the vote in a single constituency. They’ll want to do better than that this time, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

If they can come away with a small handful of held deposits in the two big cities, they can at least say they did relatively alright for a small party that always gets squeezed by the nature of the voting system. A really good result would be if they held deposits in seats outside the two big cities – think places Orkney and Shetland or Lothian East for some of their best shots at that.

Overall, allowing for the fact their expanded slate of candidates also includes weaker areas, they probably want to at least double their vote (to 2%) in order to feel they got a half decent share. If they could squeak across 3% despite being absent in a quarter of seats, they’d be able to say they’d more than doubled their previous top share, giving them at least something positive and meaningful to take away from what is usually their most muted election.

Bad Result

If every single penny they had to spend on deposits stays in the pockets of the electoral authorities. Simple as that. Not getting very many votes overall is not going to be a particular concern for the Greens at Westminster. It wasn’t in 2015, which was followed by what was then their second-best ever Holyrood result the following year. Nor was it an issue in 2019, followed 18 months later by their best ever result. Similarly, both the 2017 and 2022 local elections saw records set for Scottish Green candidates, vote shares, and councillors.

In this respect there are similarities with the Green Party of England and Wales. It has recently often done very poorly at Westminster votes, whilst their pile of local councillors has grown and grown and grown. If the UK didn’t insist on using an unrepresentative voting system, the Greens (and Reform UK) would follow the Western European norm with a significant presence at all levels. Even so, if they can’t cross even the 2% mark, they’ll have reason to be somewhat unhappy, I reckon.

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