Sunday 8 March 2015

A Labour Majority, Not a Labour/SNP Coalition

It's been a very bad week for the PM. His reputation has taken a beating in the media all because he refuses to debate face-to-face with Ed Miliband. The problem is, if you're trying to make an election all about personalities - as the Tories have been doing - then it's generally not a good idea to put yours through the wringer, especially when it's your team's prime asset. What then to do? The Tories have got nothing to say on policy, having chosen an entirely negative and counter-productive programme. The only option is to find new mud to throw, and they think it's been found: Labour might do a deal with the SNP.

I find my time for Ed Balls fast diminishing these days (more on that after the election), but he was right to rule out a formal coalition with the Scottish nationalists back when it was first mooted. Ed on the other hand has neither ruled it in nor out, so Dave has pounced. He has argued that a Lab/SNP deal would be the general election's worst outcome. "You could end up with an alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Britain and the people who want to break up Britain" says the man currently overseeing soaring government borrowing, and whose cowardice saw responsibility for saving the union ceded to the previous prime minister. That there's not much stomach in the Labour Party for a deal, and I suspect the same is true of the SNP as well, this offers a space for more scaremongering. I can see it now, Labour willing to swap nukes and the union for nice ministerial salaries.

A distillation of conservative fears can be found in this execrable piece by Allan Massie. The SNP directed a "braying nationalist mob" outside BBC offices, believe in high spending and high taxes, want to scrap nuclear weapons, and the worst crime of all - they do not "respect property rights". This is Scotland North Korean-stylee under Kim Jong Sturgeon. What's worse, seat stacking arithmetic means these policies can swoop far south of the Gretna Green demilitarised zone well before Scotland consciously uncouples itself and sails off into the North Atlantic.

Massie does have one point, and this is something Dave's banking on. Among many other things, UKIP is also kneejerk English nationalism clinging on to made-up traditions and a past that never existed. Both would be boosted by a sense of grievance that Scottish nationalists are dictating policy. Never mind that Scotland was the proving ground for the poll tax, and saw its oil money frittered away by Thatcher and Major in huge tax cuts for the rich. This is an opportunity for UKIP and the Tories both, and this is one scrap in the gutter Farage and Dave's successor will be happy to have. There will be no anti-Scottish bandwagon they won't chase after. That's for the future. In the mean time Dave's going to be playing the nudge, nudge, wink, wink game of Labour's parliamentary strings getting pulled from Edinburgh.

However, where the right have put a minus some on the left have stuck a big fat plus. Some outside the Labour Party see Dave's worst outcome morph into the least worst eventuality. The logic is simple. The SNP will keep Labour honest. While the latter offers austerity lite, as a condition for support - whether as a formal coalition or confidence and supply - one assumes the SNP will live up to their rhetoric and demand the ridiculous and counter-productive programme of cuts be abandoned. Sounds attractive, doesn't it? Doubters might point to the record of Alex Salmond as first minister, which was neoliberal with a few bits added on. However, the SNP is different now for two reasons. Nicola Sturgeon, by all accounts, is a genuine centre left type. Another time and place she could quite easily have been a Scottish Labour leader, were she not also a nationalist. There is also the SNP surge. Right now we are living through what I think is the highest tide of Scottish nationalism. After next year's Holyrood elections the tide will start flowing out again. In the mean time, the SNP is stuffed to the rafters with tens of thousands of new members of a left-wing bent. In many ways, just as UKIP are a Tory home from home, so the SNP has become something of a camp for ex-Labourists. They are just as volatile as their counterparts down in England and Wales, and will cause their leadership trouble should they "sell-out". Sturgeon therefore has incentive to match her policy commitments to her oratory.

The problem is getting the outcome of a SNP-supported Labour government is actually quite tricky. In the first place, many of the people I've seen advocating this "option" mainly live in England and aren't prepared to vote for Labour themselves. Not having the courage to support your favoured option at the ballot box is not a good start. The second point is to be careful what you wish for. Ignoring the silliness of a grand coalition, if Labour are forced into backroom understandings with other parties because the SNP have gobbled up loads of Scottish seats, what's to make you think the SNP will be first in the queue? Do not forget that the odious LibDems will still be in Westminster contention. If Labour doesn't get a majority, the yellows will be more than happy to prop up another Tory administration. Failing that, it won't be difficult for them to put a "left" face on again and try and cosy up to the PLP with confidence and supply. Vote anti-austerity and get austerity-lite.

Something else might happen instead. The SNP threat could wag the Labour dog. Suppose Labour retains enough Scottish seats to push it over the majority threshold. To prepare for Holyrood 2016, and rebuild its withered base across the country requires a turn away from policies that kick its supporters in the teeth. The Tories never make this mistake, and it's high time our party learned not to do it too. There is a possibility, especially if not-all-that-unlikely personnel changes are made post-election, that a different course is chartered to head off threats from the SNP, UKIP, and Greens. The Tories have no hesitation fitting their programme around their immediate needs, even if it could damage British capital as a whole. The difference being that if we do what is necessary, the conditions of life for millions of people improves along with our future political prospects.

That is why a Labour majority is the best outcome at the general election.


Speedy said...

"I can see it now, Labour willing to swap nukes and the union for nice ministerial salaries."

Well, yes.

Sturgeon has already said she will not die in a ditch over Trident, so the deal is done.

Ironically, in policy terms, i am one of those lefties who agree the SNP is more left than Labour, so that's not a bad thing.

However, it will also be the death of the Union, in one way or another. Watching Wolf Hall DVD today - it is interesting to see how such momentous events occurred in almost pedestrian fashion, by increments. And so it has been with the break up of Britain since 1997. Base electoral advantage (like Henry 8th's lust), blinkered ideology and arrogance leading to a fractured society, and maybe worse.

David Timoney said...

You point out that Alex Salmond pursued a neoliberal policy as first minister but suggest that Nicola Sturgeon is "a genuine centre left type". It's worth recalling that Salmond was a member of the avowedly socialist 79 Group and was expelled from the SNP as a result in the 80s. Mind you, Tony Blair was still claiming to be a socialist in those days too.

You should also bear in mind that the 55:45 result of the independence referendum was due to the large number of Labour supporters attracted to "yes" being outweighed by the even larger number of SNP supporters who quietly voted "no" to protect their pensions and other financial interests. Also, remember that the secular shift in Scottish politics has not been the SNP eating Labour support, but the SNP substituting for the Tories. The Scottish Conservative vote has not evaporated.

Labour and the SNP will cut a deal, if one is feasible, because they are not that far apart ideologically, though they will each accentuate certain policy differences for emblematic reasons. The bottom line is that they're both right-of-centre these days.

Iain Roberts said...

"[Cameron's] cowardice saw responsibility for saving the union ceded to the previous prime minister"

Cameron may be evil but he's not entirely stupid. For an Old Etonian aristocrat to lecture Scots on how they should stay in the Union would be counterproductive. He gave a few speeches in the referendum campaign, because as Prime Minister he had to; but it was only sensible for him to keep a low profile and leave most of the job to actual Scots.

Anonymous said...

BTW, the Socialist Party Scotland have severed links with Solidarity because Sheridan's outfit has called on Scots to vote SNP in May. There has also been a split in the Socialist Appeal group with the majority moving with the leadership to join the Scottish Socialist Party while those who have left remain within the Labour Party.