A Labour-SNP coalition after May? Stranger things have happened (just).

by Sunder Katwala

Could Labour and the Liberal Democrats govern together, despite their current animosities? It would be unwise to rule anything out about what is a very unpredictable electoral environment in 2015. But we might have a Lab-Lib government in five weeks rather than four years, once the Scottish elections take place on May 5.

Who governs Scotland may be the biggest unknown about May’s elections.

Labour, having performed extraordinarily well in Scotland in the British general election last May, remains favourite to top the poll, though SNP first minister, Alex Salmond, remains the dominant public figure in Scottish politics, and the latest polls are neck and neck.

If Labour can emerge ahead of the SNP in the PR election, it will have to decide whether to seek to govern alone or with coalition partners.

The favoured option of many Scottish MSPs and MPs is for a minority government, on the model of that run by Alex Salmond since 2007. A fixed term parliament makes this possible. And there are many MPs and MSPs who wish that Labour had governed alone when it was last in office. Introducing PR for local government has been particularly unpopular with several in the Labour tribe.

But there is a good counter-argument that it would be in Labour’s long-term interests to build bridges to the Liberal Democrats. The broad assumption is that Scottish Liberal Democrats would jump at the opportunity, assuming they manage to salvage some Holyrood presence. They expect a very tough election, with Nick Clegg’s personal ratings (-58, with 17% approval and 75% disapproval in one poll this month) suggesting he could astonishingly outstrip even Margaret Thatcher for Scottish unpopularity. Tory prime minister, David Cameron’s, rating is just -36. The Scottish party is culturally uncomfortable with the Clegg-Cameron love-in. But joining a centre-left coalition would also add credence to their claim that their coalition choices, as in Westminster in May, depend primarily on the cards that the electorate deal them. (And it will be a long time before there are the votes to bring the Cameron-Clegg dream to North Britons). Being in government with Labour in Edinburgh and the Tories in Westminster could deepen a reputation for unprincipled opportunism.

Labour must aim for a Westminster majority in 2015. But its path to government may also depend on detaching the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives. And a Scottish deal would create jitters among coalitionist Tories, after almost all attempts to promote longer-term alliances or pacts have gone unrequited.

But a Lab-Lib Dem coalition which sees the yellows dressing to the left up north and to the right down south is not the most eye-catching or unconventional outcome.

The most intriguing theory that I have heard floated is that Labour’s best option if it is the largest party could be to offer to form a coalition with the SNP. On first hearing, this seems impossible. There is probably no political rivalry in British politics- some of those in Northern Ireland perhaps excepted – which contains more animosity than that between Labour and the SNP.

But a Labour-Nationalist coalition has been possible in Wales, and the idea has been privately raised that Labour ought to be considering this unthinkable option in Scotland too.

The argument has three pillars, though Labour leader Iain Gray is far from persuaded that it would be a serious or viable option.

First, while Alex Salmond has shown that a minority government can be stable, he has demonstrated too how little it can achieve. And such a hand-to-mouth existence may be more difficult for a single party government which will inevitably have to make spending cuts given the devolved budget settlement. (And the SNP is able to rely on tacit support from the Tories which would be more difficult for Labour). Governing alone after 2011 may be a gift to the opposition.

Second, making the offer as the largest party – from a position of strength – does not necessarily entail forming such a coalition. In fact, the decision would then fall to the SNP, which claims to be Scotland’s party. It can be argued that the outcome is win-win for Labour. Were the SNP to accept a position as junior coalition partner in a Labour-led government, then it would be possible to govern. A refusal could prove risky – and would weaken SNP arguments against an alternative coalition or minority government.

Third, this Parliament will have to address some very difficult specific issues. One of the most politically challenging will be university funding. There is little appetite in Scotland for emulating the choices which the coalition has made in England, particularly in the scale of student fees and the extent to which the state has withdrawn. But there will be growing pressure from the country’s leading universities to address a growing funding gap with their English peers through a more moderate package which does require some student support.

A good way to approach such contentious issues would be to resurrect the broad civic engagement and coalition-building which paved the way for devolution through the Scottish constitutional convention. A broader government might be best placed to do that.

It could also be argued – though this would be highly contentious with both rival tribes – that the Labour-SNP animosity runs so deep in part as a reflection of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences. Both parties claim to be within the democratic socialist or social democratic tradition. Scottish Labour has taken on a more Scottish identity, defending the benefits of the union but not wanting to concede the saltire to the SNP. It is possible to be patriotic about Scotland without favouring the end of the union. But this in turn may mean accepting that the honest disagreeement about independence – which all agree depends on the consent of the Scottish people – does not make the constitutional separatism treachery.

The prospect of independence has receded, perhaps for some time, given the economic difficulties of Ireland and the Scandinavian states which formed Alex Salmond’s arc of prosperity. An indepedendence referendum in the near future would be bad news for the SNP, as it would be likely to close the issue for a couple of decades at least. The constitutional question may be rather less of a barrier to hypothetical cooperation than it would have been in 1999.

Labour is more likely to govern alone, or to form an uneasy alliance with the Liberal Democrats. But there are more permutations than we tend to acknowledge in the three-dimensional chess game of pluralist British politics in the age of devolution.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the fabian society. He blogs his personal views – read more at www.nextleft.org

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20 Responses to “A Labour-SNP coalition after May? Stranger things have happened (just).”

  1. John Ruddy says:

    An interesting piece, and you’re right that – if you put aside the independance argument – the two parties have similar policies. However, the SNP do have a tendancy to adopt Lib Dem-type tactics – in some areas they will appear more left wing to attract the anti-tory vote (my own area in the north east, for instance), whilst in others they will appear to the right of Labour in order to challenge us better – in areas such as Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

    If there was such a deal, it simply can’t be done with Salmond as leader of the SNP – for one thing his ego wont take it. I could see Nicola Sturgeon taking over and keeping her deputy FM role – or even John Swinney.

    I know it would be hard for many in the Labour party to swallow – but it would be harder for many activists in the SNP. Sunder – check out some of the most vicious personal bile on the internet which the “cybernats” dish out to Scottish Labour. I dont claim that we’ve got everything right, but there is no electoral contest in these island to match the diatribe from the SNP – and i DO include NI politics in that.

    I simply dont think it will happen, but I’d like to see Iain Gray call Salmonds bluff.

  2. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    The deal-breaker here is Salmond. He’s popular, whereas Gray is entirely unknown – we’ve just had a poll where he comes third behind Goldie as preferred First Minister. There’s a reason that on the List Vote the SNP run as ‘SNP – Alex Salmond for First Minister’.

    Even if Salmond wasn’t monstrously arrogant, he’s too popular relative to Gray not to be First Minister in any coalition government. Five times as many people want him for the job than want Gray, so he’d feel entirely justified in demanding that.

  3. David Talbot says:

    This article is almost too technocratic and overlooks one key thing; Salmond hates the Labour party. He also hates West Coast Presbyterians, which happen to supply the bulk of the Labour party support in Scotland. As a Bearsden boy I can sympathise all too well with the those in Scottish Labour who will have nothing to do with the SNP, their dose of bigotry is the almost accepted face of British descrimination.

    That and I fully expect Labour to come out as the largest party, they may fall just short of a majority but they will have the largest number of seats. Remember in 2007, just before our dear Blair departed, Labour were deeply unpopular – perhaps more so than in 2010 when Brown secured a very credible result in Scotland. An absolute delight would be see Nicola Sturgeon lose her seat in Glasgow Govan, and other SNP seats such as Kilmarnock and Cunninghame North could easily fall. Those three along would make Labour the biggest party and hopefully beyond a far-sighted coalition with Salmond’s SNP.

  4. Henrik says:

    Really, what’s it matter? Scotland will be out of the Union soon enough, in any case – I suspect given independence, whether it wants it or not. Cheerio, good luck, thanks for the last 300-and-odd years, write if you find work and bonne chance with maintaining your current level of public expenditure with just the Scottish tax base to work with.

  5. Bill MacLeod says:

    Dream on! “Scottish” Labour is just another London puppet, same as “Scottish” Lib-Dem and Scottish Conservatives.

  6. Sunder Katwala says:

    I agree that it would be very unlikely there would be a Labour-SNP Coalition, though I didn’t invent the hypothesis that making this offer could be in Labour’s interest.

    (and I agree it might tend towards the technocratic, and miss the visceral barriers).

    The responses so far suggest
    – Labour would have to swallow hard to make the offer;
    – the SNP would find it much harder to accept it …. and would probably refuse, and it is likely that most people would believe that the main reason would have been Salmond’s ego (unwillingness to be deputy)/hatred of Labour?

    Which raises the questions behind this. Would a Labour-led administration better off making such an offer if it then resulted in either or both of the main scenarios ….

    (a) it led to the SNP being junior partners in government, rather than the main opposition (quite possibly with Salmond not being the lead SNP minister in government in the unlikely scenario)

    This might be open. It could be a stronger government of unlikely partners, or it might prove unworkable in practice if both governing parties were always and only jockeying to contest the 2016 election from the start.

    (b) it led to the SNP refusing, before becoming the main opposition, and before Labour then chooses to govern alone or with the Libdems.

    In this scenario, I find it hard to see how the SNP position is not weakened by refusing a genuine and honest offer of this kind.

    Which suggests the idea that Labour could consider making the offer is not entirely daft ….

  7. John Ruddy says:

    And Bill’s comment is why I dont think you’ll see it happen. On the other hand, there seems to be a cosying up of the SNP and the Tories – last nights leaders debate showed that quite clearly.

    Currently many SNP activists are going around saying that the only way to prevent the Tories from ruining Scotland is independance – I wonder how they’ll spin that when they go into coalition to keep Labour out?

  8. iain ker says:

    bonne chance with maintaining your current level of public expenditure with just the Scottish tax base to work with.


    Nwesflash – there *is* no Scottish tax base.

    CF The Times who calculated that 279,000 resident Scots make a net contribution to the Exchequer.

    The rest, I’m afraid, are on the take.

    An Inconvenient Truth for the separatists. (The Scottish ones at least)

  9. Murph Diver says:

    @Iain Ker
    Iain, or can I call you ‘Juan’?

    Do you believe everything you read in the Murdoch press?

    The “too wee, too poor, too stupid” argument is dead and buried, the Scottish people have had enough of your imperialist lies.

  10. Mike Small says:

    You’ve got to love the comments warning about the terrible cybernats and their terrible bullying, closely followed by Henriks comment. Hilarious.

  11. iain ker says:

    Murph Diver (You see what he’s doing there)

    ‘Iain, or can I call you ‘Juan’?’


    Many’s a time I’ve played the Glasgow halls. And they say there, and they’re right, ‘therr’s nuthin wurrs than a heckler wi’ nae pa’er.’

    I don’t believe everything I read in the Murdoch press, do you believe everything you read in the Daily Record?

    If you’d like, perhaps, to come up with an alternative figure to 279,000 and sourced thoughtnot.

  12. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Sunder – there might be good reasons to make the offer, although we shouldn’t underestimate Salmond’s ability to pull something from nothing – we need to be ready for him to make unreasonable demands and then claim Labour are acting in bad faith if we reject them.

    But I wouldn’t expect too much benefit from making the SNP reject power. Their support doesn’t come from being a responsible party, it comes from ideology, populism, exploiting latent anti-Labour feeling and being all things to all men. Much like the Lib Dems in fact.

    Like the Lib Dems, the only way to weaken them is to give them power and let them screw it up. The difficulty here is that Salmond hasn’t done so sufficiently.

    In the meantime, I’d suggest that the Greens might turn out to be a better coalition partner than the Lib Dems.

  13. Murph Diver says:

    Juan, your accent reads atrociously. You are indeed the Dick Van Dyke of crap Glasgow accents. I don’t need “patter” to deal with the likes of you.

    Why on earth should I also believe anything I read in the Record either?

    A statement such as that merely underscores how little you obviously know of Scotland, its politics and the stances of the various newspapers. I am embarrassed for you.

    Coalition with Iain Grey and his bunch of second-raters? In yer dreams, pal. Better look for some other straw to grasp, that ones waterlogged.

    We don’t need you, we don’t want you and when we get our own government and wish to introduce socialist policies on our own terms, it certainly won’t be the Labour Party in England we come looking to for advice.

    Face it, your empire is dead, your country is bankrupt and your party is finished. Denial will only prolong your suffering.
    Ta-ta now…..

  14. John Ruddy says:

    You dont think the attitude of “cybernats” is appaling? I may disagree with someones political beliefs – think them misguided or quite simply wrong, but I would never use the the kind of personal abuse hurled at Labour (and to a certain extent other non-nationalist) politicians and activist daily by those people online expousing the nationalist point of view. I sometimes wonder if these people have a problem with their blood pressure the amount of bile they use.

    I have never seen anything similar done in return to SNP figures, and if it does happen it must happen rarely. But we have Labour front benchers (whatever you may think of their abilities) described in the most appaling ways – sometimes denigrating their appearance or their sexuality or worse. And thats before we come to the manic obsession with other parties calling themselves “Scottish”!

    The subtext you hear is “you’re not really Scottish if you dont vote for us” and “Only the SNP can represent Scotland”. Well, no, it cant – other parties, with members, supporters and representatives who live in Scotland can also represent Scotland.

    The desire to paint other parties as “controlled by London” is perverse too – even when at the same time, I’ve seen SNP politicians try to claim that Scottish Labour was “out of the loop” for having a different view to UK Labour (Al-Megrahi). They seem to want to have it both ways!

    What these tell me is that the SNP have an unhealthy obsession with “Scottishness” – and think that they have a right to define it – exclusively in terms of supporting the SNP. A person can love Scotland, and not love the SNP, or independance – but thats not what they want you to think.

  15. iain ker says:

    ‘We are pledging a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector with its outstanding reputation for probity, as opposed to one like that in the UK, which absorbs huge amounts of management time in ‘gold-plated’ regulation.’- Alex Salmond, 2007

    Oi Murph, I’ve been away for a while.

    How are we getting on with Alex’s ‘light-touch’ regulation?

  16. Henrik says:

    Best of luck with that, Murph. No doubt Scottish genius will ensure that socialism succeeds, given that it’s failed everywhere else it’s ever been tried.

  17. dmac says:

    This is an intersting argument.

    Not for the fact that the claims of bullying by “cybernats” on poor, defenceless Labour supporters are interspersed with Labour attacks on the SNP, it’s ideology and it members but for how the discussion has been overtaken by events.

    Just as Labour have been overtaken by the SNP in the latest poll.

    Perhaps, the question is now, would you welcome an offer to support an SNP administration, and would you accept?

    And which members of the Labour front bench would have a credible claim to unseat their SNP counterparts?

  18. Roger says:

    Re Salmond’s Arc of Prosperity it is only the two states on the western end that have gone pear-shaped due to their reckless adoption of Anglo-American laissez faire banking policies.

    Scandinavia proper has done remarkably well in comparison – and what sane person would rather not live in Denmark or Finland?

    As a proper economist Alex should have been able to make that distinction, but as a politician he pretended that listing a whole bunch of different societies and adding your own to it constitutes an argument.

  19. Colin says:

    John Ruddy: “I have never seen anything similar done in return to SNP figures, and if it does happen it must happen rarely. But we have Labour front benchers (whatever you may think of their abilities) described in the most appaling ways – sometimes denigrating their appearance or their sexuality or worse.”

    The reason you notice the personal attacks on Labour figures, and not the corresponding ones about the SNP, is that you’re more sensitive to the former. Possibly the most common single criticism of Salmond (online, anyway) is that he’s fat.

  20. An Duine Gruamach says:

    Anyone who thinks that Labour are no worse than the SNP when it comes to personal attacks online should read Cllr. Terry Kelly’s blog. (Is that one of these West Coast Presbyterian names?)

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