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