A Labour-SNP deal could hold together for the whole Parliament

by David Butler

On current seat protections, Labour, in an informal pact with the SNP, could be back in government in less than two weeks. Any deal would be painful and fraught with risk. Yet it could last the whole Parliament and enable Labour to secure a good deal of its programme.

In our system, the pivot legislator, that MP that decides whether a bill is passed or not, normally sits within at the governing party (or governing coalition as was the case for the previous parliament). Under a Labour minority government, this legislator would be outside the party. To pass a bill, Labour needs to make that pivot legislator, or the party group they are within, prefer the proposal to the status quo. On most policy positions and on basic parliamentary arithmetic, the nearest group containing a pivot legislator will be the SNP. Hence, creating an informal pact with the SNP would maximise our chance of passing legislation.

However, the SNP has a different set of motivations to Labour. They care about sustaining their emerging dominance in Scotland and creating the conditions for independence. For the Nationalists, policy positions are mere instruments for achieving this. Through observing this set of motivations, it is possible to see why they would continue to prop up a Labour government.

Firstly, the SNP will able at to extract returns for Scotland and concessions on policy positions. They would seek to claim credit for any improvements in Scotland under a Labour minority administration, reinforcing their “Stronger for Scotland” rhetoric. Second, they would try to place the blame upon Labour (or Westminster or the lack of autonomy) for any painful reforms and the continuation of austerity. Thirdly, propping up a Labour government will enable them to claim credibility for their “Vote SNP, lock out of the Tories in Westminster” message. Fourthly, SNP MPs can ‘wing flap’, signalling about their ‘true’ position on pieces of legislation through tabling amendments and making speeches, even if they ultimately vote for the bill in question; the longer the parliament, the more wing flapping can take place. Finally, they can work with the thirty to forty MPs that John McDonnell claims will be sympathetic to Campaign Group positions to force Labour to seek Tory, Liberal Democrat and DUP votes on issues like Trident and welfare reform (reinforcing their narrative about Labour not being real progressives).

This would not be pleasant for Labour. The raw parliamentary arithmetic, based on current seat projections, would give a Labour-SNP informal pact a working majority of between 6 and 20. This would be an incredibly small majority to rely upon, vulnerable to any small rebellion. Interacting with this is the influx of people who have never sat in parliament before and were probably selected with no belief that they could win. Historically, there has always been an adjustment period for MPs who win in unexpected landslides. It may be hard for the SNP to maintain rigid discipline over such an unknown and inexperienced parliamentary party. This would exacerbate the fragility of the working majority.

In addition to the arithmetic and discipline problem, there are other sources of potential pain for Labour. SNP would look to embed their grip in Scotland, seeking to become a 21st century version of the pre-war Irish Parliamentary Party; this could set us even further back on the road to recovery in Scotland. The SNP would work with other opposition parties to seize control of the Commons agenda, using it as a tool to hurt Labour and extract further concessions. SNP rhetoric and tactics could also create divisions within the Party, both in parliament and across the country, reopening old wounds over ideology, policy direction and political strategy. All the while, any Labour minority government propped up by the SNP would face broadside from the Tories and the right-wing press.

Why then wouldn’t Labour try to seek a coalition with the Liberal Democrats rather than the SNP as Michael Collins set out for Uncut? Under current projections, Labour plus Liberal Democrats would still require one of the Tories or SNP to support them to pass a budget and any legislation. Given that the former is out the question on most policy question (and will not doubt be convulsing in fratricidal anger over yet another failure to win a majority), SNP support would still be necessary. Hence, the dynamics of a deal would be still there; the SNP would just have another punchbag to beat up. A coalition with the Lib Dems with SNP informal support on top may be more desirable but it seems infeasible given Clegg’s comments to the FT.

Despite their rhetoric, there is genuine policy overlap with the SNP. For example, many of the reforms to capitalism central to our manifesto would be politically acceptable to the SNP (including the British Investment Bank, more apprenticeships and a higher National Minimum Wage). Ditto, our attempts to intervene further in housing, energy and other markets. With the repeat interactions over a parliament, there can be regular exchanges between Labour and SNP over policy reforms, particularly on issues that are not instrumentally useful to the SNP.

Power will not lie fully in our hands. We will need the acquiescence of the SNP to govern. This is not a normatively desirable outcome; the SNP’s left-populist rhetoric is hollow and opportunistic and their actions in government have shown a party interested in hoarding power and practising a conservative form of social democracy. Yet their motivations, for hegemony and separation, will lead them to sustain Labour (for a couple of years at least). It will be potentially painful and damaging to our attempt to recover in Scotland. It could amplify ruptures in Labour’s intraparty coalition. Despite all this, a deal can hold. Moreover, we can still make the changes our country desperately needs. We will be in government and any day in government is worth a hundred in opposition.

David Butler is a Labour activist

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26 Responses to “A Labour-SNP deal could hold together for the whole Parliament”

  1. Madasafish says:


    The writer appears totally blind to the obvious perceptions that many would have in England: Scots MPs vote on English matters but English MPs can’t vote on devolved Scottiish matters.

    I expect the end result of that will be Scotland leaving the Union and Labour in England losing a large number of seats.

    Never mind: “any day in government is worth a hundred in opposition.”

    Not if you achieve the destruction of Labour in England – and probably Wales as well.


  2. swatantra says:

    …. but would it be a ‘legitimate’ deal … or a ‘bastard’ deal???
    I think the English would find it very difficult to stomach such a deal.
    No deal. Best to go for a Minority Govt and hope for the best; if the Scots support us then good, if not tough.

  3. john P Reid says:

    I agree with Madasafish, and that’s saying something

  4. Blairite says:

    No Labour-SNP deal. None. It cannot happen. It will not happen. Why we are contemplating this, I just don’t know? A Labour-SNP deal will be toxic. We’d get something like less than 200 seats if it ever happened. Either we have a pure Labour minority govt (and yes, the SNP and the Tories could bring us down) or we have a confidence-and-supply deal with the Lib Dems. No Labour-SNP deal!

  5. Henrik says:

    If Labour’s appetite for power is greater than its desire to represent the views of the majority of the UK, good luck with that. Relying on what’s essentially an insurgent political organisation which sees eventual dismantling of the Union as its desired end state and which has internal factions with a very unpleasant, nearly racist attitude to the English, would be both bold and courageous, where neither of those adjectives should be thought of as good things.

  6. Tafia says:

    In the 1970s Labour were propped up by the Lib-Lab pact, and by the SNP – so Labour relying on the SNP is nothing new, nothing remarkable and nothing that hasn’t happened before.

    Asquith’s government of the 1920’s was propped up by Irish nationalists – remember, at that time the whole of Ireland was an integral part of the UK (even more than Scotland has ever been), and the Irish had risen in armed rebellion a decade earlier and were avowedly and openly ant-union. So again, relying on hostile nationalist parties is again absolutely nothing new. Parliament has been there seen it, done it, got the T shirt. Interestingly, at this time most people in Ireland wanted to remain in the UK but the trade-off for the support in Parliament was Home Rule (without a referendum) leading to independence to what is now the Republic (again without a referendum).

    So should a government go into a deal with the SNP next week and that ultimately leads to Home Rule then full independence – without a referendum, then it won’t be the first time and it won’t have been that long ago that it happened.

  7. Blairite says:

    Another thing, even if the author was right and a Labour-SNP deal did happen, it would not last for the whole Parliament because Labour will not be able to satisfy the SNP’s demands for full fiscal autonomy or a second referendum. That’s all the SNP care about. We should either go it alone, go with the Lib Dems or go back into Opposition. A Labour-SNP deal is suicide.

  8. AnneJGP says:

    I’m not sure the objectors to a Labour-SNP coalition are right. However suspicious people in E, W & NI may be, there would be 5 years in which to prove the case.

    If both political parties were sensible, it could be a golden opportunity to explore what independence for Scotland would really mean. Is Scotland in actual fact a net contributor to UK funds, or is it not? With the SNP at the heart of the UK government, the cash-flow facts could be established to everyone’s agreement, showing exactly where our communal money comes from & where it goes.

    A large part of the present problem is that UK political parties have not taken the SNP agenda seriously. By taking it seriously now and taking the SNP into UK government, there could be a unique opportunity to reach an agreed position on the facts at issue.

    Sooner or later there will be another independence referendum. It would be far better if it could be held against a background of hard facts rather than rhetoric. If it is likely that independence will mean financial hardship for the Scottish people, there is still a very strong emotional case to be argued, and a Yes vote in full understanding is still quite likely. That would give a newly-independent Scotland a far better start in life than a population gradually discovering they were conned. (This is where the problems over EU membership spring from.)

    Conversely, if it turns out that Scotland is the net contributor the SNP believe it to be, there is still a very strong emotional case to be argued that we are better together. The financial facts would give honour where honour is due and enhance the UK’s appreciation of the contribution made by Scotland.

    The SNP are strongly supportive of Scottish interests. A referendum has only just been held, and lost. For the next 5 years at least, Scotland will do well if the UK does well. There need be no conflict of interest thus far.

    The Barnett formula has fallen into disfavour in most eyes. In SNP eyes it’s a patronising hand-out and it’s the reason their MPs now see a need to vote on devolved matters, which is unpopular in England. Very well – aim for a different arrangement, as part & parcel of identifying the cash-flow.

    IMHO, we do need to be careful to differentiate between campaign rhetoric & the spoutings of internet warriors on the one hand and considered political positions on the other. It is quite possible that the SNP may not be as left-wing as the Labour party would like. Why should they be? They might, alternatively, be too left-wing to be acceptable in England. No problem, if Labour’s in the driving seat. The point is, whether there is enough overlap for the parties to work together

    Scottish politicians have served the UK well over many years. I do not believe that SNP politicians would prove to be any different. If we are headed for a federation, or even a complete break-up, perhaps in the coming 5 years we need their expertise to help us accomplish the changes safely and in amity.

  9. Vern says:

    Henriķ, are you referring to the SNP or Labour when discussing the union and a nearly racist attitude to the English? Very little between the two in my opinion.

  10. Robert says:

    Now labour have stated no deal with Plaid either, seems Miliband is worried that parties may gang up on him, or is Progress getting annoyed they may be in opposition longer.

    Of course it maybe labour/Tories have done a pack with each other.

  11. Richard T says:

    The fiscal position is not quite the mystery that AnneJGP appears to believe. The GERS figures are freely available along with various 3rd party analyses thereof.

    That isn’t the point though, obviously. The SNP was quite willing to feed the electorate grossly misleading accounts of the current situation and future prospect, it’s hard to see why they’d do otherwise in pursuit of an ‘agreed position’ in which they have zero interest.

    There is no reason for a single-minded secessionist party to make any political investment in making the Union work, when their defining purpose is to leave it.

  12. Mr Akira Origami says:

    Scottish politicians have served the UK well over many years….

    We will never forget: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the one who said: “There were no international terrorists in Iraq until we went in. It was we who gave the perfect conditions in which Al Qaeda could thrive.”

  13. fred says:

    But there isn’t going to be any SNP deal. EM ruled out any deal at last night’s Question Time hustings. No coalition deal, no confidence or supply, no informal deals of any kind. He said we’re “not going to have a Labour government if it means deals or coalitions with the SNP”. Even by the double standards and weasel words of modern politicians this is a definitive answer which brooks little doubt or room for manoeuvre. This article is redundant.

  14. Tafia says:

    Fred, If Ed Miliband sticks to his word and Cameron walks into number 10 as a result, Labour voters will not blame the SNP – they’ll blame him.

    It’s tory and UKIP voters that are bothered about the Labour-SNP thing, Labour voters (or at least all the ones I’ve met ) really aren’t that bothered. It will also totally destroy Labour in Scotland and prove the SNP 100% correct in their accusation that it’s London that decides who rules Scotland, not Scotlands voters. (I’m out canvassing later – I’ll give a more accurate doorstep response)

    That means one of two things:-

    1. He’s playing tough to try and attract soft Tory/UKIP voters who can still be swayed late in the day.

    2. Or he does not want top be PM at all unless it’s with a workable majority.

    At the moment, most Labour voters I’ve spoken to were actually quite appalled and/or angry by his stated position and say that if that’s the case it’s pointless voting Labour. They think he’s behaving like a child and throwing a tantrum because he’s not getting his way.

  15. Madasafish says:


    You have a touching faith in the sincerity of politicians.

    I can remember WMD in Iraq- (Blair lying to the House of Commons),
    Johnathan Aitken lying under oath to a court (“sword of truth”) and subsequently being jailed for perjury and various other cases.

    Finally the case of R (Wheeler) v Office of the Prime Minister in 2007 basically said whatever a PM promises in a manifesto can be ignored with impunity unless the House of Commons decided otherwise.

    So your trusting of the word of any MP let alone a prospective PM is not only very brave in the light of past history but proven to be so without redress in the event of a broken promise as to be foolhardy.

    In my viw anyone who trust the word of any politician to absolutely carry out their commitment must also believe in faeries. 🙂

  16. fred says:

    Tafia – You are perfectly entitled to believe that EM is “behaving like a child and throwing a tantrum because he’s not getting his way”. A more plausible and credible explanation is that he is receiving clear polling evidence that any link with the SNP will damage his standing with Labour voters. My reactions from the doorsteps (I’m in a solid Labour constituency and a Labour party member) absolutely isn’t that Labour voters aren’t “that bothered” about an SNP/Labour alliance. They are very concerned, which is why EM has been forced to first defend such an alliance, then back off by rejecting a coalition and finally, yesterday evening, reject any agreement however informal. The calculations are clearly that EM reckons that Labour can win more seats and so form a government where he can strike deals with the LibDems/DUP and depend on the Tories for votes on cuts and Trident. High risk strategy but not unbelievable or unworkable.

  17. Mr Akira Origami says:

    Why would Ed do a deal with Plaid Cymru? They are the opposition to Labour in Wales. …..and Plaid Cymru support independence on alternate days of the week.

    Also Plaid Cymru don’t like the English too much……


    and Lord Wigley didn’t help too…..


  18. Tafia says:

    Mr Akira Origami back here peddling his rubbish yet again in the hope that people are as dense as him and only read the headline.

    First of all the Plaid Cymru don’t like the English too much. A reasonably intelligent person would know that the word ‘nazi’ was never used by Parker – it ewas used by the press and Labour. They would also know that the phrase “gun-toting Final Solution crackpots” was levelled at the english people living in that area who were openly racist white-flight & open BNP supporters and other associated filth, and would also know that in fact the Plaid candidate – Mike Parker, is himself English and moved to Wales in the year 2000. Plaid has many non-Welsh voters, party members, candidates and even elected councillors -including people from England.

    As for Lord Wigley and Trident? He was illustrating the fact that it is not designed for use against military targets – it is a strategic nuclear weapon (as opposed to tactical & theatre) and as such is designed solely for one purpose – to smash cities and incinerate their civilian populations – every man, woman and child. That’s what it is for, that’s what it is designed to do, and if you support Trident then you better pray it does it, and does it very well otherwise it’s money down the drain. Plaid and it’s supporters do not want it ever stationing in this country. It is a weapon for the mass-murder and extermination of civilians pure and simple – to render them to little more than ash blowing in the wind. So basic comparisons with Auschwitz are there to be seen – the targeted and deliberate extermination of a chunk of the civilian population because they are the wrong race or nationality etc.

  19. Henrik says:

    Tafia is quite right in characterising Trident as a strategic weapon system and certainly on the money when he refers to its potential for drastic, dramatic and instant urban renewal. The point of Trident, of course, is its potential – it’s a deterrent weapon and is intended as a response to an attack on the UK with similar strategic weapons. Whether any British PM or, in the worst case, isolated Trident boat Captain *not* hearing the BBC when he pokes a cautious antenna to the surface after a strategic exchange would actually order a missile launch isn’t certain – but that’s also rather the point of it.

    My own purely atavistic and primitive view is that if I and my fellow subjects have been fried by an aggressor, I’d hope that whoever did it had cause to feel similar impacts is no doubt profoundly dubious, ethically and morally.

    Where I differ from Tafia is in not seeing a direct correspondence between unprovoked industrialised murder by serious, sane people following an utterly imbecile and wicked political philosophy and deterring genocidal attack, but that’s a separate argument which will probably have to wait until he and I can square up over a bottle of Bushmills to discuss it.

  20. Mr Akira Origami says:

    Mike Parker: also suggested that they were “leaving English cities to get away from multi cultural society”.


    Mike Parker, born in Birmingham, apparently didn’t like a multi culturism society too much himself.

    Trident: There’ll be a welcome in the Haven, if you, come to Wales.” Our Welsh Labour Government have a more positive stance on Trident. They would even like it to come to Wales.


    Going back to the point, I still can’t think of a reason why Ed should do a deal with Plaid Cymru.

  21. Madasafish says:

    “Senior Labour politicians have expressed reservations about Ed Miliband flatly ruling out any kind of deal with the Scottish National party in order to govern after the election.

    Henry McLeish, a former first minister of Scotland, on Saturday joined a growing number of party figures saying the Labour leader could not deny himself the chance of being prime minster by refusing to talk to the SNP.

    Andy Burnham, Labour’s health spokesman, said on Friday the party would “of course” have a dialogue with the nationalists, while Caroline Flint, the shadow energy secretary, suggested the parties could make informal arrangements.”

  22. Tafia says:

    Mike Parker, born in Birmingham, apparently didn’t like a multi culturism society too much himself.

    Yet again you have done not even basic checking and make yourself look a complete thick c**t without any help whatsoever. By the way, he didn’t say all english settlers were racist – he was very specific.

    Go and find out why he ended up moving from Kidderminster to Wales then do Wales a favour and slot yourself, preferably in England so that you don’t burden the Assembly with any cost.

    Trident cannot be stationed in Wales. It is strategically impossible. To be effective it needs direct quick access to open sea and deep water. In Wales it is enclosed in side the Irish Sea. Like wise it can’t go anywhere on the east coast or along the channel for the same reasons. There are only two places it can be stationed outside of Scotland – Cornwall and Gibralter. Do you not bother checking anything before you write your drivel?

    Going back to the point, I still can’t think of a reason why Ed should do a deal with Plaid Cymru. Can you not do basic arithmatic? Nor follow what other parties say? The Lib Dems will not prop up a Labour government nor vote in favour of the proposed Labour budget – they have been quite specific about that. Northern Irish parties are a no-no for a variety of reasons. That only leaves SNP, Plaid & Greens. Why do you come on a political site without any idea whatsoever of what the other parties say?

    Now go and crawl back under your UKIP cow pat where you belong.

  23. Mr Akira Origami says:

    @ Sucsessionist Twat….aka Tafia

    ” slot yourself, preferably in England.”

    Why should I? I was born in English speaking South Wales. Why don’t you F**k Off to a Cymraeg site and support the language? Maybe you are total hypocrite and don’t even speak the lingo.


    Going back to the point…I don’t think Ed gives a shit about Welsh language sucessionists – his credibility is bad enough already.

    PS … Mike Parker was born in Birmingham.

  24. Tafia says:

    Well being as you are from Wales start behaving like a welshman and not a serf of London.

    Lets see, your problem with the Welsh language (which does appear to be a major problem for you) and the fact you live in Wales means that there is no way you are supporting a party that supports bilingualism and the Cymraeg policies. So that means that you don’t support Plaid, you don’t support Labour, you don’t support the Lib Dems, you don’t support the Tories and you don’t support UKIP. So that means you are BNP, RCPGB, Socialist Party or the equally ludicrous CDA. Some of the comments you’ve made before rule out RCPGB or the Socialist Party -which just leaves the scum-BNP or the gay-hating CDA. But the BNP now support devolution which you apparently despise. So that just leaves the CDA.

    Or you don’t take part art all – in which case it’s none of your business as you have opted-out.

    Incidentally my second wifes family come from South Wales – Port Talbot. All of them speak Welsh and their kids all went to Cymraeg primary schools

  25. Mr Akira Origami says:

    I’ll stick to being British and resist being a serf to the Welsh Assembly policy of trying to make the 82% of the English speaking majority in Wales speak Cymraeg and suppress their Britishness. 82% of people speak English in Wales (mostly in North Wales). Extrapolate the figures and the amount of English speakers in South Wales is around 98%. South Wales is the driving force behind the econmy of Wales. South Wales is 75% of the population of Wales. We all watch Corrie, Eastenders, Match of the Day, University Challenge, Newsnight, The Boat Race, England Football matches, and even the Grand National (sorry Natalie Benett).

    If it was’nt for being in Britain Wales would have third rate public services. (It’s got second rate services now).

    I’ll vote for any party that supports an English language commisioner. I’ll vote for any party in Wales that has a policy of a referendum on Welsh the language issue.

    We voted for an Assembly because somebody said we could run the Principality better. It’s been a disaster and now the people of Wales have to fund an extra, unessasary, layer of bureaucracy.

    I have up to now voted Labour. Got the UKIP leaflet through door, it said:” Standing up for real change. If you have had enough of the same old parties, now is the time to vote UKIP.”

    I’ve had enough of Welsh Labour wasting money and this was a shocker:


    NHS apartheid? No thanks.

    Will now give my vote to the Kippers here in Wales.

    I used to feel a lot more Welsh before devolution. I love Wales but it is only a part of a beautiful Island. (I understand how you feel about Angelsey).

    PS Nice beach in Port Talbot and great view of Swansea Bay and Mumbles.

  26. Gareth Young says:

    Great, a coalition made up of two parties who say that they have Scotland’s best interests at heart, both of whom view English identity with distrust or abject horror.

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