Don’t rule out a Labour/SNP deal

Alasdair-McKillopAlasdair McKillop, an author and a newly-joined Scottish Labour member, responds to last week’s call by Duncan Hothersall to rule out a deal with the SNP in May. He thinks such a prospect may be better than the alternatives.


In his recent article calling for Labour to rule out the possibility of working with the SNP after the General Election, Duncan Hothersall made a number of salient observations. The SNP’s argument that Labour and the Conservatives are one and the same is incoherent, particularly when placed alongside their willingness to work with the former but not the latter depending on the post-election scenario facing the UK.

He also raised an interesting point about the party of government relying, one way or another, on another party that seeks to fundamentally alter the integrity of the state. This would undoubtedly raise some challenges and the possible implications deserve serious consideration.

The thrust of Duncan’s proposal has an undeniable electoral logic and would probably have the added bonus of pleasing many Labour supporters and activists. Given the SNP has already ruled out working with the Conservatives, if Labour were to make it clear it would not work with the SNP then we revert of the dynamics of Westminster election campaigns past. But is this the right response to the challenges facing Labour and underlying problems including the fragmentation of politics and the shift in attitudes following the referendum? I’m not convinced.

It would be a blunt nullification of the surge in support for the SNP rather than an attempt by Labour to win support in its own right. It also overlooks the possibility that such a move will appear unappealingly tribal in its motivations and objectives, thereby unintentionally shoring up and potentially even adding to support for the SNP.

Duncan’s article seems to be premised on the idea that Labour and the SNP might enter into a coalition but there has been little from the SNP to suggest its strategists are seriously considering this possibility. In a recent interview with the New Statesman, the party’s Westminster leader and General Election Campaign Director, Angus Robertson, stressed his party was thinking only of a confidence and supply arrangement. Such a scenario might still be undesirable from a Labour point of view: What party wouldn’t prefer the unfettered ability to introduce policies of its own devising while wrapped in the comfort blanket of a fat Commons majority? But is it less desirable than another five years of Conservative-led government? Surely not. It would be better to reach consensus in areas where Labour and the SNP are not too far apart.

There is a more general point to be made: The dynamics of the election mean neither of the two main parties can afford to rule out working with any party given the post-election picture remains cloudy. Even overtures from the DUP haven’t been rebuffed, in fact Ivan Lewis has been cooing in its direction despite the two parties’ stark divergence in policy preferences. The point is that parties, perhaps particularly the larger parties, do not have the luxury of closing doors in such situations.

The heart might sink at the demands the SNP might make in return for support and the ends to which such demands might be intended. But though discussion has focused on the concessions the SNP might extract from Labour, covering everything from public spending and infrastructure to Trident, there will be substantial pressure on the SNP not to play hardball. Labour could give itself some breathing space by arguing the nationalists were risking another Tory-led government by making unreasonable demands.

When the Sun reported last week that a number of Labour MPs said they would rather leave the party than work with the SNP – a reckless gesture of no political value – the SNP was quick to claim the figures in question would prefer to see a Conservative government than work with it. It was an easy line, handed to the SNP on a plate, but at least the reaction might be of some use if the logic is reversed. The SNP will have to make concessions in any negotiations or it too will be accused of preferring to put the purity of party ahead of the need to prevent the Conservatives returning to office. It needn’t be an old-fashioned stick-up.

If the above was intended to introduce a note of optimism into a situation many in the Labour ranks will consider unpalatable, the next will probably silence it. In the scenario that the SNP does significant damage to Labour in Scotland, to the extent that it wins more seats, significantly more seats, Labour might have little choice but to work with it – and not simply to make up the numbers. In such circumstances, should Labour attempt to govern in a minority or as part of a coalition with other parties, there is a risk the SNP will redeploy the ‘no mandate’ argument.

In hindsight, Labour bears a fair measure of responsibility for allowing this corrosive argument to gain traction in Scottish politics and it should well know the damage that can be down when that stigma sticks fast. In short, this is a situation to be avoided at all costs as it will only serve to further entrench the idea that the SNP is the only party that can represent Scotland’s interests. Labour can little afford to put further distance between itself and what appears to be the overriding temper of the moment.

A final point: Although the nerves of Labour members in Scotland might be raw after generations of friction with the SNP and a bruising referendum campaign, any decisions on post-election arrangements will be made on a UK basis. Thus, although some MPs might baulk at the thought of relying on the SNP, an unknown number might view it as preferable to working with the Liberal Democrats. This is assuming the party is in a position to pick and choose its dance partners. The electoral maths might leave little room for romance.

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7 thoughts on “Don’t rule out a Labour/SNP deal

  1. I’m an independence supporter, but I see a “confidence and supply” agreement between Labour and SNP (plus Greens and Plaid if they want) as the best arrangement.

    The era of two-party politics is over. I have no desire to return to the days when winning a majority granted absolute power for five years. The need to strike agreement on an issue-by-issue basis will ensure a genuinely collaborative politics, as shown by any number of rainbow parliaments across Europe.

    If Labour refuse to work with the smaller parties, preferring to let a Tory/LibDem/UKIP coalition take power then they’ll be doomed at the next election.

  2. “The SNP’s argument that Labour and the Conservatives are one and the same is incoherent, particularly when placed alongside their willingness to work with the former but not the latter depending on the post-election scenario facing the UK.”

    This is total mince on stilts. Denial and delusion at the highest levels.

    What do the Con Tories and Lab Tories have in common?

    Both support austerity
    Both support Privatisation.
    Both support the wars in Afghanistan Iraq and Syria
    Both support WMDs
    Both support WMD proliferation.
    Both support the same welfare “reforms”
    Both believe welfare is “Something for nothing”
    Both support nuclear energy over renewable
    Both support retaining the House of Lords
    Both support filling the House of Lords with cronies and patrons
    Both share some of the same party donors backers lobbyists and supporters.
    Both support the same draconian anti terror laws.

    I seriously doubt a similar list could be made up showing the difference between them. In every way that counts politically the Con Tories and the Lab Tories are exactly the same. Political Ideology political direction political support and criminal behaviour.

    On the issue of the SNP saying they will work with the Lab Tories but not the Con Tories. Nicola Sturgeon stated it would be “UNLIKELY” for the SNP to get into a formal coalition with Labour but they could do a deal on an issue by issue basis. Although not ruling out a formal coalition altogether as she did emphatically with the Con Tories she recognises the reality that if she is to share Government she has to share it with somebody and as the English electorate forces the choice to be between 2 Tory parties then the SNP has to get into coalition with one of them. Of course ideally England could vote for the Green party then there wouldn’t be a problem about having to do deals with Tories at all.

    Its really a very simple concept to understand. As long as Scotland remains subordinate to the Westminster Parliament then it will get Tory Government in one form or another.

  3. It’s refreshing to see that at least newer Labour members are a little more open to reason than some of their party colleagues. I imagine Alasdair must feel like a salmon swimming up stream however, given the prevailing unthinking hostility towards the SNP and Yes campaigners from your party. It is to be earnestly hoped that those in charge at Labour HQ listen to Alasdair rather than Duncan.

    The electoral arithmetic (barring political earthquakes in the next 80 days) doesn’t seem to be changing, and looks unrelentingly grim for both Labour and the Tories. Since neither appear to have much hope of getting close to 300 seats, never mind the 326 required for an absolute majority, anti-SNP Labour diehards need to tell us what they plan to do after the GE. Assuming that the LDs don’t win enough seats to give either of the 2 main parties a working majority, but the SNP do….what then? Are we honestly expected to believe Labour will form a Grand Coalition with the Tories? How long would a minority Labour government last if you fail to do a deal with the SNP? Do you think Labour voters in Scotland and the North of England will react favourably to you handing the Tories the chance to govern as a minority (even if they don’t last long!)?

    The reason Ed and his mates aren’t taking Duncan’s advice and ruling a coalition or even a more informal deal out, is that they know they don’t have much option. As you say, there isn’t much room for romance….we’re just arguing about the price. Let’s just hope that saner heads than Duncan Hothersall, Lewis Moonie and their ilk prevail.

    The biggest question of all of course, is why on earth anyone would want to join Labour at this stage…. talk about shackling yourself to a corpse Alasdair!

  4. On the face of it, Alasdair McKillop’s analysis is tenfold more refreshing than the knee-jerk contortions exhibited by Duncan Hothersall.

    Alasdair drives a coach and horses through Hothersall’s assertion that Labour is and must forever be, absolutely opposed to any deal with the SNP. As he rightly points out, such an assertion is smashed to smithereens in a post-election scenario in which virtually no Labour MPs are returned from Scotland.

    In such a circumstance, those negotiating would be SNP and Labour MPs from elsewhere in the UK.

    The blind tribalism and petty hatreds of “Scottish” Labour would, in such a scenario be utterly neutered, with no powerbase in Scotland and a hugely damaged significance in the wider UK Labour movement.

    To insist, as if in one last shrieking gasp, that UK Labour must NEVER engage with the SNP, would be rightly ridiculed if even noticed.

    Yet, it is exactly this mindset which still haunts the offices of the Labour Party in Scotland. It is in danger of defining itself solely in terms of its credentials as a fully signed up hater of the SNP and the swathes of SNP supporters.

    For progressive minds, like Alasdair McKillops, the frustration must be palpable to say the least.

    At the very least, Alasdairs piece (wth some caveats) demonstrates at least some in Scottish Labour a prepared to take the dramatic leap from old tribalism and blind hatred, to something more in tune with the Scottish electoral psyche.

    Unfortunately such a transformation, to a position of democratic realism (at least), will not begin until after what looks set to be a crushing defeat of the centralist dinosaurs still passively inhabiting the wearied offices of Labour Scotland.

  5. @Andrew Ellis “the prevailing unthinking hostility towards the SNP and Yes campaigners from your party”
    Andrew, would you say that SNP/Yes supporters (such as ‘mike’) are nothing but sweetness and charm towards Labour?

    1. I’d say hostility exists on both sides, as evidenced here, on twitter and in comment sections of the media. I’d also maintain that much of the worst hostility comes from Labour MPs, MSPs and activists; we’ve all seen the evidence, and can post the links.

      You can’t be part of and support a relentlessly negative campaign like Better Together, which its own activists labelled Project Fear, without being seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  6. Persoanally, I find the mutual hostility between the Labour Party in Scotland and the SNP to be somewhat pathetic. It is not up to politicians to tell voters what to do. It is our job to instruct you what to do. Don’t ever forget that.

    The Scottish people are being pretty clear about what they want from a UK government. Let’s call it ‘Labour on a leash’. Specifically, Labour on an SNP leash. Your job is to make sure you win enough English seats to make this possible. Based on recent opinion polls, it appears you have taken your eye off of the ball on this.

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