Alasdair 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.