Sitting here in Scotland, any notion that the Labour party might have the upper hand on the SNP seems fanciful. We know from our private conversations with all parties that Scottish Labour’s candidates are in serious trouble, and reports at the weekend suggested that the party has pulled out of almost 30 of the seats it currently holds, in an effort to save the skins of its big guns, including its leader. The SNP is at an all-time high, and it is deserved – they have out-fought and out-thought a careless and lackadaisical Scottish Labour party (amongst others) for many years, and their rewards are richly deserved.
However, there might be just a little bit of life in the old red dog yet. Indeed, at a UK level, Labour reckons that it has outmanoeuvred the SNP in the very serious, very complicated game of forming a government after Thursday’s general election.
Current polling would suggest that the relationship, or not, between Labour and the SNP could be a defining characteristic of the post-election environment. Labour has changed its rhetoric on forming such a relationship with the SNP, from “no coalition” to “no confidence and supply” to “no vote by vote” to “we’d rather not be in government than deal with the SNP”. At first analysis, it looks as though Labour is, to use a phrase loved by all political opponents, all over the place.
However, there may be much more to this than meets the eye. Much earlier in the campaign, the SNP unequivocally ruled out working in any way with the Conservatives. To us in Scotland, that was no surprise. Despite the fact that the Scottish Conservatives quietly but reliably supported an SNP minority government from 2007-11, a ban on working with the Tories is contained in the SNP’s constitution. Furthermore, the accusation that the SNP helped bring down the Labour government in 1978 by way of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, leading to 1979-and-all-that, is one still frequently trotted out by Labour. Accusations of collaborating with the Conservatives remain toxic in Scotland.
However, by ruling out supporting a Conservative government, has the SNP tied its own hands? If you’re not going to work with the Conservatives, then doesn’t logic dictate there to be only one other option?
Many Labour strategists think the SNP has no cards left to play. The argument goes like this:
The Conservatives remain likely to be the largest party. However, if they fall short of a majority, and if they also fall short of the number of seats required to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, then any minority government they attempt to form is likely to fall.
A Labour minority government could replace it, and would be much more likely to be able to attract the support required to pass a Queen’s Speech and govern. Sure, if the SNP was on board they might have a majority, but why bother going to the enormous effort and pain that would entail if you don’t have to?
The SNP can’t vote against a Labour Queen’s Speech, strategists reckon, because if they do they’ll effectively be paving the way for another election which is much more likely to result in another Conservative government. A repeat of 1979, Labour would cry, and with elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2016 this is a cry which just might allow Scottish Labour to take some of the nails out of its own coffin and put the hammer back in the toolbox.
Labour, therefore, thinks it can call the SNP’s bluff, hence Ed Miliband’s ostensibly bold statement that he’d rather not be Prime Minister if it meant working with the SNP. He said it because he doesn’t think he’ll have to.
‘We’ll vote against you if you renew Trident’. Go ahead, let’s see who blinks first. ‘We’ll vote down austerity’. Go ahead, let’s see who blinks first.
There is no recent history of anyone, let alone Labour, outmanoeuvring the SNP on anything. The SNP has shown itself to be Britain’s best and brightest when it comes to campaigns and strategy. But it is possible – just possible – that in this case, they have over-reached. Ed Miliband certainly seems to think so.