Why Labour should be talking now to the SNP, LibDems, etc., in spite of everything

Labour could come second to the Conservatives at the elections in May in another hung parliament and still be able to form the government. That sounds impossible: but it could happen.

People, especially LibDems, assume that whichever party wins the most seats, even if short of an overall majority, automatically has the right to form a government. But the key test is not having the most seats (still less having won the most votes): it’s who is likeliest to be able to form a government that has the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons.

So here’s a possible and not improbable scenario. The election produces a hung parliament: i.e. no single party has an overall majority.. The Tories win a few more seats than Labour and claim that this entitles David Cameron to remain in No. 10 Downing Street and the Conservatives to form a new government, alone or in another coalition. However even with the support of UKIP, some LibDems, and some Northern Ireland MPs, the Tories might still be unsure of a majority. Labour, by contrast, could probably claim a clear majority in parliament if it has even qualified, conditional support from all the left-of-centre parties: the SNP, most LibDems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and some from Northern Ireland. If he can demonstrate this, Ed Miliband is entitled to be invited to form a government and submit it to the House of Commons for approval in a vote of confidence.

The key issue therefore may be whether immediately after the votes have been counted Miliband can demonstrate, citing evidence, that he can form a government that will command the confidence of the House. But this will be almost impossible if Labour has done nothing to establish the intentions of the progressive parties before the election. If the positions of the progressives are still unclear after polling day, it will surely be too late for Labour to demonstrate its ability to muster majority support for a minority Labour government — especially if it has won fewer seats than the Conservatives. The consequence will then be five more harsh years of Tory misrule, with continuing LibDem and now UKIP support.

Nicola SturgeonThe alternative, however unpalatable to many good Labour people, is for Labour now to talk informally to the other progressive parties (including especially the SNP and the left-leaning LibDems) with a view to agreeing a list of specific measures that a Labour government (whether a majority or a minority government) would introduce and that the other progressive parties would support. The objective would be a loose understanding (well short of a coalition) that if a Labour government presented,  both before and after the election, a broadly and partially agreed programme for government,  the other progressives would agree to support it in votes of confidence and in budget votes (“confidence and supply”) to enable Labour to govern, even though some of them would be unable to promise support for other measures in Labour’s manifesto.

The usual objections to this scenario are (1) that it would seem defeatist for Labour to assume that it will fail to win an overall majority, (2) that it would encourage floating voters to vote for the SNP and other smaller progressive parties rather than for Labour, and (3) that the price for such support which the SNP would demand — scrapping Trident, exorbitant further devolution of powers to Scotland, etc. — would be too extreme for Labour to pay it. None of these objections holds water. Even if Labour does win an overall majority, it’s likely to be a dangerously slim one, and the conditional support of the other progressive parties will still be almost essential: certainly valuable. As Andrew Rawnsley convincingly demonstrates in today’s Observer,  every vote for the SNP at Labour’s expense risks depriving Labour of enough seats to be able to claim the right to form a government in a hung parliament: every SNP seat won from Labour makes continued Tory or Tory-led government more likely, and a minority Labour government with SNP support more unattainable, something to be rammed home on every opportunity. As for the SNP’s likely price for its support, Labour can safely reject unreasonable or politically unacceptable demands, since the SNP will have nowhere else to go. If it withholds support from a minority Labour government and thereby brings it down, the likeliest consequence will be a further term of Tory-led government — for which the SNP will be held responsible. (Even if, as Rawnsley implausibly suggests, this is what the SNP leadership secretly wants, because it would bring Scottish independence nearer, it’s hardly what the SNP rank and file want or would tolerate.)

So Labour should talk now to the other progressives with the aim of identifying enough common ground for them to promise qualified support to a Labour government after 7 May — whether Labour has an outright majority in the House of Commons, or whether Labour has the most seats but not a majority, or even if the Tories have won marginally more seats than Labour.  It’s a no brainer.


8 Responses

  1. john miles says:

    What do you think of Lord Baker’s suggestion that there should be a coalition between Labour and Conservative?
    They were happy to stand shoulder to shoulder during the Scottish referendum campaign.

    And apart from the BNP, and perhaps UKIP, these two are easily the furthest to the right.

    Brian writes: Lord Baker’s suggestion is mischievous rubbish, naively designed to confuse all the issues and to discredit Labour in the eyes of Scottish nationalists. Your comment comes perilously near to falling into the same category. Ed Miliband is clearly correct: every vote for the SNP at the expense of Labour in Scotland makes it more likely that Cameron will continue to occupy No 10 Downing Street, which would be a catastrophe for our country. (And inability to distinguish between the principal party of the right, i.e. the Conservatives, and the principal party of the left, i.e. the Labour party, is a sign of political illiteracy.)

    This is not however the place to pursue these issues, which do not arise directly from my post. If you or others wish to pursue them further, please do so elsewhere.

  2. john miles says:

    One or two thoughts:

    Conventional wisdom thinks it a mistake for parties to admit they might not succeed in winning an outright majority, as their supporters need to feel they’re going to be on the winning side.
    Of course this can backfire – many LibDem, and some Conservative, supporters were bitterly disappointed when they found a coalition forces both parties compromise on some of their pet policies.
    Some people think this is because last time nobody dreamed that a hung parliament was a serious possibility, but that’s not true any more’
    Are our politicians blindly using the tactics which would have won the last election?
    Is there another black swan in the offing they haven’t managed to spot?

    Could Labour and the SNP ever agree about Trident?

    My impression is that both main parties, and their leaders, are just about equally disliked in Scotland.
    Not because of their personalities, but because since the days of Baroness Thatcher the interests of the Scots have been largely ignored by Westminster.
    I expect you’ve read how Mr Brown thinks Mr Cameron will go down in history as a second Lord North, who lost us our American colonies.
    He doesn’t spell it out, but the implication seems to be that Mr Cameron is likely to lose us our Scottish one.

    When are the terms of the terms of DevoMax likely to be finalised?

    Can you blame Mr Salmond for relishing the fact that our masters at Westminster are suffering from the heeby-jeebies?
    Is he the only Scot who thinks, “This is where we get a bit of our own back?”

  3. Chris Vine says:

    Scottish Labour MPs would never agree to this, and I think for good reason given the support for the SNP currently being exhibited in Scotland as the party best representing Scottish interests. Scottish Labour simply cannot concede any further ground to the SNP.

    It seems probable that “in principle” hints and nudges have gone on behind the scenes with certain LDs, but I doubt it has or could go much further than that until the numbers are in on the morning after the election. For one thing, while Nick Clegg is in charge LD policy in the event of there being no overall majority in Parliament is I think to support the party with the most seats in the first instance. Furthermore, Labour do not need to have their ducks in a row now. If the Conservatives take most seats but are short of a majority and manage to persuade the Palace that they have some hope of running a government, Labour can still establish their confidence and supply alliance with the SNP and any other parties necessary before the Queen’s Speech and (if they have the numbers) simply vote out the Queen’s Speech. At that point, a message goes from Buckingham Palace to Ed Milliband.

    I have to say I find all the party leaders’ approach to this pretty distasteful. All three party leaders, by appearing in their “vow” to make retention of the Barnett Formula a constitutional principle rather than an administrative convenience, have institutionalised what amounts to discrimination against people in England and Wales. Cameron now appears to go further and to discount any right for duly elected SNP members from having a say in the running of the UK government. Having said that, the position Milliband could end up in is also perilous. If he is not careful, by the end of his government he could be in the remarkable position of being seen as anti-Scottish in Scotland and anti-English in England.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Chris. Things have moved on somewhat since I wrote the post above, towards the end of February, and I would now agree with you that the Labour leadership in Westminster and in Scotland have got themselves into such a state about the SNP that any overt conversations between them and Nicola Sturgeon or Salmond (or both) is effectively ruled out. (I was appalled to hear Jim Murphy on TV yestyerday insisting repeatedly that only the party which wins the most seats will be able to form a government — wrong, crazy and potentially suicidal!) Moreover since my post was published here, Ms Sturgeon (for whom I confess I have quite a lot of time) and Ed Miliband have both very sensibly ruled out a Lab-SNP coalition as such, and Nicola S has said quite plainly and without trying to lay down conditions that the SNP would support a minority Labour government in a hung parliament but not a Tory one, so that implies a confidence & supply understanding.
    I still think that leaving any contacts with the other centre-left parties until after the election is (a) bad for democracy because it leaves the electorate to vote when they don’t really know what they’re voting for, and (b) dangerous, chiefly because if Cameron manages to stay in No 10 right up to the Queen’s speech, he’ll almost certainly have recruited the fickle LibDems and — depending of course on the numbers — Con + LibDems + UKIP + DUP + one or two others might well succeed in assembling the magic 326 votes, or more, meaning another disastrous spell of Tory austerity and destruction. I would like Miliband to smoke the LibDems out before the election in talks on policy common ground that might induce them to agree to back a Labour minority government under a C&S understanding even if the Tories win a few more seats (and/or votes). But I realise that that ain’t gonna happen now, and I fear that Labour may well miss the bus again in consequence.

  4. David Campbell says:

    I’ll venture a forecast – a rash one, but here goes. Labour will hold off the SNP more effectively than the Conservatives can hope to hold off UKIP. This means a Labour government tainted by the lies of the Blair era and addicted to economic micro-management. It will, however, keep us in Europe. The national interest will, on balance, be better served this way.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, David. I think however that it’s more of an expression of hope and a value judgement (with which, as you’d expect, I strongly agree, for many more reasons than the powerful one that you cite) than a forecast. My own forecast, in summary, is as follows: The Tories and Labour will very nearly tie in the race to have the most seats but because of Labour’s collapse in Scotland, the Tories will come out a few seats ahead, possibly more than a few. Cameron will exercise his right to stay put in No 10 until parliament meets, and will present a brief Queen’s Speech in terms which will make it almost impossible for the LibDems to vote against it. Neither side will have a clear majority with just their firm supporters who have already declared (SNP, Greens, Plaid for Labour; UKIP, DUP for Conservatives). So the LibDems, however few, will in effect have the casting vote again. In view of their existing coalition partnership with the Tories and so as not to seem to disown their record in coalition, and because Cameron will have won rather more seats than Miliband, and because Labour hasn’t had the gumption to sign up the LibDems before the election and the Tories probably have, the LibDems will vote for Cameron’s Queen’s Speech and for the Conservative minority government in a subsequent vote of confidence. There probably won’t be another coalition but the LibDems will keep Cameron in office. Cameron will remain in No 10 at least until the in/out EU referendum in 2017 (to which the LibDems will have agreed). After that the crystal ball is cloudy. We may be out of the EU by 2018. Alas, I’m too old to emigrate. I desperately hope I’m wrong, but I fear that my scenario is all too plausible, unless something very dramatic happens between now and 7 May. Dick Barton, where are you?

  5. David Campbell says:

    I hope your forecast is no more that a superstitious nightmare, Brian, set down in the hope you’ll wake up. Your exaggerated fear of the LibDems suggests this may be so. In Scotland they have an honourable record but face electoral disaster. Unless the outlook is very different in England it seems unlikely they will hold the balance of power. If they do they are no more and no less likely to behave responsibly than any other party. I realise this may not be saying much.

    My forecast is based on a calculation that Jim Murphy’s “patriotic” Scottish Labour Party should be able to muster enough residual support to prevent a SNP walk-over. Murphy is in some ways a repulsive politician, a Blairite turncoat with a dangerous temper. But he knows what he’s up against, which is more than could be said for his predecessors. Scotland has too many MPs, most of them in Labour rotten boroughs. This works in Murphy’s favour. Nor are the SNP invulnerable. Their policies are coming home to roost and Salmond is a loose cannon. But of course the unfortunate Murphy has his own loose canon waiting to explode, in the form of Gordon Brown.

    As for the outlook in England, UKIP are beginning to make mistakes, and Farage seems have a yellow streak. This could let the Conservatives in. It may not be an unmitigated disaster if this happens. Cameron is far from being the worst Prime Minister ever. That accolade goes to Blair. It’s really not all that surprising that so many Scottish voters want out.

  6. Brian says:

    In reply to David Campbell’s comment, Brian writes: Thank you again, David. I have never, I think, expressed “fear” of the LibDems, nor does my speculative scenario depend on a belief that the LibDems will win any significant number of seats in May. I have merely observed that if you extrapolate a calculation of probable representation in the new house of commons from the current (consistent) poll findings, a number of interesting (and depressing) features emerge: neither of the two groups of parties whose intentions have been declared is likely to command a majority in the house of commons in May (i.e. neither the centre-left group of Labour, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and a few others, nor the centre-right group comprising the Conservatives, UKIP, the DUP and perhaps some others). The arithmetic strongly suggests that either group will fail to attain a majority in a vote of confidence on either a Tory or a Labour minority government without the additional support of the LibDems, however few they might be. And here’s the reason for their significance: they are the only party which refuses to say whether they will support a Labour or a Conservative minority government — a discreditable refusal to come clean with the electorate with the manifestly grubby purpose of enabling them to ensure that they will be part of the governing group regardless of the outcome of the election, and regardless of their own policies and principles. My unsubstantiated guess is that the LibDems will in practice throw their support behind the Tory-UKIP-DUP group, for several reasons: after five years in coalition with the Tories, a switch to support for Labour would look like a transparently unprincipled act; it would appear to repudiate the LibDems’ five-year record in government with the Tories; and they might keep their LibDem ministerial Jaguars in a renewed coalition with the Tories whereas a formal coalition with a Labour government is almost inconceivable.

    Another aspect of the LibDems’ choice, often overlooked, is that as the incumbent prime minister, Cameron will have the huge advantage, if the election results are as inconclusive as seems likely, of being able to remain in office until the new parliament meets, and there to present a LibDem-friendly Queen’s Speech setting out a moderate Tory programme for government that it would be very difficult for the LibDems to vote against. Ed Miliband will have no such opportunity: he will still be in opposition, even if — as looks increasingly unlikely — Labour has won a few more seats than the Tories. And finally, another factor in LibDem calculations may well be that it would be difficult to support a minority Labour government so soon after Labour-LibDem relations have for years been so hostile, each using often vitriolic language about the other.

    If Labour is to stand even the faintest chance of adding the LibDems to the group of parties willing to sustain a Labour minority government in office, it must turn down the anti-LibDem rhetoric immediately and start now to discuss with their leaders areas of common ground on whose basis the two parties could honourably work together. And Labour should be challenging the LibDems on every possible opportunity to spell out where their principles and policies most closely coincide with those of Cameron and Osborne’s Conservative party, and where those principles and policies most closely coincide with those of Miliband’s and Balls’s Labour party. We should all warn the LibDems that another five years upholding and collaborating with the most reactionary Tory party since the 1930s would risk the disappearance of a Liberal Democratic party with a distinctive personality and purpose. Like the National Liberals before them, they will end up inside the Tory tiger they thought they were riding.

    As to your remarks about the respective merits of Messrs Cameron, Blair and Miliband, our disagreement could hardly be more fundamental. I believe that David Cameron is the worst and most damaging prime minister since before the second world war: weak, incompetent, dedicated to the advancement of his social class and his party’s funders at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable in our nation, constantly surrendering principle to the appeasement of the most reactionary of his back-bench MPs to the point where he has actually put Britain’s place in Europe at serious risk — while clearly knowing that British exit from the EU would be a catastrophe for our country. Conversely, to call Tony Blair the worst prime minister ever seems to me simply perverse. In many ways Mr Blair was an outstanding and successful Labour prime minister, repairing the ravages of under-investment in our public servicces during the preceding years of Tory misrule, presiding over an unprecedented decade of low inflation, low unemployment, annual growth in the economy, and a significant reduction in child poverty, the introduction of the historic Human Rights Act and the minimum wage in the face of unremitting Tory opposition, and breaking records by winning three elections in a row for Labour. Nothing can take those things away from him. The tragedy for Tony Blair and for Britain is that all those achievements are forever overshadowed by his catastrophic blunder in Iraq and a dismal record on respect for civil rights at home. Iraq was not a one-off aberration, either: Blair’s cheer-leading of the NATO illegal attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo, a comprehensive failure which was misrepresented as a triumph, was a curtain-raiser for Iraq and reflected Blair’s contempt for the rule of law in international affairs and his misplaced belief in his own faith-based judgement at the expense of facts and evidence. A large part of the credit for the successes of Blair’s successive administrations is certainly shared with Gordon Brown, but Blair’s share of that credit cannot reasonably be disregarded, however enormous the shadow of his failures.

  7. David Campbell says:

    Where to begin? Let’s start with the LibDems.

    I think they are 100% right to keep their options open. In 2010 they and the Conservatives responded to the electoral arithmetic in a way which was creditable to them both. They should wait and see what the electorate expect of them this time. I trust their judgement but in any case doubt if the situation you fear will arise. Our electoral system is far too perverse for the kind of analysis you find so mesmerising.

    Yes, I use the word “fear” deliberately. The LibDems are a centre left party who are under-represented in the Commons, where Labour are over-represented. It’s understandable that Labour fear them so much, and tragic they can’t give them the respect they deserve.

    Cameron I put as our fourth worst Prime Minister after and including John Major. He’s not the class warrior you describe. He just has an Etonian sense of entitlement, no worse than the sense of entitlement of his rivals. At least in Cameron’s case it is tempered by ideas of noblesse oblige. He’s a poor judge of character and far too keen on prestige projects like the high speed train. His biggest mistake is to have modelled himself on Blair, and to have embraced so many of Blair’s socially divisive policies.On the credit side, Cameron at least has a sense of personal loyalty. Gratitude for the way his son was helped makes the NHS safer in his hands than Milliband’s. As to Europe, he’s been an idiot. But look at the precedents. Harold Wilson in 1975, John Major in 1993, Gordon Brown and the Lisbon Treaty? Cameron’s fault is in a way a good one, though no less dangerous for that (more so, probably). Unlike his predecessors, he seems to believe his own rhetoric.

    Your apologia for Blair is wonderfully revealing, sweeping all before it until you admit him to be a war criminal. Even that might have been forgivable if only his judgement hadn’t been so so consistently wrong. (Afghanistan, where legal cover was in place, was another inexplicable blunder of the worst possible kind). Blair seems to have no moral or intellectual compass. None of the “integrity” he keeps boasting of. He was corrupt from the day he took office, starting with Bernie Ecclestone and graduating to cash for peerages. He bureaucratised the NHS (this is likely to be Miliband’s Achilles heel if he gets in), wrecked our schools, destroyed academic independence and undermined civil liberty. He drove david Kelly to suicide. As to his courage, he didn’t even have enough of it to sack Gordon Brown. His belief that virtual reality is more important than truth is the root cause of public disillusion, not just with politicians but democracy.

    I’d like to end with a word about Gordon Brown. His intervention in the referendum campaign has still not been recognised for the unmitigated disaster it was. Let me just register the thought that the “vow” into which he bullied the No Campaign was wholly unnecessary. Almost as bad as conceding victory to the SNP. I called him a loose cannon in my last comment because he’s a grudge bearer. There is a very real danger he will undermine his old colleague Jim Murphy in the way he undermined his old colleague Alistair Darling. I think Murphy can deliver in Scotland. If he doesn’t, it will be far more serious for Labour’s hopes of power than the unpredictability of the LibDems.

  8. Brian Barder says:

    In reply to David Campbell (http://www.barder.com/4406/comment-page-1#comment-207609), Brian writes: We clearly aren’t going to agree on anything much, David. On just a few points: It’s a fallacy to write as if the electorate is a single entity with a single collective view of what it “wants”. It’s already very likely that around a third of it will want a Tory government and another third will want a Labour one. The remaining third will support other parties to make a pointless gesture or out of sentimentality or habit, but the majority will have a degree of preference as between Cameron and Miliband. LibDem fence-sitting until after the election while they wait to discover “what the electorate wants” is indefensible. Those who vote for them are doing so without being able to know what the effect of their votes will be on the principal issue to be decided — whether the next UK government is to be headed by Cameron or Miliband. I don’t believe Labour ‘fears the LibDems’, although it may well fear, as I do, that they will once again condemn the country to another spell of economically incompetent, actively reactionary and socially divisive, weakly anti-European government. If you don’t fear that too, you clearly ought to. Your indictment of Cameron’s leadership is valid but seems curiously reluctant. Your refusal to acknowledge any of Blair’s or Brown’s many positive achievements is far more “wonderfully revealing” than my own much more balanced assessment.

    And finally, Gordon Brown’s last-minute intervention in the Scottish referendum debate almost certainly saved the UK from disintegration — by no means the first of his actions to earn our lasting gratitude. Many of us had been warning for a year and more before the referendum that full internal self-government (aka home rule, devo max) would need to be offered to Scotland as the alternative to independence if the UK was not to be split asunder: that such an offer was anyway inherently desirable and should be Labour policy regardless of the referendum: and that it should be the harbinger of corresponding full internal self-government for each of the other three UK nations, linked in a durable, democratic, decentralised and above all a federal relationship. Gordon Brown was the only political leader with the nous and far-sightedness to spot this. It’s unthinkable that the UK parties should even think of reneging on their solemn pledge to the Scots, and typical of David Cameron that he should try to derail it — only after the referendum result became known, of course — by seeking to make it conditional on a barmy, unworkable, brazenly partisan plan for EVEL, designed permanently to deprive England of its own government and parliament and to reduce Labour’s chances of winning a majority in the UK minus Scotland.

    And this particular dialogue “will now cease”, as the newspaper editors used to say — Ed. [Editor, not Miliband or Balls.]

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