A Labour-SNP pact to defeat the Tories would be in the interests of both parties

An alliance between Labour and the SNP could suit both parties

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon talks to her Labour counterpart Jeremy Corbyn at a memorial service for the Battle of the Somme in 2016

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

So the Blairite-dominated Fabian Society has published a study claiming that Labour cannot win under Jeremy Corbyn, and must move back to the centre ground. 

It’s tempting, and to some extent justified, to dismiss this as a “duck quacks” story. In fairness, though, the study has an extremely unpalatable message for the Labour plotters as well – even if the party completely changes direction, it has no hope whatever of forming a majority government at the next general election. Under any leader, its only hope for power lies in the fabled ‘progressive alliance’ with the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps other parties.

Whenever the possibility of an alliance is raised, some Labour-friendly commentators have the habit of reeling off a series of easy excuses for the party not really needing to engage with the idea seriously. One favourite is that the SNP simply wouldn’t be interested, because Labour would have nothing to bring to the table, short of throwing in the towel and accepting the inevitability of Scottish independence. That simply isn’t true – the SNP is a pro-independence party, but that doesn’t equate to ‘independence or nothing’. There are plenty of new powers for the Scottish Parliament short of independence that Labour could offer, and that the SNP would be very interested in bagging. Of course that would mean Labour dropping the silly fiction that “the most powerful devolved parliament in the world” has already been delivered, but they already seem to be on their way to doing so – albeit very gradually and painfully.

Moreover, if the alliance took the form of an official electoral pact, or even an informal non-aggression pact, there could be significant benefits for the SNP even before a potential Labour-led government takes office. Every party is keen to maximise its number of parliamentary seats, and – contrary to the belief of many – it’s perfectly possible that an alliance could make the difference in helping the SNP achieve that.

The 2015 Westminster general election coincided with a sweet spot for Nicola Sturgeon, where Yes-voting ex-Labour voters had already switched en masse to the SNP, but No voters in areas of traditional strength for the Tories and the Lib Dems had not yet coalesced in an effective way. The constituency results in last year's Scottish Parliament election demonstrate what happens when unionist tactical voting starts to pack more of a punch - the SNP remains dominant, but fails to win a significant minority of seats. Translated into a Westminster contest, that scenario might see the SNP reduced from 56 seats to somewhere in the mid-to-high 40s (or perhaps a little less if boundary changes go through). Hardly a disaster, and in all likelihood it would still leave the party as comfortably the third-strongest force in the Commons. But it shouldn't be difficult to see why Sturgeon might be interested in exploring options that would enable her to avoid any losses at all.

Rationally, it ought to be in Labour's best interests to explore those options as well. A few seats lost by the SNP almost certainly means a few seats gained by the Tories, and if the Fabians are right that Labour cannot win on their own, the chances of forming any sort of centre-left government depend entirely on minimising the overall number of Tory seats.

But it’s impossible to understate what a sea-change in the Scottish political scene it would be if Labour were to actually start helping the SNP to defeat the Tories, as opposed to doing the complete reverse. As things stand, Scottish Labour and the Tories are allies in all but name, and if anything the relations between the two parties seem to be only deepening. Labour’s strategy for the forthcoming Scottish local government elections, such as it is, consists of damage limitation and then forming as many governing coalitions with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as possible, with the specific aim of freezing the SNP out. 

It may be entirely logical for Scottish Labour to stop thinking of the SNP as the enemy, at least in Westminster terms, but if Scottish Labour was able to make decisions based on rationality rather than blind hatred of the “separatists”, it wouldn’t be in the predicament in which it is currently mired.

If the idea of an alliance is ever going to get off the ground, it may require senior figures among the London-based Labour plotters to take the initiative. The Scottish party is effectively now the Glasgow branch office of the plotters, so if a strong message comes from that direction that warmer relations with Nicola Sturgeon must be accepted for the greater good of the party, it’s possible that progress might start to be made. 

At an absolute minimum, it’s vital that the progressive parties at least reach enough of an understanding prior to a general election to head off the grotesque spectacle that we saw on the BBC results programme last time around. At a point in the evening when it was obvious that Labour had fallen well short of overtaking the Tories as the largest party, but it hadn’t yet become clear that the Tories were heading for an outright majority, the editor of The Sun had the audacity to take to our TV screens and rewrite the British constitution before our eyes. On behalf of the electorate, he declared that the Tories had won, and that it wouldn’t be acceptable for Labour to govern “from a long way back”, even if they could command a majority in the Commons with the help of other parties. 

This time, Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats must lay down a marker by making clear that it is the elected parliament that decides who forms the government, and not the tabloid press. If they do that, and if they all campaign on the declared aim of forming a multi-party anti-Tory majority, there’s just a chance we could see a change of government much sooner than many of us fear.

James Kelly's blog, Scot goes POP!, is among the most popular political blogs in the UK. He has also contributed to a number of newspapers and magazines.

You can check out the blog here or follow James on Twitter.

James has also written for us about the madness of King Trump, the crisis created by the Brexit legal challenge and why Scottish Labour care more about Corbyn than their country.