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16 March 2015

Neal Lawson: Why Labour must do a deal with the SNP

A more social democratic Britain can be achieved, and Scottish Labour's recovery set in train, if a deal is done between Labour and the SNP.

By Neal Lawson

Scotland continues to provide Labour with a whopping great headache. But the pain will get worse unless Labour ends its defensive tribalism.     The party is under enormous pressure from the right to rule out any deal with the SNP. But so have some Labour figures. Why is this pressure being so strongly exerted and what should Labour do? 

The Tories and their media mates think that any link to the SNP will cause Labour harm in England – hence Miliband airbrushed into the pocket of Alex Salmond – next it will be Salmond pulling Miliband’s strings. It’s all so childish – as the electorate can see.  Everyone knows no one is likely to win outright and someone is going to have to speak to someone else.  Welcome to the world of the grown ups.

But underlying this electoral exploitation of Labour’s weak polling position, which simply mirrors the weak polling position of the Tories, is something much more important – the fear that a Labour SNP deal would pull the country sharply in a direction they don’t want to see it go – less austerity, more devolution of power, maybe wider constitutional reform and the end of the out-dated Trident missile system.

Let’s remind ourselves, the SNP have provided a cast iron guarantee that under no circumstance will it do a deal – any deal – with the Tories. They are by far the biggest part of an anti-Tory block that also includes Plaid Cymru and the Greens.  These two parties will have few MPs between but even a handful could be vital.  And just as important, they balance out the influence of the SNP if they can act as a block. The three leaders are due to meet in Scotland on Tuesday. Building relationships between the three of them will be important if they are to act consistently and coherently in the run up to May7th and beyond.

Back to Labour.  Electoral reality is starting to kick in.  If Labour rules out a deal with this emerging block then it merely signals its willingness to walk back into the wilderness and leave the country to the Tories.  The upshot of which is not just Osborne and deeper cuts – but the acceleration of the break up of the Union. The party knows it might need the SNP to keep the Tories out and get itself in.  So Ed Balls got it as right yesterday when he refused to rule out any deal with the SNP.  Now the rest of the party need to give the leadership as much wiggle room as possible.  

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But some Labour politicians are even calling for tactical voting in Scotland with the Tories to keep the SNP out. This is simply unfathomable. If Labour stands shoulder to shoulder with the Tories again in defence of the Union then they are giving themselves no chance of ever recovering in Scotland and making it more likely that the Tories stay on office. All of which just accelerates the shift to independence.   Arguing that a vote for the SNP will let the Tories in because Labour will never do a deal with the SNP is about as warped as political blackmail gets.

Writing in yesterday’s Herald the always excellent Iain Macwhirter said this:

Labour and the SNP are social democratic parties of the left with many policies in common, such as increasing free child care and halting Tory welfare reforms …. a coalition programme could be put together tomorrow. But politics is essentially tribal. Delivering policies that benefit their voters often comes a poor second to party advantage.”

It is this blind and closed tribalism that will be Labour’s downfall unless it can start to open itself out. Labour is going to have to stop hating the SNP more than it hates the Tories.  Ruling Scotland, or anywhere is no party’s birthright.  Labour needs to win the right back. That can only be done without a strong dose of radicalism.

Some SNP support is for nationalism at any price and in any way.  For them it is cultural and emotional.  But many, I suspect most, now backing the SNP have made the calculation that the social democratic country they see as desirable is simply infeasible in a Union dominated by the City of London, the Tory Party, a right wing media and a Labour Party they see as in thrall to all three of them.  To these left of centre Scots, independence is the only route to social democracy in such a cold climate.  Labour is going to have to stop pushing these people away and blackmailing them with the line ‘dare to vote for something better than us and we will ensure you get the Tories’. 

The way back for Labour in Scotland, the only way back, is to be smarter social democrats than the SNP.  Ed Balls has kept the door open. It’s up to others to force it wide open and show that social democracy can be built, in part at least, from Westminster. Anything less signals Labour’s political death.