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  1. Election 2024
20 May 2016

To govern again, Labour must do a deal with the SNP and focus on England

Labour's new electoral reality makes an accommodation with Scottish nationalism inevitable.

By Keiran Pedley

Looking at this month’s election results we can draw two main conclusions. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn is secure as Labour leader. Secondly, a Labour majority in 2020 is unlikely. It is in this context that Labour must approach the task of winning power in 2020 and beyond. It will not be easy. With Scotland seemingly lost, Labour’s priority must be building new support in England. However, in the absence of a landslide of 1997 proportions, Labour will need the support of Scottish MPs to govern in future. Therefore, undesirable though it may be for some, a deal with the SNP seems inevitable. How Labour approaches this challenge – and sells it to English voters – is central to the party’s medium and long term prospects.

One thing we know is that Jeremy Corbyn’s position as Labour leader is secure. Surpassing low expectations appears to be a theme of his leadership and so it has proven again. Having been predicted to lose as many as 150 seats, Labour lost just 18 and narrowly defeated the Conservatives in the projected national vote share by 31 per cent to 30 per cent. Having outperformed expectations once more, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP lack the ‘smoking gun’ needed to remove him – aptly demonstrated by Tom Watson’s declaration that the Labour leader ‘needs more time’. In truth, that ‘smoking gun’ may never appear. Recent polling from YouGov suggests that 64 per cent of Labour members would support him again in another leadership contest.

However, surpassing low expectations is not the same as putting the party on course for victory in 2020. Based on the PNS at the Local Elections, Chris Prosser of the British Election Study projects that Labour is currently on course for a result in 2020 similar to that achieved in 2015 (Conservatives 37 per cent, Labour 30 per cent, Liberal Democrat 11 per cent, and UKIP 11 per cent). Now, as Prosser himself readily admits, it would be unwise to predict a General Election that is 4 years away with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, it appears that although Labour is not falling back as many feared the party is also not making the required progress to win a majority in 2020 either – in fact Labour looks on course to lose again.

Assuming that Labour does not wish to meekly trudge to defeat 2020, how should the party react? In many ways the challenge faced now is greater than at any point in Labour’s history. Boundary changes are on the way and the 2014 independence referendum has caused a fundamental realignment in Scottish politics. Although the SNP failed to win a majority in the recent Scottish Parliament elections their dominance north of the border is near total. The days of Labour winning 40 plus Scottish seats in Westminster are over whilst the 3 point lead that produced a majority in 2005 is unlikely to do so in 2020.

There are two main implications for the new electoral reality that Labour faces. One, it must win more support in England to compensate for that lost in Scotland. Two, it must sell the prospect of a Labour government supported by the SNP as acceptable to English voters.

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Focus on England

The challenge in England is complex.  At a macro level the usual problems exist. Labour has to convince the voting public that Jeremy Corbyn is a credible Prime Minister in-waiting and that Labour can be trusted on fundamental issues such as the economy and national security. Beyond this, Labour has to develop an emotional connection with voters past lost and those never gained. A start would be to show that the party is comfortable with the idea of England and ‘being English’ – an area where Labour often struggles. Serious consideration should be given to whether an English Labour Party is needed and the party’s policy on issues such as ‘English votes for English laws’.

Such a direction will be unpalatable to some but it shouldn’t be. There is no reason that Labour’s brand of anti-austerity politics cannot be proudly patriotic and no reason why ‘wrapping yourself in the flag’ should mean opposition to immigration and supporting Brexit. To make real progress in England, Labour has to be about more than London and other urban areas. Showing that the party is comfortable with the English identity is a start. It will not be the whole story. Such work must be coupled with a focus on more tangible issues such as building bridges with business and policies on home ownership, but it is a step in the right direction.

Regardless of any progress made in England, Labour’s ‘Scottish problem’ cannot be ignored. Although Labour has won parliamentary majorities in the past that were large enough to mean it could govern without the support of Scottish MPs, there are no signs that 2020 will produce such results. This matters because as long as Labour might need SNP support to govern, we know that the Conservatives will exploit the issue with English voters – as they did so effectively in 2015. In fact, the likelihood is that Labour will have to address this issue in future regardless of its position in the polls.

In response, Labour should consider seeking some form of deal with the SNP before the 2020 General Election campaign. This does not mean a formal electoral pact but could mean a confidence and supply agreement announced (at least in principle) before the campaign begins. The parties could agree a joint statement saying that although they have strong policy disagreements – on the future of Scotland and indeed the UK – they are united in removing the Tories from power in Westminster.  A deal might include an SNP commitment to support a Labour administration’s Queen Speech and Budget and not to vote on ‘English only’ issues in exchange for further powers for Scotland such as full fiscal autonomy.

Hard choices

No doubt many will scoff at the prospect of such a deal or say that it is unworkable. It is true that the SNP might be reluctant but Labour needs to find a way to make it happen. The stakes are high. It is vital to Labour’s future electoral prospects that the party can say to English voters, ‘we want to win outright, but if we don’t here is what a deal with the SNP might look like’. Tory fatigue cannot be relied on to sell a Labour/SNP deal to English voters. Even if a deal is more principle than substance a deal must be made.

Of course, some will argue that with the current leadership Labour will lose anyway in 2020. That may be true. However, Labour’s new electoral reality is bigger than one election. It means that the question of a deal with the SNP will come up time and time again until the party can answer it – even when the party does have a strong poll lead. Senior Labour figures would be wise to start giving thought on how to answer this question sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, with Scotland lost, Labour must do some hard thinking about how it can appeal to an England that is so important to the party’s future prospects and only becoming more so over time.

Keiran Pedley tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley

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