The Conservative party could cause Labour real problems by making a ‘big, open offer’. They won’t.
On May 7th 2010, David Cameron made the smartest move of his leadership of the Conservative party. Having failed to win a Conservative majority by twenty seats, he could have tried to run a minority government. Instead, he stressed the importance of ‘strong, stable government’ and offered the Liberal Democrats great influence over the programme of government, a position that eventually led to a full coalition.
Five years on, a single party majority government is still very unlikely. Labour has made progress in England, but appears to be falling back in Scotland. The Conservatives have lost ground to UKIP but otherwise are holding their vote. The Liberal Democrats have lost support to everyone.
Crafting a government from these figures is difficult. Most projections now put Labour and the Conservatives on a rough tie, with some combination of the SNP, Lib Dems and minor parties needed for anything close to a parliamentary majority.
Unsurprisingly, the SNP is telling Scottish voters that they would be willing to back a Labour government in return for various ‘concessions for Scotland’1.
This seems to put Labour in a bind. Accept the offer of SNP support, and Labour would appear to be governing at the whim of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Reject it outright, and you might allow a Tory government. As a result, Labour spokespeople have more or less avoided the question, though cannier Labour figures see that the SNP has no negotiating position. If an SNP parliamentary party sat on their hands and allowed a Conservative government in Westminster, it would destroy their radical credentials among newly converted former Labour voters.
Labour could therefore tell the SNP to do what they wish, but may lack the nerve to. Part of the reason for this is that some in England see the SNP primarily as a more progressive and successful version of the English left itself, a sort of Syriza on the Clyde. Why would you wish to reject a radical spur?
This is to mistake the primary purpose of the SNP. The party is what it says it is, a national independence party. The SNP cannot be treated as another potential progressive partner in an anti-Tory alliance. Their core aim is not merely to stop the Tories, but to stop Britain.
To secure this, they must win the support of Scottish Labour voters, but their aim in doing this is to expose the contradictions and tensions of the British Labour movement and so remove a bulwark of unionism. This is entirely legitimate strategy for an independence movement, but seeing the SNP as a potential partner to do business with is a huge mistake.
An SNP-Labour alliance would be fundamentally unstable for the very simple reason that the SNP would always be looking for a way to discover Westminster was betraying Scotland’s national interest, and so expose unionism as a fraud upon the Scottish people. There would always be another demand, another ‘vital Scottish interest’ which Labour could not accede to without destroying itself in England. Scottish Labour knows this, which is why it is hugely hostile to such an alliance.
This means there is a very real chance the coming election will produce a hugely unstable, ungovernable mess, with parties on the edges of British national life demanding significant concessions to support a government with little electoral authority.
All of which gives the Conservatives an opportunity.
There are many people in Britain who seek, above all, stable, non-partisan governance. The bickering of parties is for many voters a turn-off, a sign of immaturity and self-interest. The flip side of ‘They’re all the same’ is ‘Why can’t you just sit down together and sort it out?’ It may be mocked now, but ‘Together, in the National Interest’ was a genuinely popular proposition.
If he wished, David Cameron could become the voice of such voters. He could make another ‘big, open offer’, without preconditions. He could say that for all the differences between Labour and Conservative, for all their debates and arguments, they at least share a common belief in a stable, strong Britain. That belief should take precedence over anything else.
On that basis, he could offer Ed Miliband a deal – whichever of the two main parties won a plurality of votes and seats, the other party leader would allow them to pass their Queen’s speech by abstaining, in order to keep out the SNP and prevent the distortions of forming a fragmented coalition with minor parties.
In return, the opposition would be fully consulted on budgets and the detailed legislative programme, a deal not dissimilar to that reached in Sweden to prevent the Sweden Democrats bringing down the government. It wouldn’t be ‘grand coalition’, but a return to Baldwinite national interest pragmatism. It wouldn’t bind a future opposition leader to approve a single law, but prevent a minority government having to scrabble around for an alliance. Frankly, it’s not even that different to what it takes to get legislation through the House of Lords right now.
Of course, Labour would have to refuse. A deal with the Tories of any sort is anathema. It undermines Labour’s message of change.
The reverse is not true for the Conservatives. Proposing such a deal would allow the Tories to claim to put country above party interest and might persuade floating English voters the Tories were no great risk to their interests. As Labour would have to refuse the offer it would also put some genuine edge on the question of what sort of ‘left’ government might be attempted with the likes of Salmond and Bennett.
If Labour’s offer in this election is change, the Tories best offer is national stability. Offering to put Britain before party might be the best example of this the Tories could make. It won’t even be a deal they have to keep, because Labour would have to turn it down.
Of course, they won’t do it, because the Conservative party appears to think that power is best enjoyed alone, or not at all.
- This would presumably involve junking their previous commitment not to vote on English only matters, but never mind [↩]