Tom Carty argues that Labour must explore the scope for an anti-Tory coalition including the SNP and the Liberal Democrats
Close your eyes and imagine the scene outside 10 Downing Street on 8 May as David Cameron returns from the Palace, confirmed in office. It is such a distressing thought that you have probably avoided (or suppressed) it. However, the most recent polling evidence suggests we had better turn our minds to it. Once you get over the nausea, what this painful exercise does is bring home what is at stake on 7 May.
A choice of society
For the first time since the elections of the 1980s, 2015 involves a choice of society. It puts you in mind of Neil Kinnock’s prophetic warning in 1983, that if the Thatcher government were returned to power, then it would be better not to be old, poor or sick. The consequences of a Tory victory, both domestically (for example: under the cover of austerity, a continuing radical attack on benefits and on services provided by local government, along with tax cuts favouring the rich) and internationally (for example: a Eurosceptic-driven referendum on continuing membership of the EU), mean that we have an overriding duty to prevent it. If Labour fails to obtain an overall majority it must therefore be prepared to enter a coalition or other arrangement reflecting the anti-Tory majority in the country. To do so will involve unlearning expectations and reflexes which belong to what is for the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not, the lost age of majority governments, and embracing the new political landscape with humility as expressing the will of the people.
Facing up to the implications
Coalition politics is still unfamiliar territory for the electorate, as it is for politicians, but we are probably going to have to get used to it, so the sooner Labour does think practically and speak honestly about the implications the better.
To spell out a couple of those implications:
• If Labour falls short of a majority in the next Parliament, it will almost certainly mean it will have to enter into some sort of agreement, if not a formal coalition, with the SNP (which certainly counts as anti-Tory, and which has already stated that it would not in any circumstances sustain a Conservative government in power, but that it is ready to lend its support to a progressive alliance). This will be very hard for many in the party to accept, as the strength of the SNP will be in direct proportion to the scale of its victory over Labour in Scotland.
• It's likely the Liberal Democrats will be much diminished in the next Parliament. While permitting them for the first time since the Second World War to demonstrate that they are more than a party of protest, coalition with the Tories has been a bruising experience. Many would welcome the chance of demonstrating their independence of the Tories and Labour should be prepared to accept that as party they have a natural place in an anti-Tory constellation. Again, this will be difficult for most Labour supporters (not to mention the wider electorate) to accept.
Advantages and priorities of a progressive coalition
A Labour-led 'big tent’ coalition, which would also naturally include the Greens and Plaid Cymru, has the additional advantage of isolating the Tories, leaving them with only UKIP and the DUP as potential partners. We also need to remember that they did not win in 2010 (in fact they have not won a majority since 1992), and a further defeat involving loss of power would lead to a change of leadership, with factionalism and more extreme policies crippling them in opposition. Boris Johnson is waiting in the wings.
Any coalition will have to be carefully prepared and presented because neither the party nor the electorate understand coalition politics. Securing acceptance will depend above all on the content of the coalition agreement. There must be no hint of secret deals or quid pro quos. The parties must demonstrate their willingness to work together, that they are prepared to compromise on treasured policies. They must address the issues raised in the pastoral letter of the Anglican bishops and positively articulate the genuine common commitment of the coalition partners to social justice and public services, as well as to EU membership. We can also assume that the presence of the other parties will strengthen Labour's resolve to entrust to a broad-based national constitutional convention urgent, and related, questions such as electoral reform (in the light of the changed party landscape), the future shape of the Union, parliamentary reform (including the representation of England, and the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected upper house).
If you have any lingering doubts, just consider the virulence with which the right-wing press attacks the prospect of a Labour/SNP alliance. So scared are the Tories of the threat this poses to their continuing grip on power that, like former party chairman Kenneth Baker, they are even willing to consider a German-style Grand Coalition of the two main parties. But London is not Berlin, and Merkel's CDU is a very different creature from the Tory party, which like UKIP, is simply not koalitionsfähig (suitable for or capable of coalition), to use a neat German term. Fortunately, all the other parties are.
Tom Carty (tomcartysite.co.uk) is the author of 'The Jesus Reader. The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ', Columba Press, Dublin.
Thank you for your response. I do not like the Liberal Democrats, but that does not matter, because a coalition agreement is precisely about policies, and there is enough common ground between the Liberal Democrats and Labour for a viable programme for government.
The same applies to the SNP, and no conceivable coalition agreement would include an early independence referendum (or scrapping Trident, for that matter). The fact that the SNP is committed to ending the Union would have no relevance to the functioning of an anti-Tory government.
One thing I feel strongly about though – as a Scotsman – is that we should rule out coalition with the SNP now. I sense that this is not a majority view currently within the party. Yes, they (at least present themselves) as a socially progressive party. However, the price that they will command is too steep. I am confident that their price for coalition will be the commitment to another independence referendum within 5 years (i.e. within the next parliament). Additionally, a prominent place – including Cabinet seats – will enable the SNP to do what they love to do, which is have profile and publicity for their core messages. This will not be good for those that love the Union.