Lesley Riddoch: Election stakes could not be higher

A CHANCE could be coming for the unionist parties to do the right thing by Scotland, reckons Lesley Riddoch

Nicola Sturgeons SNP may not be the Downing Street kingmaker post-7 May it expected to be. Picture: Getty
Nicola Sturgeons SNP may not be the Downing Street kingmaker post-7 May it expected to be. Picture: Getty

Clearly, Labour would far rather win an outright majority – but even the most optimistic poll, which put Ed Miliband 6 per cent in front, didn’t predict outright victory. In which case a firm coalition with the unionist Lib Dems obviously looks preferable to a flaky issue-by-issue arrangement with the new untouchables of UK politics – the nationalist bogeymen and women of the SNP. Besides, Labour and the Lib Dems have already worked together – in 1977 a temporary deal between Jim Callaghan and David Steel survived 15 months. Lib-Lab coalitions lasted longer in Wales between 2000 and 2003 and at Holyrood from 1999-2007.

Furthermore, Alastair Campbell has already predicted it. Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor told the Fabian Review in January; “I was right in 2010, I knew it was going to be a Tory-Liberal coalition. Now it’ll be a Lib-Lab deal.”

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So that’s that then.

Nicola can kick off her high heels, the right-wing press can focus exclusively on Red Ed, Jim Murphy can relax and Alex can prepare to lead a Nationalist “feeble 50” through a dismal repeat of Labour’s doldrum years.

Or maybe not. Dealing with the Lib Dems may seem easier than supping with the Nats – but there are snags. A Lib-Lab-SDLP-Alliance-Green pact couldn’t be agreed after the 2010 election. Admittedly there were more parties, the idea of coalition was less familiar and some difficult personalities were involved. Now Gordon Brown has gone, together with cabinet ministers hostile to joint working – John Reid, Alan Johnson and David Blunkett

But the battle-hardened Lib Dems will not be pushovers. If their cohort of MPs is cut to a third of its previous size, Nick Clegg – or his successor – will need to be certain another pact leaves them standing tall, with tangible, progressive gains like PR for Westminster elections and radical reform to the House of Lords.

A UK party with just 20 MPs simply cannot afford to be left carrying the can for another government which plainly isn’t “all in this together”.

And of course, there’s the need to accommodate Ulster MPs. The SDLP may be left leaning, but it also represents republican sentiment. Its main rivals Sinn Fein are so opposed to Westminster, their five MPs don’t currently take their seats. Cosying up to London could damage the SDLP in exactly the same way that closeness to the Tories has almost terminally damaged the Lib Dems. It could conceivably also provoke Sinn Fein to take their seats – upsetting the careful arithmetic all over again

Meanwhile – does any of this sound stable? It’s true that Alex Salmond survived so well with a majority of just one seat that he was rewarded with a landslide victory and outright majority in 2011. But that was marshalling only his own troops. A Lib-Lab-SDLP-indy pact needs military discipline across four very different parties to survive – and a blemish-free attendance record. To paraphrase Neil Kinnock, “I warn you not to be young, not to fall ill and not to be old.

Even more importantly, how will it look to Scots if they record an election result as explicit and unambiguous as forecast, but find the very parties they have shunned in Scotland nonetheless sharing power at Westminster?

A new You Gov poll shows support for the SNP at a near record level of 49 per cent. Thanks to our archaic first past the post system, that level of support will translate into 53 seats for the SNP, 3 for Labour, and one each for the Tories and Lib Dems. If anything like this massive change takes place – if Scottish voters abandon Labour and the Lib Dems in their droves and tactical voting does no more than leave a few more of their candidates in second place – how will that appear to Scots?

Of course, in the great scheme of things, that concern may not be uppermost for Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. Yet back in 2010, both politicians eventually accepted that five more years of Gordon Brown was not the preferred option of the electorate. British voters wanted change then – Scottish voters want change now. In each case the precise nature of the change desired may not be clear – but the status quo is clearly unacceptable.

What does that mean in the unstable, unpredictable and topsy-turvy world of the self-styled Mother of Parliaments?

Well, if half of Scots voters do back the SNP despite Jim Murphy’s oft-repeated claim that full fiscal autonomy will leave a £7.6 billion black hole – we can assume a majority of Scots do want an autonomous, quasi-federal Scottish Government which collects all tax and controls the economy, sending cash south only for the reserved functions of defence, foreign affairs, monetary and macroeconomic policy. That looks like a democratic demand for far beefier Home Rule than any unionist party is currently offering. Likewise, if hundreds of thousands of voters do desert Labour and the Lib Dems after Nicola Sturgeon’s assurance that a second independence referendum will be triggered by the Scottish public – not a Westminster victory – we can assume most voters believe her. That suggests the Scottish public backs her mission to help fix Westminster while Scots are still governed by it and her agenda for a modest rise in public spending, scrapping Trident and abolishing the House of Lords.

If these demands are accommodated by a chastened and radicalised Lib-Lab coalition at Westminster, it might frustrate Alex Salmond but save the SNP a lot of effort.

If these aspirations aren’t even acknowledged (which seems more likely) it will look like the worst kind of cynicism.

The aftermath of this general election won’t just see a fight for control at Westminster – it may also be the last chance for Unionist parties to do the decent thing by Scots or provoke the slow but sure progress to the exit sign, they have spent the last two years opposing.

The stakes after 7 May simply couldn’t be higher.