Scott Macnab: A Labour-SNP ‘progressive alliance’ may be doomed

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The hostility towards any deal between the SNP and Labour stems from decades of ill-feeling, writes Scott Macnab.

When giant images of Alex Salmond started appearing emblazoned across billboard posters throughout Middle England in the final stages of the last general election two years ago, it was a defining moment.

The Conservatives pictured Ed Miliband 'in Alex Salmond's pocket' ahead of the 2015 general election but in reality the SNP and Labour are rivals.

The Conservatives pictured Ed Miliband 'in Alex Salmond's pocket' ahead of the 2015 general election but in reality the SNP and Labour are rivals.

Perched in the former First Minister’s jacket pocket was a miniaturized Ed Miliband, the then Labour leader. The message could not have been clearer as polls at the time pointed to a hung Parliament. A Labour administration falling short of an outright majority would find its programme for government dictated by the sizeable block of Scottish Nationalist MPs poised to be elected.

And it worked, as David Cameron enjoyed a late swing which allowed him to return to Downing Street with a surprise majority.

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Such a deadlock scenario never seemed likely in this campaign. Theresa May’s lead seemed unassailable in the early weeks, with her opponent Jeremy Corbyn widely seen as unelectable.

But a disastrous manifesto launch and surprisingly awkward fallout from the terrorist attacks for the Prime Minister has seen Labour close the gap. Suddenly the prospect of a so-called “progressive alliance” which could take in Labour, the SNP, Greens and Liberal Democrats is on the cards again.

And why not?

Setting the constitution aside for a moment, Labour and the SNP in particular should have vast areas of common ground on social and economic policy.

Both see themselves as left-of-centre, progressive parties with a shared opposition to free market Tory excess. Both see themselves as standing in the vanguard against the climate of austerity which has dominated UK political debate in recent years.

The SNP government has stuck with the last Labour/Lib Dem administration’s abolition of university tuition fees in Scotland. The SNP even went further and scrapped the Graduate Endowmement, a one-off charge of £2,000 which students paid after they qualified.

Both have supported higher taxes for top earners in principle and the Nationalists in Scotland have been staunch defenders of the NHS – founded by Labour across the UK – and its “free at the point of use” principle.

At the heart of the SNP’s policy agenda in Scotland has been a programme of universalism which sees benefits such as prescription charges, free personal care and bus travel for over 60s provided free by the state.

These parties can even work together on certain issues, with Labour MSPs, including Kezia Dugdale, openly supportive of the SNP-driven campaign to get rid of the so-called “rape clause”, introduced as part of a crackdown on child benefits.

At a local level there has been no bar to alliances, with a Labour-SNP council having run Edinburgh for the past five years before the recent council vote.

Despite all this, Jeremy Corbyn has been insistent there will be “no deals” with the SNP if tomorrow’s vote fails to give either main party a majority.

For Labour this is as much about tactical electioneering as any point of high principle. The party is being squeezed in a constitutional sandwich north of the border in this campaign. The Tories are desperate to depict Ms Dugdale’s party as being in hoc to the Nationalists and ready to compromise on a second referendum as the price of securing the keys to Downing Street for Mr Corbyn.

To combat this and seize a greater chunk of the pro-union vote which Ruth Davidson’s Tories have so successfully corralled, all talk of Labour-SNP agreements is forcefully ruled out.

But it’s more than just short-term expediency. There is a long history of bitter rivalry and feuding which exists between these parties and their supporters in Scotland. When the policy message – outside the constitution – is broadly the same, politics tends to get personal.

And so it has been for Labour and the SNP. When Alex Salmond and his cohorts in the 79 Group sought to wholly reshape the SNP in the 1980s, the long-term aim was to replace the Labour party which had been the dominant force in post-war politics in Scotland.

The SNP was a ghost ship at the time, having lost the 1979 devolution referendum. Salmond was keen to provide a firm identity for the party which avoided some the more unsavoury associations with Nationalist movements in the 20th century Europe. The proposed new brand of civic nationalism was to provide a strong left-wing alternative to the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher and stand up for Scots where Labour failed. It marked the onset of a decades-long struggle for the political sympathies of working class Scotland.

It meant where Labour and SNP politicians and activists could have worked together on key issues, relations often flatlined.

Devolution has undoubtedly been the making of the modern SNP, but the Nationalists infamously walked out of the constitutional convention of the mid 90s which paved the way for the Scottish Parliament. And when that historic first SNP government won power in 2007, Labour embarked on a four-year sulk, adopting a stance of near blanket “oppositionism” to almost everything proposed by the Nationalists, even blocking a budget and so risking the fall of Alex Salmond’s government.

Hostilities escalated during the independence campaign as the parties found themselves on opposite sides of the constitutional divide over Scotland’s future. The Nationalist camp directed heavy criticism at the Labour side, with jibes of “Red Tories” commonplace.

The damage to the Labour brand over its association with the Tories in the pro-union Better Together campaign remains to this day. And the Labour revival being plotted north of the border by Kezia Dugdale hinges on the party positioning itself as a new left-wing alternative to the SNP.

Labour would have higher taxes to boost public spending, while the SNP has merely passed on Tory austerity to struggling Scots by failing to use the powers at their disposal at Holyrood, Labour argues.

So while a Lab-Nat “progressive alliance” may seem a logical step if the outcome tomorrow allows such a scenario, the long history of feuding between these parties may result in a doomed accord.