With just over 100 days left until the General Election and the political sphere is abuzz with talk of anything but Labour or the Conservatives returning a majority Government. Every possible configuration of informal alliance and coalition is being mulled over, teased, and debated.
The latest round of speculation has revolved around the potential role that the SNP could play as coalition partners. The thinking goes that if no majority Government could be reached, and with the Liberal Democrats expected to collapse, the SNP could end up being the third largest party in Parliament. This comes from the current polling which places the party up to twenty points ahead of Scottish Labour. While the size of the majorities that the SNP would need to overcome makes the prospect of the party gaining 30 plus seats look unlikely, there is an expectation that they should get into the double figures.
Would there be enough to justify a coalition? That question has been hanging in the air for the last fortnight. Discussions about the SNP being in a coalition began late last year with Nicola Sturgeon raising the possibility of helping Labour on a case by case basis, and perhaps even a formal agreement. A similar offer would not be made to the Conservatives.
Similar comments have been made by former First Minister Alex Salmond in recent weeks. Ed Miliband for his part, refused to rule it out during an interview last Sunday. However, this doesn’t indicate that any discussion have taken place, only that the options are being kept open.
It is clear that the SNP want to appear willing to support a Labour Government. To not do so would be to help usher in another Conservative Government – a prospect which would be unacceptable to the party rank and file. Older party members will recall the (still ongoing in some quarters) criticism they received from the decision in 1979 to support a vote of No Confidence in Labour, which in turn helped to usher in the Thatcher era, and wish to swerve a similar trap.
But this does not translate into automatic support for Labour. Conditions would be attached, conditions which the First Minister has already laid out. Cancellation of next generation of Trident, further powers for Scotland and reversal of austerity cuts would all be on the list of demands.
Could a deal be worked out? While further powers and reform to the welfare system could be negotiated, Trident would likely be a major sticking point. Would a UK Government take such a huge defence decision, based on party politics?
Looking at the practicality of an SNP/Labour coalition several issues emerge. Firstly, the SNP would have to abandon its commitment to vote exclusively on only non-reserved matters. To devolve more powers, while at the same time deciding on legislation for people living in England, would create a mirror of the West Lothian Question, and likely illicit howls of complaints from the Opposition parties and UK level media. In fact, it is likely that such a process could result in calls for another referendum to come from South of the Border!
Secondly, a coalition in Westminster would create an ever more fractured political landscape in Scotland. While historically it has usually been Labour which has been criticised for their level of dislike of the SNP, the reality is that nowadays the parties are on an even keel with mutual distrust. A coalition would hobble the Scottish Labour Party, forcing them into a corner and having support policies which were enacted by the SNP, who would be looking to take credit for all Scotland friendly legislation.
For the SNPs part, a question mark hangs over how willing the party would be to team up with Labour. The tribalism wrought by the referendum has created tensions not previously seen in Scotland, irrespective how similar politically the two parties actually are in reality.
In the final analysis an SNP/Labour coalition may seem like a suitable fit, but the truth of the matter is that such an alliance, voting on English only issues would create a new form of constitutional crisis, and hasten the arrival of English Votes for English Laws. This is something which would likely appeal to the SNP as it would take Scotland ever closer to independence, but for the UK Labour Party, it could spell disaster. Come the 8th May, and the party leaders assemble to form a new Government, caution should be applied to any offer of help from the devolved parties from Scotland or elsewhere.