When the outcome of an election is relatively unknown, it is unwise to prepare only for the outcome you would like. Publicly, of course, it would be a bad idea for Labour to admit they are thinking about anything other than a working majority – but behind the scenes work must be being done to work out how Labour can govern without one.
The likeliest outcome, I believe, will be a hung parliament where Labour and the Conservatives have a similar number of seats, and neither will be able to reach a majority with the support of only one smaller party.
As Labour and the SNP have ruled out a coalition with each other, we can strike off a ‘rainbow coalition’ from the list of possibilities. A formal coalition with the Lib Dems would be both incredibly unpopular with Labour’s activist base (note: not membership base), and would be hardly be worth it if the result was simply a slightly larger minority government. Labour’s best offer is probably a supply and confidence agreement between the three parties, with a general programme for governance recognised from the beginning.
There is much of Labour’s plan that I would expect could be carried through the Commons without much problem. A Mansion Tax, extra funding for the NHS, Lords reform, votes at 16, increasing education spending, clamping down on zero hour contracts, and building more homes are all things I can see the SNP and Lib Dems voting for.
For the Lib Dems, I see the biggest problems being with the proposed cut in tuition fees (how times change!), a raise in the top rate of tax, the energy bill freeze, the Bedroom Tax and possibly the renewal of Trident. However, I think Labour’s economic plans will be largely acceptable to the Lib Dems, and (depending how left or right leaning their remaining MPs are) they may go along with any of the 50p tax rate, the energy bill freeze, and both scrapping the Bedroom Tax and the fees cut so long as they can be properly funded.
For the SNP, the biggest problems will likely be spending cuts, bringing state providers into bids for rail franchises, and Trident renewal. On railways, I imagine they will be willing to negotiate, partly in order to show that Stagecoach operator and famed homophobe Brian Souter does not have an influence over policy.
Trident is not much of a problem. The SNP will oppose its renewal, and the Lib Dems might, but there would still be a majority in Parliament to pass it. We learned from Miliband’s speech notes that he is strongly in favour of Trident renewal, and there is no point negotiating on something you know you can pass.
The problem, then, is getting SNP support on spending cuts, which Labour will not back down on much. We must accept the ‘politics’ of the situation, which is that it is better for the SNP to walk away from a Labour Budget and lump us with a Tory Government, citing an inability to vote for austerity. If they can paint Labour as “Red Tories”, they will. What we learned from this weekend’s Telegraph story is not what Nicola Sturgeon actually said in private, but that plenty of people are willing to simply believe what she says. That makes the SNP a difficult partner for Labour.
What, conceivably, could Labour offer the Lib Dems and the SNP in return for their support? The Lib Dems have pledged £3.5bn to mental health services, something I could see Labour matching after the election – I expect there will be something on mental health in Labour’s manifesto anyway.
Then there is electoral reform. Both the SNP and the Lib Dems support the introduction of Single Transferable Vote (STV). Again, I could the SNP being a barrier here: their desire for PR may be lessened if they manage 9% of the seats on around 4% of the votes. But there will also be serious difficulties in Labour’s ranks; a majority of Labour MPs opposed AV in 2011.
A new focus on environmentalism could win support, including from Green MPs (of which there will, at most, be two) but seems unlikely to be a dealbreaker.
To stop the SNP walking away and letting the Tories stroll back in, Labour could have to offer something very big. It could be Scottish fiscal autonomy or bust for a Miliband Government.
Conor Pope will be speaking at the Young Fabian event ‘A Progressive Coalition?’ on Wednesday 15th April.