Labour’s response to the inevitable ‘coalition of chaos’ charge is all wrong

Neal Lawson
© Terry Murden/Shutterstock.com

As allegations of Tory corruption and incompetence go up, their poll lead goes down. The two main parties are neck-and-neck, putting us in hung parliament territory. While few expect Labour to win the 125 seats it needs for a majority of just one, a 40-seat gain by the progressive parties combined looks feasible. But that leaves us in ‘coalition of chaos’ territory. So, what to do?

Rewind to 2015. The race to win the general election is close. But one campaign play cuts through: a picture of Alex Salmond, then SNP leader, has Ed Miliband, then Labour leader, in his top pocket. The inference is clear – vote Labour and the country will be run by ‘Scottish hordes’. If it worked then, it can work again, given the SNP are again predicted to return 50-plus MPs to Westminster. Labour are petrified of the charge.

But the party’s response is all wrong. Labour thinks that by denying any talks with the SNP before or after an election, as Keir Starmer keeps doing, the problem goes away. It doesn’t. The numbers don’t lie. SNP MPs will be needed to form a new government – and everyone can see it.

Here, Labour descends into worrying territory. It’s highly likely that in a hung parliament, Labour will simply present a ‘back us or sack us’ approach, essentially giving SNP, the Libs Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens an ultimatum – vote for us or face the charge of letting the Tories back in. It’s a hard ball play that puts other progressive parties in a tight spot. But it’s neither feasible nor desirable.

Denying any dialogue only overcomes the chaos charge if Labour gains a big poll lead. Otherwise, the chaos charge will stick and Labour in England especially will pay the price. But even if a hung parliament were possible, no government can operate for long based on zero dialogue with so many SNP and/or Lib Dem MPs it is going to have to rely on. It can’t plan long term legislation and deal with the huge complexities of climate change via a culture of short-term political brinkmanship. And Labour can’t be seen to turn its face forever against the wishes of the Scottish people if they keep backing the SNP to represent them in Westminster and Holyrood.

Of course, Labour doesn’t want to negotiate with the SNP in part because they don’t want to concede a second independence referendum. But here Labour should be both more confident and strategic. The very act of dislodging the Tories from office would take more wind out of already rather flat Indy sails. Why not then allow a referendum – not on the principle of independence in a yes/no choice like Brexit, but on the detail, so people know what they are getting, unlike Brexit? And add a third option of home rule, just as Salmond asked for in 2014. If this were done later in a parliament, when other reforms might have been enacted, like establishing a UK-wide cabinet that includes the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, then outright independence might not be so popular.

Labour’s position on all this was made a lot tougher recently when two things happened. First, the Welsh Labour Party formed an alliance to run the country with Plaid Cymru. If Labour can work with the national party in Wales, then why not Scotland? And second, in little more than a month the Germans recently forged a centre-left coalition that looks the very opposite of chaos.

Taken together, they show the only real antidote to the inevitable coalition of chaos charge is a coalition of credibility, coherence and change based on dialogue, trust-building and sensible compromise. The public know the old politics of bluff and fix are over, and they want something much more grown up.

Meanwhile, a new version of old childish Tory posters may be already prepared, perhaps featuring Nicola Sturgeon with Keir Starmer probably in her handbag. Labour only wins this if it redefines what winning is, embraces pluralism and shows the country is better off when progressive parties work together.

In an interview in July with ITV’s Robert Peston, Sir Keir was asked if an electoral alliance could be on the cards. “There will be a question of what we do,” he replied. “‘There’s a majority broadly against the Tories in the country and obviously we’ll have to see how we go into the next general election, but, you know, the rules are what they are, but we’re rebuilding our party, putting out our arguments and going hell for leather for that election – probably May 23, I suspect.”

The danger is that Labour is looking at a two-election strategy where it makes some headway next time, and wins in 2028, thus turning politics back to a two-party race. But by then Scotland will have probably gone and Labour might have imploded. Two more heaves without any heave is simply not good enough. It’s time to talk to others and to prepare for constructive cross-party government – just like every other high-functioning democracy.

The Tories thrive in chaos. It is only averted if there is a plan to avert it. As things stand, the SNP are the Tories’ best recruiting sergeants in England. Labour could be exposing Tory hypocrisy after they formed a cynical coalition with the DUP in 2017 and then did election deals with Brexit Party in 2019.  But they can only do that if they see working together as a strength, not the weakness their enemy want to portray it as. Secretly, the Tories know only a progressive alliance can dislodge them, hence the urge to nip it in the bud. Stupidly, so far Labour seems to be going along with it.

If Labour were 20 percentage points ahead in the polls, none of this would matter. But the party isn’t and show no signs of being so. The only option is to talk to people they have a lot in common with. How hard is that?

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