Scottish voters gambling on nobbling UK Labour and having them in Government?

The Labour Party does not have its troubles to seek, particularly, it must be said, in Scotland. Polling by Lord Ashcroft in 16 parliamentary constituencies that voted Yes or nearly voted Yes in last year’s referendum added unsightly detail to an emerging picture.

Fourteen of the seats analysed are held by Labour, with the remaining two held by the Liberal Democrats. Based on the responses, the SNP were predicted to take all but one of the seats, with only Willie Bain holding on in Glasgow North East.

Labour casualties, if events play out according to the poll results, would include Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, and Shadow Scottish Secretary, Margaret Curran. It is clear significant political careers and reputations are on the line.

The results of the poll “one of the most extraordinary ever published” have led the political editor of the New Statesman to describe the surge to the SNP as a cultural event, one that it might take Labour a generation to recover from.

For Labour, the campaign has two overriding and not necessarily complementary demands.

First is the need to ensure it emerges from the election as the largest party. In Scotland, where the polling trends can only induce glumness, the new leadership has tried to portray the party as one with renewed radical intent complimented by a more determined focus on Scotland’s interests. The danger is that voters don’t buy into this reformulation or, worse, see if as a disingenuous ploy to attract votes, particular from the lamented, lost flock that voted Yes back in September.

The second objective is the need to engage in some groundwork in advance of what look like inevitable coalition negotiations following the election. To openly state the need for such work is to court demoralisation in the ranks and in Scotland, when pressed on the possibility of an arrangement with the SNP, the line has been that the party is working for a majority.

While it might be difficult to imagine either a formal coalition, the SNP seem cool on this anyway, or a confidence and supply agreement (surely at extortionate costs to Labour and possibly the Union), senior Labour figures have not ruled out anything in explicit terms. Voters are thus invited to conclude that such an arrangement is a possibility, even if the SNP does serious damage to the Labour in Scotland.

Worryingly for the party, a Labour-SNP coalition has emerged as the option with most support in a number of opinion polls, including the recent Ashcroft survey which found it was favoured by 39% of participants.

Voters might be susceptible to thinking that any seats the SNP take from Labour will actually contribute to the formation of  their preferred government rather than, as Labour suggests, another coalition led by the Conservatives.

In relation to Northern Ireland, there is the same sense of creative ambiguity shading into confusion and inconsistency. Claims that Labour has made informal approaches to Sinn Fein have been well publicised and denied but some recent remarks about the DUP and Unionism have received less attention.

The decision to exclude the DUP from televised leaders’ debates has been criticised, meanwhile in an interview with the New Statesman, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Ivan Lewis, has charged the Conservatives with arrogance in assuming they can rely on the support of Northern Irish Unionists.

The grounds for this assessment were not altogether solid but he did focus on the socio-economic difficulties in some Unionist constituencies, alleging these had been exacerbated by the policies of the Conservative Government.

Such an analysis suffers slightly from its slightly short term perspective by underplaying the effects of decades old de-industrialisation and the inter-generational effects of educational underachievement among working class Protestant boys, as was highlighted recently but not for the first time.

This is hardly an outright approach but the context gives the remarks added significance. It all might be for nought, of course, if a high-level deal has already been reached between the DUP and the Conservatives.

All of this raises questions about the General Election’s possible effects on the sometimes fragile settlement in Northern Ireland.

YouGov’s Peter Kellner, for example, has suggested Sinn Fein might be moved to end its policy of abstentionism should the DUP end up with a degree of influence in a hung parliament situation although this, like lots of things, has been denied. But should either the Conservatives or Labour be considering bringing any of the Northern Irish parties into government?

Labour has reconfirmed its unwillingness to stand candidates in Northern Ireland for fear of jeopardising its role as an “honest broker”. The Secretary of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, Boyd Black, taking a rather different view on the matter, has claimed this policy will only help to preserve “sectarian political structures”.

Apart from being a position which lends credence to the broadcasters’ criticised assertion that Northern Ireland is somehow a distinct political entity, how could Labour reconcile its honest broker stance with the possibility of governing with one of the parties to the dispute?

There are lots of ifs, buts and maybes, but there will be hard decision to be made at some point after the election and these might not square neatly with what went before.

Labour is, understandably, trying to maintain a position of ambiguity in terms of possible coalition partners, running, possibly, from the DUP to the SNP. Trying to balance in the middle of the seesaw with those parties at either end would likely prove to be an impossible task and, it has to be said, is a scenario that is highly unlikely to transpire.

But the state of flux surrounding the election sometimes takes the political imagination to some strange play-parks. More seriously, it induces uncertainty on the part of the major parties, as Labour is unfortunately evidencing.

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  • Practically_Family

    Labour are over in Scotland. Just following the Tories.

  • Barneyt

    The forgotten “have nots” in N Ireland…..the protestant working class. They have been used and abused by the larger unionist parties, and provoked, stoked and pointed in any chosen direction, to benefit larger unionism. Where is the representation for the reasonably political astute left of centre unionistloyalist?

    Labours policy of not fielding candidates in N Ireland to maintain its impartiality is just about tenable, however it could be argued that it is chiefly designed not to impact its wee sister, the SDLP.

    Had Labour chosen to offer candidates, this could have provided a political outlet for “working class protestants”, folks that can’t possibly side with the SDLP, reject loyal para-militarism but are also disenfranchised socially and politically from convention right-winged unionism.

    Back in Britain, any SNP-Labour coalition is surely going to be precarious. You would expect the SNP to secure some advantage (perhaps in the longer term) for their separatist aims. This will ensure England would be forever Tory dominated, and spell the end for Labour? The SNP would be the only winners, assuming a future referendum is successful.

    In theory, the SNP may gain more from holding power across Britain. Whilst appearing hypocritical, they could argue that their restored unionism was reflecting the will of the Scottish people (or rather people in Scotland).

    SNP-Labour is perhaps the most attractive from an Irish Nationalist perspective as you might expect Labour to be less unionist that the Tories, but for the SNP partner to be naturally sympathetic to Irish independence. Even with or without the promise of more for Ireland in this scenario, it may prove too tempting for SF not to become the third partner in such a coalition, with the SNP element perhaps making it more palatable at home.

    I agree with whoever said, this will be the most interesting election in living memory.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    We can only pray for a Tory majority. The country will go to hell in a hand basket with Ed Milliband as PM and Alex Salmond sitting behind the throne pulling all the strings. Seriously folks, think about it – do you want Ed Milliband as your next Prime Minister?

  • Floreat Ultonia

    Labour’s policy of not fielding candidates in NI is variously

    a) self-defeating- in a situation where the bigger two parties’ overall vote share (and thus chance of majority government) is falling, it makes no sense not to contest 18 seats

    b) incoherent- by changing it they wouln’t be favoring unionism against nationalism, but rather challenging both

    c) vindictive- they don’t just ignore local activists, but penalise them

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think Labour N.I. have defeated themselves, apart from wanting to be part of a Labour government they seem to show they have no other policies, they don’t even fight for their causes that much at a local level, so how are they going to challenge other left wing groups from their armchairs?

    Judging Labour NI’s ability to be an effective member of the Labour Party simply because they support Labour policies and idealists is like trying to judge someone’s footballing ability soley on the basis that they support Chelsea, and Chelsea are a good team.

    Didn’t they have the SDLP’s blessing to fight an Assembly campaign and local government campaign, do they lack the local grounding that the NI Conservatives seem to have to build their own movement? Could they not forge a Labour sympathetic movement like the Co-op party did, build a coalition of support then try a merger?

    No, clear message is vote for us glory hunters all you liberals and poor people, we really care about your plight.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Labour have competed in East Belfast against the SDLP once and have not done since. There isn’t much faith that Labour can do anything for the area that Alliance, the DUP, the UUP, PUP or other party could.

  • Floreat Ultonia

    Kevin- Labour in NI may well lack fight, policies, effectiveness and organisation as you suggest. None of these explains nor justifies their treatment by Party HQ in London, do they?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I am not privy as to the historical political nature of Labour’s honest broker status in Northern Ireland, nor to be honest the full history of Irish Labour’s previous record here, but as far as I am aware those in Britian who advocate that Labour competes in NI seem like they wouldn’t know an NI activist for them if their name was Billy Sumwan or Liam Duineéigin.

    The emphasis on Westminster candidates first and foremost by Labour NI when e.g. the likes of Eammon McCann are long off an MP seat in Foyle seems bizarre to me. The economic case of losing deposits alone does not help them.

  • Floreat Ultonia

    Kevin, you don’t have to be privy to anything particularly complex, the background is pretty straightforward. Labour’s honest brokerage is daft as I described above, not to mention dishonest in pretending that the single issue nationalist SDLP is their sister party.

    Billy Someone, very droll. Those in Britain wanting Labour to contest NI include mainly those who agree that writing off 18 seats in a general election is bizarre. Why do they need to be expert in local detail?

    My emphasis on general elections is because they’re the most important. Also, for a national organisation the economics aren’t the problem you suggest. £9,000 in deposits once every five years is a small sum for a party whose income in 2013 was almost £21 million (source: Electoral Commission). Naturally I would prefer if Labour also gave NI voters a chance to vote for Council candidates.

    The first Labour candidates here would almost certainly do less well than experienced, well known figures like McCann. What does that prove? Effectively new parties get a small vote, absent ones a big fat zero.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The NI Labour Party membership was 300 (not sure if they are all local) the last I heard, and yet Baroness Blood seems to be their only active member, one who’s got her Westminster seat all sowed down already.

    Sinn Féin competed as Republican Clubs for so long under here when they were banned.

    Why not Labour seek to bring back the “Labour Coalition”, They could stand as “Labour Coalition” themselves who had no issue with British Labour try to get the Worker’s Party, the Socialist Party and all them lot back, heck even the Green Party on board. Or a Northern Irish version of the United Left Alliance Perhaps?

    Why must it be English Labour and/or May Blood alone calling the shots here?

  • Floreat Ultonia

    Why not indeed? All er, shots, welcome in the debate 😉

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’m surprised May Blood wasn’t involved with the Labour Coalition but the Woman’s Coaliton instead.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Yes, a Conservative-UKIP-DUP coalition lead perhaps by Boris Johnson … that’ll keep the country together.

  • Davros64

    Why waste their time;No seats or votes in it for them !!

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I’d vote for the Monster Raving Looney Party ahead of anything close to Labour. You may as well turn off the lights now as you leave the country… wait….the unions of the renationalised power companies will be out on strike and there will be no lights anyway….God help us all.

  • Floreat Ultonia

    In the last general election, Labour got less than 10% of the vote in 72 seats in England and Wales.

    They’re contesting them all again in the next one.

  • Davros64

    Yeah, so what? More fool them.
    Why bother with the North then…

  • Guest

    More pompous drivel…

  • Davros64

    Complete Drivel !!

  • Davros64

    More pompous drivel…

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Specifics Davros, not rants.