Troubled Waters: Labour, Scotland and Northern Ireland

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, George Eaton, to describe the surge to the SNP as a cultural event, one that it might take Labour a generation to recover from. The political commentator Iain MacWhirter made a similar point on BBC Radio Scotland this morning when talking about the eclipse of industrial, class-based politics by the politics of nationalism.

For Labour, the campaign has two overriding but 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. It knows holding on to a good chunk of seats north of the border will improve Ed Miliband’s chance of being the next Prime Minister. The danger is that voters don’t buy into this reformulation or, worse, see it 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. 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 with the SNP (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 is stressing, 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 communities, alleging these had been exacerbated by the policies of the current Government. Such an analysis suffers slightly from its partisan perspective by underplaying the effects of decades old deindustrialisation 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 from Labour 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. 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 decisions 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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