“Let me be plain: we’re not going to do a deal with the Scottish National Party. We’re not gonna have a coalition, we’re not gonna have a deal.”
Then he went further. “If it meant we weren’t gonna be in government, not doing a coalition, not having a deal, then so be it.”
When asked to clarify, “You would rather not have a Labour government than do that?” Ed Miliband responded, “If the price for having a Labour government is a coalition or a deal with the Scottish National Party, it’s not going to happen.”
Even Sherman himself might say that seems pretty definitive.
On the face, it does not make much strategic sense for Labour leader Ed Miliband to so definitively rule out a deal with the SNP, and their leader Nicola Sturgeon. According to FiveThirtyEight’s predictions, Labour will amass 268 of the 326 seats needed for a majority in the House of Commons. The SNP are expected to be the third largest party in the Commons, with projections ranging from 538’s 49 seats, to one recent poll which suggests that SNP could sweep all 59 Scottish seats. As the SNP have talked about a “progressive alliance” with Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, it is all but certain that a deal with the SNP (and in turn, any additional like-minded parties) would put Labour into a majority. No deal with the SNP puts Labour in an uncertain position. The next largest party is expected to be the Liberal Democrats (with 27 seats according to FiveThirthyEight), but Nick Clegg has consistently said that his party would (and has) first attempted to deal with the party that gains the most seats in the election. As Labour is expected to win less seats than the Conservatives, this hurts Miliband both in a potential Lib Dem deal, and also in any attempts to establish a minority government for his party.
So what’s Miliband’s end game?
He certainly wants to mitigate the influence of SNP, whose rise to power has come at the expense of his party in Scotland. The less seats they have, the less bargaining power they have. He is going after Scottish voters who would normally not vote for SNP out of a fear of putting the Tories in power, but who have considered voting SNP because of an assumed inevitable deal with Labour. In this, perhaps he could gain some seats for his party. But is there any point to leveraging if you don’t even want to bargain in the first place?
Miliband might also be thinking long-term. Any attempts to delegitimize the SNP is an attempt to delegitimize the Scottish independence movement, which Labour is strongly against. If Nicola Sturgeon’s party continues its massive gains in local and national elections, the demand for another referendum would grow louder. But to alienate the SNP is to give the SNP more of an argument for a future referendum. If they were put into power, then they are responsible for the governing of the entire United Kingdom, and their success or failure would invariably take away some of their core arguments for independence.
Perhaps he thinks that if he could just pull enough votes, he would end up with more seats than the Conservatives (or gain enough support in Parliament for Labour’s Queen Speech, or other vote of confidence). From there, it might be easy to govern even with a minority. The left and center-left parties would vastly outnumber the right parties. With such a similar ideological tilt, he might be able to pursue his agenda on a vote-by-vote basis. This might be the ideal scenario for Miliband. The last coalition government was an unhappy experience for both parties involved. It hurt them greatly politically. In this scenario, he can keep greater control over his Labour party, without having to defend the concessions made with the other. He could position himself as a strong leader and make a sufficient argument for having a majority in the next elections in 2020. While he would have to make concessions here and there, it would not have to be en masse, like it would have to be to form a coalition government. Instead, Miliband could do it as needed, whenever it made political sense.
Miliband might also be forecasting electoral reform. Labour’s manifesto calls for “a people-led Constitutional Convention to directly address [devolution] and to drive political reform of Westminster.” By accelerating devolution in the next five years, which polls higher in Scotland than independence, he could potentially mitigate the effect of the SNP. Likewise, if any such large constitutional questions are addressed so too could other electoral reform. The Alternate Votive referendum of 2011, which attempted to introduce instant runoff voting, failed significantly. But as minor parties gain larger percentages of the vote and gain more political clout, the argument for such reform could be renewed. Such reform could actually hurt the SNP in Scotland, which might owe a lot of its current success to the first past the post method.
The gamble could prove very damaging for Miliband, should things not work out. A situation could conceivably occur where he is forced to make a deal with the SNP, resulting in a very major broken promise. Or, he could stick to his pledge and not make a deal. But if that were to result in another David Cameron government, that could prove extremely disillusioning to his party, his supporters, and voters. He did leave a little wiggle room for himself in explaining his rationale for not wanting a deal with SNP. If he can convince SNP (who would also, conceivably, not want to see a Tory government) to agree to a coalition, without Labour compromising on issues such as Trident, then perhaps he can sell that as a win for Labour on his terms.
Regardless, it was a very deliberate and calculated move by Miliband, who clearly went into the debate with the intention of making such a statement. How it will turn out remains to be seen on Thursday.
Cover Photo: Lynne Cameron/PA. Source: http://bit.ly/1JKgu7T.