Saturday, 2 May 2015

Miliband rules out working with the SNP. Seriously?

Picture the situation. A series of curiously convenient deaths have left you on the threshold of power in your nation. You have only to step forward to take it – and yet there’s an obstacle. You don’t share the beliefs of the majority of your compatriots. They wouldn’t accept you unless you change your views.

So what do you do? Do you accommodate their deeply held feelings or do you stand on principle? Do you give up the hope of power or do you compromise and win it?

Henry, King of Navarre, thought long and hard and decided compromise was the best option. “Paris,” he famously declared, “is worth a mass” and converted from Protestantism, to accommodate the wishes of his predominantly Catholic new subjects. So he became King Henry IV of France.

A good thing, too, for his subjects as much as for him. There haven’t been that many good kings, but he was one. Both sides gained from the bargain.

Good king Henry of France, for whom Paris was worth a Mass
Now fast forward rather more than four centuries. Britain stands on the edge of what looks likely to be the tightest general election since mass suffrage was introduced. The Conservative-dominated coalition with the Liberal Democrats is massively discredited. Its core concern has been for austerity economics as a way of to solve the nation’s economic woes: painful but, they would argue, necessary.

Well, we’ve had plenty of suffering, particularly amongst the most vulnerable sections of society: the poor have lost most of the safety net they might occasionally need and, even worse, the disabled, the ill, those most in need of help, have had state support withdrawn. The pain has been real. The gain, on the other hand, has been far less obvious: growth remains sickly to say the least and, while employment has risen, much of it has been in the most precarious form possible – the zero-hour contract, tying a worker to an employer who makes no guarantee of either work or pay.

Ed Miliband: trying to make up for lost ground
He may have to agree to things he finds distasteful
Sadly, though Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour-led Opposition has had an excellent campaign over the last few weeks, over the previous few years, hes led the attack on the Coalition to limited effect. There have been occasional flashes: he opposed military intervention in Syria and, I suspect to his surprise, saw his stance adopted first in Britain and then, astonishingly, even in the United States. A great triumph, avoiding at least one lamentable and probably catastrophic intervention in the Middle East.

Generally, though, his leadership and the role of his most senior subordinate, Ed Balls, has been littered with gaffes and errors. The result has been clear and obvious: I’ve had people who, in the past, have voted for a variety of parties – people free of the tribal attachment that I feel to just one party – the so-called floating voters who’ve told me categorically that, however sick they are of the Conservatives, they could not bring themselves to vote Labour under Miliband.

The result is that Labour is level-pegging with the Tories in the last week of the campaign. And might even emerge with slightly fewer than Members of Parliament than they have – because it has massively lost Scotland. That nation, which previously sent huge number of Labourites to Parliament, has swung overwhelmingly in favour of the Scottish Nationalist Party. This is principally a reaction to inept English reactions to the defeat of the referendum on Scottish independence in September. It was the Conservatives who reacted least well, but Labour has paid the steepest price.

Miliband has therefore set his sights on winning over support from disaffected Conservatives – rather belatedly if, as I suggest, he had put off most floating voters earlier. In order to win Conservatives, he finds himself trying to ape Tory stances – being evasive on immigration, for instance, and instead of opposing the painful policies of austerity, suggesting a slightly toned-down version of them.

But the biggest concession he is making to the Conservatives is that he’s writing off any possibility of a deal with the SNP. The Tories constantly try to frighten voters with the prospect of a Labour government dependent on SNP votes, a UK government dependent on a party that wants to leave the UK, and Miliband has responded by toughening his rejection of proposals for collaboration from Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader.

First he ruled out a formal coalition, which he hadn’t been offered in the first place.

Now he’s saying that he wouldn’t come to any kind of a deal. He would rather not form a government at all than lead one on that basis. Which suggests he would answer Sturgeon’s recent question to him, “is it the case that you would rather see David Cameron go back into Downing Street than work with me?” in the affirmative.

Nicola Sturgeon. Hardly an ogre
It might be messy to work with her – but the alternative is far worse
Working with the SNP would indeed be messy, particularly after having ruled the prospect out so emphatically, in words that could come back to haunt him. But do we really want to see David Cameron returned instead?

Which brings me back to Henry IV. He said that Paris was worth a mass. Well, I hope Miliband realises that Downing Street is worth a mess. 

If he doesn’t, he would go down in history as the man who saddled Britain with an inexorably ruthless Conservative government, when he could have taken power himself at the price of a compromise. And turned into a good Prime Minister as Henry became a good king: Miliband could well be a fine Labour Prime Minister though a poor campaigner, rather like Clement Attlee, one of the Labour greats.

Turning his back on the opportunity might prove far messier still than taking it. For him personally. And, sadly, even more for the rest of us.


Dominic M said...

Nice piece - thank you!

I disagree with your contention, but it is an eloquent articulation of a common argument.

I think Ed has made the right call on this. Nicola is on a high and gives the impression that she would, given half a chance, not just punch above Scotland's weight, but even call the shots in a deal with Miliband.

Accepting such a weak dynamic as a condition of support is no way to arrive as a leader at No 10.

And the phrasing of the "betrayal" scenario is a clever one by the SNP. It puts the onus on Ed to take the responsibility if the SNP doesn't support him as leader of a minority government. But it's the SNP who will have the choice to vote with the Tories, or with Labour, or to abstain. It will be up to them to usher in the Tories or to do the right thing and back Ed.

To ask for a deal in return is their prerogative.

To insist on one is not.

David Beeson said...

It's the notion that, rather than accept a deal with SNP, Ed Miliband might let the Tories back into office that leaves me gobsmacked. That, I rather think, would go down in history (particularly in the history of the left) as a betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald proportions.