An unholy alliance? Dissecting the 'Grand Coalition'

12 Apr 2015


A Tory-Labour coalition would never work, but it could be the only way to stop the SNP and preserve the Union.


Amidst all this talk of continued coalitions, competent coalitions, chaotic coalitions et al, there is surely one crucial angle which has been criminally overlooked so far. We are told that we have a choice between economic “competence or chaos” and that the NHS “can’t take five more years of David Cameron,” but is that really the choice Britain faces?


There is a reason why Tory ministers are unable to string a sentence together without dropping an OLTEP-bomb and why Labour are hitting hard on the NHS. Polls dating back months reflect that Labour are still not trusted on the economy and the Tories are still not trusted on the NHS, with the reverse true in terms of who people trust on both issues.


On a personal level, David Cameron is seen as the stronger leader out of him and Ed Miliband, but the Labour leader is seen as more in touch with the concerns of (as he would describe them) ‘everyday working people,’ and as a combined effect of 'HELL YES' and his pledge to abolish non-dom tax statuses, Miliband’s personal poll ratings are now significantly up according to a Sunday Times/YouGov poll and, says top pollster Peter Kellner, are now “merely bad”.


Most interestingly of all, one poll last month suggested that what Britain wants is a Labour government with Cameron as Prime Minister, reflecting a perception of Miliband as ‘weak’ and ‘not a leader’ and a perception of the Tories as ‘not in touch with people like me’. So what the obvious solution would be, surely, is a Lab-Con coalition? But how would it work? Could it work?


Dissecting the rhetoric and getting down into the nitty-gritty of policy, the Tories and Labour have a whole lot more in common than is comfortable for either side to admit.  


Ed Miliband’s endeavours to put clear red water between himself and Tony Blair have only been partially successful, with a progressive welfare agenda seemingly not yet found four weeks away from the general election and an thinly-veiled attack on immigrants remarkably similar to the Tory immigration agenda as as both parties desperately attempt to counteract the threat from UKIP fuelling a public perception that politicians are indeed ‘all the same’.


The problem for the Tories and Labour is that the more they talk and the more they try to distance themselves from the other party, the more voters look at them in terms of each other and draw the inevitable conclusion that there is not a lot between them.


The Conservatives pledged to match Labour’s spending plans ahead of the last election, while Labour talk about the Tories cutting too fast and too deep and hurting the most vulnerable in society, yet shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves promised in 2013 to be “tougher than the Tories on benefits” and recently stated that Labour “is not the party for people out of work”.


And herein lies the problem with endless political rhetoric. In terms of policy, there is little common ground between the Tories and Labour.


Ed Miliband wants a Mansion Tax; David Cameron wants to take people out of Inheritance Tax. Labour won’t rule out raising National Insurance contributions; the Tories have ruled out raising VAT. Labour want “fairer” immigration rules which focus on cracking down on exploitative employers, the Tories want to achieve a specific quota and get net immigration down.


These are the policies and there is a ideological difference between the Tories and Labour, but elections are rarely won on manifestos. The failure of both sides to effectively communicate their core messages as opposed to making endless partisan attacks on each other has led to many voters coming to the understandable but incorrect conclusion that the Tories and Labour are the same, fuelling the rise of UKIP, the Greens and crucially, the SNP. Scotland is now relevant in British politics and a Tory-Labour coalition could halt the march of the SNP, or accelerate it.


The two historically dominant Westminster parties have equal trouble with their brand in Scotland after the rise of the SNP, something that will arguably hurt Labour more than the Tories come May, with Ed Miliband relying on Scotland for 41 of his MPs, whilst the fact that there are more pandas than Conservative MPs north of the border means that David Cameron can afford to give Scotland a wide berth. Despite this, Miliband’s personal ratings remain desperately unpopular north of the border, to the degree that even our Old Etonian, Tory Prime Minister is more popular than him amongst Scots.


The SNP will surely, despite Nationalist concern in recent days about the impact of tactical voting on their candidates, have a crucial role to play after May 7 and whichever way you look at it, are holding all the cards.  Senior SNP figures are understood to prefer a Tory-led government for two reasons.


Firstly, more Tory seats will mean fewer Labour seats and as long as the SNP’s share of the vote stands to prediction, the Nationalists would stand to dominate Westminster’s Scottish voice just as they have dominated the Scottish Parliament since the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.


More significantly, however, it is not in the SNP’s interest for a Westminster government to be popular in Scotland. The wave of pro-independence opinion which was the catalyst for September’s independence referendum came about as a result of Scotland being neglected by decades of Labour governments and harmed by Tory governments, leading to a very close shave for the union and further Scottish dissatisfaction with Westminster.


SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon last week on the Scottish leaders debates refused to rule out a second referendum and so this is the crucial point in terms of a potential Tory-Labour coalition: the SNP want the Tories to win because it would suit their agenda perfectly; it would increase the likelihood of another referendum, whilst in the meantime not having to be accountable for any of their own failings with government, with a ready-made excuse in the form of an ‘oppressive Tory government’ at Westminster.


Yet the question has to be raised that given Labour’s unpopularity in Scotland has led to them becoming almost as much of a toxic brand as the Tories (whilst the steady rise of the Scottish Conservatives has not gone unnoticed, with their leader Ruth Davidson generally agreed by commentators to have been the stand-out performer in the Scottish leaders’ debates), would a Labour-led government not be just as benefical to the SNP?


In theory, you’d have to say yes, but for all Labour’s rank unpopularity north of the border, they are not yet the Scottish reverse catnip that the Tories are and for all the harm that the New Labour years did to the party’s traditional socialist principles and its image of being on the side of working people that Miliband has tried so desperately to reverse, they still have much more in common with the SNP’s supposed values than the Tories do.


Scotland would not like a Labour-led government and whatever the arrangement were between Labour and the SNP, a formal coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement, there would clearly have to be significant concessions to the Nationalists. However, it could work and could yet boost Labour’s stainding north of the border in the process. As far as Scotland is concerned, the toxic cocktail would be a Tory-Labour coalition, the worst of both worlds.


Yet the combination of Britain’s two largest parties and a pooling of their considerable resources to create a more progressive politics could yet prove be the only way to stop the SNP breaking up Britain.


The electorate in Scotland do not trust either the Tories or Labour and Nicola Sturgeon’s reportedly burgeoning email inbox full of English, Welsh and Northern Irish people asking her how they can vote for the SNP is a clear sign that Scotland is not on its own in this respect. A Con-Lab alliance would be completely impractical in so many senses; a Thatcherite PM in a partnership with a Hampstead Heath socialist would stretch credulity, whilst the prospect of, say, the pro-competition Jeremy Hunt and the public ownership-committed Andy Burnham heading up the DfH together, or Nicky Morgan and Tristram Hunt doing the same as the DfE would surely be a recipe for disaster.


Yet in this once sense, the likely partnerships would be completely incompatible, much more so than in a Lib-Lab coalition and certainly more so than in the current coalition, in one much more obvious way it would seem to be the obvious way to secure Britain’s future in the short term. It is inconceivable that the Tories and Labour will not have the required 326 seats between them on May 7, removing the complications of confidence and supply agreements or minority governments that would arise in other coalition arrangements and a Con-Lab coalition would provide Britain with both the Prime Minister and the government it wants and potentially forging a new, more progressive politics in the process.


However, such a coalition would only work to any grand degree if both parties openly spoke out the SNP and made clear that protecting the union was their type priority, thus openly admitting their vulnerabilities and fears and boosting the SNP’s ‘Westminster running scared’ line in the process. Such things simply do not happen in politics. Perhaps our politics would be better for it if they did, but as it is, Britain will likely muddle through.

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