Keeping Cameron out
Sections of the establishment are worried by the prospect of a Labour-SNP lash-up, writes Eddie Ford
With the general election only weeks away, the outcome is almost impossible to predict. Yes, a YouGov opinion poll on March 29 gave Labour a 4% lead over the Tories. But a few days later the same pollsters had them level-pegging on 35%, and another survey had the Conservatives one point ahead of Labour (with the UK Independence Party on 16% - its highest showing in a campaign poll so far).
Even if we assume for a moment that one of the two major parties manages to secure a 4%-5% lead over its rival, how this actually translates on the ground in terms of real seats is an entirely different matter, given the thoroughly dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system - rather ironically intended to produce ‘strong’, single-party governments with commanding (though artificial) majorities. The explanation is quite straightforward. Fragmentation is shrinking the mainstream. The Liberal Democrats face possible decimation and both Ukip and the Greens have the potential to eat into the centre-right and centre-left. Or, to put it very roughly, about one third of the electorate is supporting the Tories, another third is backing Labour and the remainder are going for the ‘others’. No wonder the civil service has ‘war-gamed’ 12 possible post-election scenarios.
Labour’s biggest problem can be summed up in one word - Scotland. At the beginning of March we had Lord Ashcroft’s sensational poll showing an overwhelming victory for the Scottish National Party, with 56 of the 59 seats going its way, and leaving Labour and the Tories with 272 seats each. SNP success on such a scale obviously threatens to cancel out any Labour gains in other parts of the UK. Nothing indicates that this momentum is about to be reversed in any significant way. A ComRes poll published on March 31 showed that Nicola Sturgeon’s party - currently having six seats - is on the verge of gaining a rather more modest, but still impressive, 28 seats or thereabouts, perhaps making it the third largest party at Westminster.1
Confronted by these statistics, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Ed Miliband will have to strike a deal with the SNP if he wants to be prime minister - presumably he does. Though the Labour leader has dismissed the idea of a formal coalition with the Scottish nationalists, saying there will be “no SNP ministers in any government I lead”, you can reasonably bet that some sort of looser or more informal arrangement will emerge after May 7 - assuming that David Cameron does not get the first bite of the cherry.
It is pretty clear what the SNP wants. Angus Robertson, its Westminster leader and election campaign director, has stated that a SNP landslide would help build a larger “anti-Tory alliance” in the Commons that can “lock David Cameron out of Downing Street” - apparently putting an end to the “ideological commitment to austerity” which is “hurting communities” across Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.
This is a prospect that worries sections of the establishment. Last week the Financial Times published a survey based on the responses of 20 chairmen/chief executives of FTSE 100 companies when asked about their views on the UK’s political parties and their policies. One chairman described the idea of a Labour-SNP lash up as a “nightmare” and another executive said it would “drive fear and shockwaves” through the business community. The paper could not resist running the headline, “Business fears SNP-Labour ‘nightmare’” (March 27).
In some respects, this response is a bit surprising. After all, most big business is very hostile to the notion of Britain withdrawing from the European Union - and therefore takes a dim view of David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum in 2017, especially when the Tories are looking nervously over their shoulder at Ukip. Nigel Farage is a joke, as far as these people are concerned. Given that withdrawal would have a disastrous economic impact on UK plc, you might have thought that our business executives would find that at least as disconcerting as a Labour government dependent on SNP support.
But the FT survey tells a different story: big capital seems to prefer the Tories despite the referendum. Their fear of the SNP eclipses any anxiety about EU withdrawal. True, three respondents said they were “very concerned” about the uncertainty a referendum would bring and one said the risks that the general election could lead to Brexit was “the worst thing about a Tory majority”. Others, however, thought Labour’s pro-Europe position was not enough to outweigh the drawbacks of its other policies. The “honest answer”, said one executive, is that the top companies “would rather deal in a business-friendly environment” (albeit fighting for a pro-European position) than be working in a “non-business-friendly environment where Europe is part of the picture”. Lesser of two evils.
Essentially, business leaders think the SNP is a throwback to “unreconstructed” 1970s-style socialism - as evinced by the fact that Sturgeon has dropped Alex Salmond’s longstanding policy to cut corporation tax by 3p below the UK rate. Obviously a sinister socialist agenda. Indeed, we read in the FT that the “language of intimidation” towards business coming from the SNP leadership during the referendum campaign was “loathsome”. Weekly Worker readers will doubtlessly feel nothing but sympathy for the suffering that they must have gone through. In general, increased SNP input could “destabilise” government and “create huge uncertainty” - if for no other reason than the sheer time needed to cut all manner of relatively complex deals with the SNP might “muddy economic thinking”, as well as necessitating increased funding for Scotland.
The business leaders were also worried, quite understandably from their point of view, that the SNP would use their position in Westminster to “pursue a nationalist and separatist agenda”: split the UK state apart with demands for another referendum or pursuing an ever more maximal version of devomax. A prelude to the break-up of Britain. Not to mention, we also read, the alarming prospect of the “non-Scot majority” rising up against perceived “democratic illegitimacy” - posing “difficult questions” about the “future governance” of the UK and its regions. Then again, if this journalist was a member of the establishment, I would still be cursing David Cameron’s astonishingly short-sighted and petty little speech given outside Downing Street the day after the referendum - turning what should have been a united victory in Scotland into a narrow Tory question about ‘English votes for English laws’ and thus playing straight into the hands of the SNP.
Anyhow, our FTSE bosses contrast the horrors of a Labour-SNP government to how the current coalition was put together - it is “amazing” that they executed their 100-day plan “almost flawlessly”. Boy, oh boy, as one of the surveyed executives put it, “did they come out of the traps running”. Nor has the will or discipline of the coalition faltered. Totally contrary to the widespread assumption held by much of the left, it should be noted, that the new coalition was chronically weak and would collapse, come the first big strike or demonstration. A fanciful notion that we in the CPGB criticised from day one, just as we did the equally ludicrous idea that the 1997 election of the Blair government would see a “fructification of hope” that in turn would quickly lead to a “crisis of expectations” - sweeping masses of people into the open arms of revolutionary socialists.
Further demonstrating their jitters, more than 100 of the country’s most senior business figures have published an open letter in TheDaily Telegraph warning that a Labour-led government would “threaten jobs and deter investment” in the UK, putting the “recovery at risk”.2 They also praised the Tories’ decision to cut corporation tax to 20%, which came into force on April 1 - when the coalition took office it was 28%. Labour has promised, of course, to reverse the cut if it wins the general election. In what must be a blow to Miliband, the letter has been signed by at least five business leaders who previously backed Labour.
For company bosses convinced that Labour is anti-business, further proof came on April 1 when Miliband announced that he would ban zero-hour contracts for staff after 12 weeks in work. This “epidemic”, he declared, lies at the heart of the insecurity in the British economy - the economic recovery may have “reached the City of London”, the fat cats and toffs, but not ‘ordinary’ working people. Labour is on your side.
By all accounts, senior SNP figures are planning to approach leftish-leaning Labour MPs about forming a ‘progressive bloc’ with the Greens and Plaid Cymru after the general election. They have already begun talks with the think-tank, Compass, which supported Ed Miliband’s leadership bid, in an attempt (amongst other things) to block the renewal of Trident and obstruct deeper cuts in public spending. Trying to appropriate some of Labour’s core policy commitments, Sturgeon has pledged that the SNP at Westminster would do everything it could to halt NHS privatisation in England, increase the minimum wage by £2 an hour, ban zero-hours altogether, oppose fracking, etc. She has also called for the abolition of the House of Lords, definitely not something on Labour’s agenda, correctly saying that it has “no place in a democratic society” (although, for some reason, she seems to have overlooked the monarchy).
Whilst confirming that he had been discussing tactics with the SNP, Neil Lawson, the chairman of Compass, struck a note of caution - advising the party not to make “direct approaches” to Labour MPs until the full election results were known - as “everything depends on numbers”: ie, the exact balance of forces. Prominent figures in the Campaign Group, on the other hand, have rejected the idea of working with the SNP in a formal way. Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, has said that he would vote alongside the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru in the division lobby against Trident’s renewal next year or on anti-austerity issues - but there would be no “closer relationship”. After all, he added, one has to “question the assumptions” made that the SNP is “such a radical party”; in fact, “the idea they’re a socialist party is far off the mark, actually”. Echoing these sentiments, John McDonnell insisted that the Labour left will “pursue its own independent line” - given the SNP’s “track record” in backing cuts in public spending, the race to the bottom on tax and privatisation of rail and ferries, there is a “huge divide” between socialists inside the Labour Party and SNP nationalists. Communists could not agree more with comrades Corbyn and McDonnell on this question: the SNP’s claims to be progressive or radical are bogus.
Interestingly, the FT has disclosed that the SNP will demand an MP on every select committee in the Commons, including health and education, if it becomes the third-biggest party after the election - at present it only has two MPs on these bodies. In other words, they want to inspect and supervise all legislation that passes through parliament - as well as holding joint meetings of whips. On top of this, the party wants to take over two rows of the opposition benches closest to the floor of the chamber. These new gains, needless to say, would come at the expense of the Lib Dems. The SNP can also anticipate a jump in ‘short money’, taxpayer funding for opposition parties, from £187,000 this year to about £830,000 if it gets 40 seats. Overall, this comes to more than £4 million over the course of the parliament - extra money that will be well appreciated, you can be sure. The SNP means business (in more ways than one), as its membership soars above 100,000.
Having said that, there is another scenario that needs to be contemplated - a “grand coalition” between Labour and the Tories to keep the SNP out, as suggested a month ago by Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for the marginal seat of Birmingham Edgbaston.3 In her opinion, such a set-up has benefited Germany, where Angela Merkel’s rightwing CDU is in government with the Social Democrats: “When you have to make very difficult decisions, the broader the baseline from which you work, the more you are able to do these things.” Whilst such an outcome might appear improbable, it should not be discounted l
1.The Guardian March 31.
2. The Daily Telegraph April 1.
3. Financial Times March 1.