Ian Swanson: Is a Labour-SNP coalition really so unthinkable?

Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones have shown a willingness to co-operate. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones have shown a willingness to co-operate. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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IT was a bold move by David Martin, Labour’s long-serving Scottish MEP, to suggest that the groundwork be laid for the “unthinkable” – a possible ­future coalition at Holyrood between his party and the SNP.

He argued that Scottish politics was too tribal and pointed to the common ground between the two parties on issues like health, education and even taxation.

Mr Martin – first sent to Brussels to represent the Lothians in 1984 – claimed there were some signs that the “hate” between Labour and the SNP was beginning to weaken and also highlighted the recent ­co-operation between Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh Labour First Minister ­Carwyn Jones.

If neither the SNP nor Labour wins a majority at the 2021 Scottish ­Parliament elections, Mr Martin argued that the possibility of a ­coalition should at least be an option available for consideration.

But it was never an idea that was going to be taken up by the candidates bidding to become Scottish Labour’s next leader.

Both Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard have dismissed coalition talk, insisting there will be no deals, no concessions to nationalism.

Of course, the bitterness of the ­independence referendum battle has not gone away. But the general ­election earlier this year seemed to herald a slight move away from the constitution as the be-all and end-all of Scottish politics. Ms Sturgeon’s plans for a second referendum are on the back burner and the programme for government she unveiled at ­Holyrood earlier this month reflected a desire to focus on more bread-and-butter issues.

There are, as Mr Martin said, many areas where the two parties agree on the thrust of policy, if not every detail.

Labour likes to say the SNP is not progressive – and it can point to ­policies like cutting air departure tax as moves which are likely to benefit the rich more than the poor – but the Nationalists also managed to steal some of Labour’s clothes by adopting policies like free prescriptions and building council houses.

Labour and the SNP in Edinburgh proved that they could work together when they formed a coalition on the city council in 2012 and renewed it this year. They agreed to put the issue of independence to one side and got on with running the Capital.

After the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999, Labour went into coalition with the Lib Dems. There was a lot of common ground between the parties and neither suffered electorally for the partnership.

It was a different story when the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Tories at Westminster in 2010. Many saw the deal as a fundamental betrayal of Liberal principles and the party is still recovering.

Labour suffered for its alliance with the Tories in the 2014 Better Together campaign for similar reasons.

It could be argued that Scotland’s constitutional future is too big a ­difference to be overlooked.

But if there is no pro-independence majority at the next Holyrood election, there will be no new referendum, and Labour and the SNP could legitimately put the issue to one side.

The “hate” between the parties is not shared by the majority of voters.

Mr Martin’s suggestion may have been given short shrift so far, but he has broken a taboo and perhaps planted a seed which could eventually bear fruit.