Ian Swanson: Will Labour end up dancing to Scots jig?

The Tories' poster depicting Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket. Picture: PA
The Tories' poster depicting Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket. Picture: PA
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ED Miliband didn’t have too much to say about the SNP in his speech at the Scottish Labour conference in Edinburgh at the weekend.

He did make the point that voting for any other party, including the SNP, reduced Labour’s chances of getting into government and increased the likelihood of David Cameron returning to No. 10.

But otherwise there were only a couple of passing references to the Nationalists. The main thrust of his message was the need to stop the Tories getting back into power and the damage they would do to Scotland if they did win on May 7.

Meanwhile, the SNP – whose poll lead looks bigger than ever – continues to talk up the prospect of a post-election deal with Labour.

Many of Mr Miliband’s Scottish MPs would like him to rule out any such deal – partly not to put off supporters of other parties who are thinking of voting Labour to stop the SNP, but also to avoid alienating English voters alarmed at the prospect of the SNP gaining influence at Westminster.

There is an argument that such a move could bolster the Labour vote. But at the same time, any politician hoping to get into power is going to be reluctant to exclude any potential route to get there.

No-one is talking about a full-blown Labour-SNP coalition – apart from the Tories, who this week followed up their Fifties revival slogan, “A Recovering Economy: Don’t Let Labour Wreck it”, echoing the 1959 election campaign “Life’s Better with the Conservatives: Don’t let Labour ruin it” – with a new poster showing Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket, another unoriginal idea recalling the old image ridiculing the Liberal-SDP Alliance leaders with David Steel in David Owen’s pocket.

Rather than going into coalition together, Labour and the SNP are more likely to reach some kind of post-election agreement, which may simply mean SNP MPs supporting Labour on a vote by vote basis.

Back in 2008, Alex Salmond spoke of the SNP winning a third of Scotland’s Westminster seats at the next general election, holding the balance of power and making Westminster “dance to a Scottish jig”. His colleagues are careful not to use that sort of language at this sensitive time. But Nicola Sturgeon has set out the party’s key policy objectives for any talks – more powers for Holyrood; no renewal of Trident; and an end to austerity.

However, in an interview at the weekend Ms Sturgeon made clear the SNP could still support Labour issue by issue, even if Labour did not agree to scrap Trident. “There are many issues we could agree on, which we would support, but we would not vote for Trident,” she said.

She went further and claimed if there was a deal with the SNP, it could see the Nationalists helping to push Labour to deliver the kind of programme many traditional Labour voters would like to see.

Labour is trying to keep its distance without giving hostages to fortune by ruling out a deal altogether. The latest formulation is for leading figures to say they “don’t want, don’t need and are not planning for” a deal.

Delegates at Saturday’s conference were in surprisingly upbeat mood. given the appalling poll results. The party is hoping that as polling day comes closer, voters will focus more on the choice of who is going to be Prime Minister. And there was good news for Mr Miliband in one poll: Scotland was the only part of the UK which said Britain would be better off with him in Downing Street.