On Yes and No Alliances
19 November 2014
"C'mon, joke's over guys. Isn't it time to stop winding all the pollsters up and just get back in the box like you were supposed to?"
That's how I imagine most unionists are feeling right now. Bewildered, disappointed, heartbroken.
Throughout the indyref campaign and still now, I've enjoyed having Twitter debates with those on the unionist side of the argument. I'd say I'm fairly unusual in that - 90% of Yes/No interaction seems to be of the shouty kind.
I enjoy it because I like to see the other side's point of view - it helps me to hone my own arguments. I've joked a few times that Cybernat HQ had given me the job of persuading the top 1% of unionists over to our cause.
Over the last couple of years I've been blocked by a few unionists, have unfollowed some myself and have followed those whose tweets I found interesting, especially where they were making cogent points, even though I disagreed with them.
The thing about Twitter is, unless you choose who you follow entirely randomly then your feed is going to reflect the choices you've made. And that means that you really have no idea whether what you're seeing is representative of the views of a large chunk of the population, or only that little fraction you're engaging with.
I found a recent article by @effiedeans called "What is devolution for?" and some subsequent Twitter conversations very interesting.
Effie had advanced the argument that that home countries having national football and rugby teams was divisive for the UK, and that we should do away with them. She and many of her followers have also been keen to see a unionist alliance politically to ensure that a) the SNP get as few MPs as possible in 2015 and b) that no UK political party will have any dealings with the SNP at Westminster, no matter what the political arithmetic should be once the votes are counted.
Effie's been consistent with this view, and I respect that. However, I strongly doubted whether any of her followers would agree, so I asked a couple of genuine questions, and on the whole got genuine answers back.
And I was wrong. There were a few who agreed with the idea of doing away with the Scottish football and rugby teams, along with the other home nations. But there were a lot more who strongly believe in a unionist alliance. Labour supporters who will vote Tory if it stops the SNP getting an MP, and Tories who'll vote Labour. Some said they'd rather vote UKIP if that was the best tactic. And when pushed, some said they'd rather see a Conservative/Labour coalition at Westminster than let the SNP have any power at all.
I find it astonishing - it's like Rangers and Celtic fans deciding to join forces because they don't like seeing Hamilton at the top of the SPL. But, at least on my Twitter feed, there is substantial support for it.
The current Westminster voting intention polls are nothing short of astonishing. Seriously astonishing. I'm on record in saying many times over the last two years that a No vote would strengthen the SNP, because they would be seen as the only party likely to stand up for Scotland. Nevertheless, I didn't envisage anything like this. 85,000 members, that's crazy; projections of taking most of Labour's seats, madness. I used to think we'd never again see a majority government at Holyrood, that 2011 was a fluke, yet now it'd almost be a surprise if we didn't get one.
My cautious side makes me think this must be a flash in the pan, normality will resume soon, but who knows? It seems very likely that the SNP will at least get 20 MPs in May, that the Lib Dems will lose lots and that the statistical possibility of the SNP holding the balance of power is not trivial.
So is that what's scaring my unionist Twitter friends so much that they'd give up their party loyalties to form an alliance with their old rivals?
A couple of handy myths have been doing the rounds recently. Firstly Labour has been using the "go to bed with Nicola and wake up with Dave" line as part of their campaign to say that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories. That's patent nonsense. A vote for the SNP may prevent a Labour government, but it can't cause a Tory one because the SNP have ruled out supporting the Tories. Note that Labour haven't done that, they haven't ruled out supporting the Tories, and indeed some unionists like Effie are actively promoting that action. So it'd be more honest to say "go to bed with Ed and wake up with Dave".
Secondly, both the Tories and Labour have tried to cast doubt on the SNP's pledge by making out that the SNP minority government from 2007 to 2011 worked with the Tories. That's almost as nonsensical as the first - it's true that the Tories supported some SNP actions, but so did all the other parties. The 2009 budget was passed with the help of the Liberal Democrats for instance.
But anyway, let's assume that my timeline is representative, and that the UK parties are considering working together. In other words, let's talk alliances.
Firstly, the Yes Alliance. I was in favour and have a twibbon on my Twitter avatar. However, it was always hard to see how it could work. Being fair to both the Greens and SSP, it's hard to see any seat in Scotland where either of them had a better chance of winning than the SNP did. I'm a little uncomfortable that the actions announced at the SNP conference, allowing recent and non-SNP members to stand as SNP candidates, were seemingly decided without any discussions with other parties, but I think the actual decision is probably the best option and is an imaginative and clever way of dealing with it. It's now up to the constituencies to decide what's best for them.
A No Alliance is a whole different ball game. We can ignore UKIP - they have no chance of winning a FPTP seat in Scotland. So we have 3 parties, Labour, LibDems and Tories who currently have MPs - and for all of them, holding on to the seats they have would be seen as a major success.
The simple way of having a pact therefore would be for sitting MPs to not be opposed by candidates from the other two parties. So for example there would be no LibDem or Tory candidate in Jim Murphy's seat, making it a clear two-way contest between him and the SNP candidate. The assumption being that all the LibDems and Tories would vote Labour. Would they though? Certainly the unionist folk on my timeline seem to think so, but does that really reflect the population at large? Can I expect to have a Labour activist on my doorstep asking me to vote for Danny Alexander?
I really can't see it. I just can't imagine Labour activists in Lockerbie High Street standing behind a table campaigning for a vote for the Tories which might put David Cameron in government, when a few miles away in Carlisle they're fighting each other tooth and claw.
The second part of the No Alliance idea is superficially a little more credible. That would involve David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all coming together in the run-up to the election to say that whatever the outcome, they will not deal with the SNP in any way in government.
That might have an effect on the SNP vote, if people believe the 3 of them. I suppose the outcome of the Smith Commission and its implications for the 'Vow' will affect the credibility of the three amigos one way or another, probably negatively. But assuming folk do believe them, then perhaps some of those planning to vote SNP would decide there's less point in doing so if the SNP have no chance of any power.
Hypothetically though, it is quite possible to imagine the Westminster arithmetic which would prevent any majority which doesn't involve the SNP. Except one of course, the majority where Labour and the Conservatives form a coalition. In a time of war or national catastrophy that's credible, even laudable, but now? No.
It might seem like the logical endpoint for two parties who have grown closer and closer together in outlook over the last two decades, but it would surely mean the death of both of them.
Can you imagine a BBC debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband before the election, where the two of them are asked about working with the SNP, and both have to say (in effect to the people of England) "we'll form a Con/Lab coalition". Having to answer questions like "so, which one of you will be Prime Minister?" would be the political equivalent to drinking hemlock.
Still, let's not get carried away - the chances of the SNP holding the balance of power are small. Even if we take a large chunk of Labour and LibDem seats in Scotland, it's still a rarity for Scotland's MPs to matter in the overall UK scheme of things. That's largely why we wanted independence in the first place! And in England there's plenty of time for a swing to Labour or the Tories, and perhaps UKIP's surge will disproportionally affect one of the two to the benefit of the other. Sadly, we could get 40 MPs and still find that the Tories have a majority and can continue to govern as they are now.