The surprise of the election campaign thus far has been the fact that Labour seem to still be slightly ahead in the polls. As things stand, unless there’s some sort of late surge towards the Tories, Ed Miliband will be in prime position to form the next government. This is a position for which he and his party seem, from the outside anyhow, to be utterly unprepared for. And by that I don’t mean the trappings of power or the burdens of the executive – I mean simply that the Labour Party appear utterly unready to interface with the parties they will need to in order to make anything resembling a stable ruling platform for Miliband possible.
Everything favours Labour in this respect, arithmetically at least. They can talk to the SNP about supply and confidence; they can talk to the Lib Dems about supporting them in the same way, although this will be harder as the Lib Dems will probably push for coalition or nothing; most of the smaller parties, like Plaid, will tacitly support Labour to keep the Tories out. But the problem is, Labour doesn’t have a history of dealing with other parties well, and that’s what the situation they might be facing in a few weeks’ time calls for explicitly. It seems like Labour think they can bully the other parties into doing whatever Labour wants to do because they can play the “We’re better than the Tories card” over and over again.
Life for a minority governing party under the Fixed Term Parliament Act could be truly dire. Gone for the likes of the SNP will be the worry that to vote against any Labour Bill would bring the government down, and with it an election that would sweep the Tories to power. They only have to try and get what they can from the first Queen’s Speech, vote that through, then they are out into the open waters of Fixed Term land. This will mean they can vote down every single Labour Bill they feel like and the Labour minority floats on. At least as long as the Tories want it to, and it will be in their interests to show how bad a Labour-SNP arrangement truly is, waiting until Labour are very low in the polls before helping Miliband out of his jam.
Think the SNP wouldn’t act this way? Take this hypothetical situation: Labour want to pass a Bill making the NHS the preferred health supplier in England. The SNP vote it down on the basis that it isn’t making the NHS the only health supplier in England. They can say they are saving the English from right-wing measures on health, to Labour’s detriment, attacking Labour from the left.
Or imagine this scenario: Labour and the Lib Dems have enough seats to form a majority, just. Labour rejects formal coalition, a Queen’s speech gets passed and a minority government gets underway. Every time the Lib Dems vote something down, it’s a win for them. Every loss just makes Miliband look bad. Six months goes by and it’s a nightmare for Labour. The Tories won’t put them out of their misery by ending the parliament. What price could the Lib Dems extract for coalition at that stage?
My overall point is, Labour are very possibly facing a very difficult political terrain to successfully navigate if the polls stay where they are and they are the largest party in a hung parliament. And yet they seem to be trapped in a pre-2010 binary mindset, one in which they either win the election or lose it. For the sake of the country, I hope they start thinking a bit more laterally – and soon.