Polls indicate that in Scotland the most desired outcome of the general election is that Labour form the next government with the support of the SNP, but not necessarily a formal coalition. Obviously, for this to happen the SNP must win most of the Scottish seats and the overall outcome must be that neither Labour or the Tories can command an overall majority, even with any plausible combination of smaller parties (other than the SNP) as coalition partners. The results of the recent Ashcroft polls in selected Scottish constituencies suggest that even constituencies which previously had seemingly unassailable Labour majorities will be won by the SNP. If the current level of support for the SNP is maintained, it is possible for the SNP to win 50 seats or more, enough to be a significant force at Westminster. (The dramatic change in Scottish politics is highlighted by the fact that polls are consistently showing lower levels of support for Labour in Scotland than in Britain as a whole.)
Across the UK, Labour and the Tories are very nearly level now in the opinion polls, but it is likely that some people will edge towards voting for the devil they know, and that the Tories will pull slightly ahead in terms of vote share by May. However, outdated constituency boundaries are expected to give Labour an advantage of perhaps 20 seats. It is therefore possible that Labour and the Tories will win very nearly the same number of seats. In that case, the Tories will probably not be able to form a majority government with either the LibDems or UKIP as a coalition partner. A Tory/LibDem/UKIP coalition seems improbable, and might well fall short of a majority even with the DUP as a minor component.
Labour, on the other hand, could be faced with the need for an alliance with the SNP (and presumably Plaid Cymru and perhaps any English Greens) if they are to form a government. Given the antagonism displayed by Labour, especially the Scottish branch, towards the SNP in recent years, such an alliance would be deeply unpopular with many within Labour. During the independence campaign Labour and the Tories were partners in Better Together, and the SNP were their enemy. Would Labour really perform the necessary U-turn, or would they prefer to hand power to the Tories? After the last general election, they did not try very hard to create a coalition which would have had to include just 6 SNP MPs. However, if they somehow let the Tories back into power because of their dislike of the SNP, there will be many Labour voters who will not forgive them, both inside and outside Scotland.
Labour argue that if Scottish voters elect mostly SNP candidates, this will increase the risk that the Tories will get back into power. This is true only if Labour refuse to enter into an alliance with the SNP. If Labour are willing to do a deal with the SNP, then it is the total number of Labour and SNP MPs that matters. Therefore, if Labour say “Vote SNP, get the Tories” they are implying that they would rather let the Tories stay in power than co-operate with the SNP. If this is the case, surely they owe it to their own voters to be honest about their intentions.
From the SNP’s point of view, any alliance with Labour can only be justified if it can be used to win substantial and useable new powers for the Scottish Parliament. Labour will be very reluctant to make any such concessions, as these are likely to be unpopular with the significant fraction of English voters whose xenophobia extends to Scotland. They are on course for losing most of their Scottish seats, and face being in the same position as the Tories, who do not have to worry about antagonising Scottish voters as they have very few seats even potentially at stake here. Even if the Labour leadership agrees to the transfer of powers to Holyrood, there is no guarantee that the necessary legislation will be passed by the Commons, as Labour backbenchers might rebel and vote against it. My feeling is that any deal that the SNP might make with Labour should be that the Scottish Parliament will be granted agreed new powers by a specific date, with it being made clear that if Labour do not deliver on time the alliance will definitely end.
What are the alternatives?
One possibility is that whichever of the two main parties wins the most seats could form a coalition with the LibDems (or UKIP in the case of the Tories) and try their luck as a minority government. However, a government which is significantly short of a majority is likely to be weak and ineffectual, and the parties involved might well lose support as a result. A coalition government brings with it one set of problems, while a minority government has another set; a minority coalition government will have both, and be a nightmare for those trying to run it.
Another possibility is that the Tories and Labour could agree to hold a new election; between them, they would easily be able to muster the 434 Commons votes required for this under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. However, this would probably produce a very similar outcome to the first election, and would be unlikely to resolve the situation.
There has been quite a bit of discussion about the most dramatic alternative, namely a Tory/Labour coalition. After all, New Labour and the Tories have espoused very similar policies, and there have been occasions when Labour have voted with the Coalition or collectively abstained from voting, such as when Labour allowed the Coalition to pass ‘emergency’ legislation to retrospectively legalise their workfare programme. However, the Labour leadership may have enough sense to realise just how much damage this would do to the Labour party. Many of the voters throughout the UK who still cling to the belief that Labour is a party of the left, or to the hope that one day Labour will return to its roots, could be forced to accept that Labour is now a neo-liberal party like the Tories, more concerned with the interests of the Establishment than with those of ordinary people. Would Labour copy the LibDems and commit electoral suicide? Of course, the Tory party would lose some voters as well, people who equate social justice with communism, but such people may well defect to UKIP anyway. My guess is that it would be Labour who be the biggest losers.
From the point of view of the Establishment, one danger of a Tory/Labour coalition is that it would expose what a sham democracy in the UK really is. It reminds me of a story I heard many years ago, about someone who watched a heavyweight professional wrestling match where the opponents were apparently deadly enemies; later, in a chip shop, he saw the same two wrestlers, the best of friends. Labour and the Tories pretend to be different, in order to giver voters the illusion that it matters which one they vote for. If that illusion is shattered, voters might start giving enough support to more radical parties, UKIP on the right and perhaps the Greens on the left, to upset the present cosy arrangement.
What is my prediction? I do not really have one, except that the aftermath of the election is likely to be very interesting indeed.