Thursday, February 16, 2006

Nicol and Nichola


Their eyes met across a crowded parliament. Nicola Sturgeon felt her heart leap beneath her foxy tight red suit as the ruggedly handsome Nichol Stephen fixed her with a knowing gaze. Was she up for it? Was he serious?
Her thoughts raced. Was this Mr Right, the Liberal Democrat that the SNP could finally get into bed with? Or was Stephen just looking for an extramarital fling to make Jack jealous. Could this flirtation be the start of a real and meaningful relationship or was it just another tease, a come-on from a party forever wedded to Labour? Nicola thought she knew...
The SNP parliamentary leader has been going out of her way to be nice about the Liberal Democrats, even praising them at First Minister’s Question Time for getting it right on council tax reform.
Not so long ago the LibDems were being attacked by the SNP as “Jack’s little helpers”, a band of unreliable, unprincipled dupes who would sell any policy, make any compromise in order to retain a foothold on power.
But it’s wonderful what an election can do. Suddenly it’s all hearts and flowers. So, is a vote for Nichol now a vote for Nichola? Has the Holy Grail of Scottish opposition politics, a Liberal-Nationalists coalition, finally been discovered?
Well, the first thing to say is that there is still a lot of tribal animosity to overcome. Many in the SNP are still opposed to diluting the pure spirit of independence; and most LibDems are scared of wild SNP types. But the passing of Jim Wallace, an inveterate unionist who had no time for nationalists, has certainly cleared a major obstacle.
The front runner to replace him, Nichol Stephen, is carefully ruling nothing out after the 2007 Holyrood elections. His challenger for the Liberal Democrat leadership, Mike Rumbles, is ruling out any deal with Labour, unless they accept fiscal federalism and local income tax - which they won’t. The LibDem leadership contest has turned into a debate about whether and when to ditch the Lib-Lab partnership.
For its part, the SNP under Nichola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond is a lot more open minded about cross party dealing than under John Swinney. Their people have been happy to talk up the prospect and point out how much agreement there already is on policy between the two parties.
The barrier to co-operation is anyway more psychological than political - to do with the mindset of the old winner-takes-all politics. And this is changing. By 2007, coalition will be the norm, across local and Scottish elections, and new political combinations are going to be the order of the day.
Labour might even decide to precipitate matters by going for a pre-emptive divorce from the LibDems. Relations between the parties have deteriorated in the wake of the general election. Labour MSPs and MPs have never really liked the Liberal Democrats, and right now they loathe the very ground they walk on.
But the LibDems are getting big ideas. Pushing the SNP into third place in voting share has gone to their heads. They are talking now of replacing Labour as the largest party in Scotland - a pretty preposterous ambition for a party with only 4,000 odd members - and seem to think that they have a right to inherit the Scottish Executive.
Meanwhile, the SNP has taken the general election result surprisingly well, given that they came third in terms of voting share. Buoyed by opinion polls during the campaign which suggested they will do a lot better in the the Scottish election in 2007, the SNP is also talking up its chances of power. It’s not impossible that these double self-delusions might actually propel the two parties into each other’s arms.
For the reality is that neither opposition party has to win the election to form a government. In 2003, Labour won 39% of the Scottish vote. The Liberals and the SNP between them won 34%. There must be a strong chance of Jack McConnell losing some of his lead next time - especially if, as seems increasingly likely, Tony Blair is still clinging on in Westminster. Labour lost 4.5% in the general election ten days ago.
With the likely disintegration of the Scottish Socialist Party, the Lib-Nats could easily pick up another couple of percentage points. This means that a Lib-Nat administration is an arithmetical possibility, especially if the Greens could be enlisted to the cause. Labour would then be faced with the prospect of running a highly unstable minority administration or joining with the Tories.
Indeed, the only reason this hasn’t been taken seriously before is that everyone, Liberal Democrats included, has assumed that Labour somehow has to be included in any Scottish administration. Jim Wallace felt it would be undemocratic for Scotland’s largest party to be locked out of power. But that is a curious interpretation of democracy. It implies that Labour, a minority party, should rule in perpetuity. There’s nothing in the rule book that says other minorities cannot form governments if they can agree a plausible programme. All parties are minorities under PR.
The basis of any such Lib/Nat partnership agreement would not be too difficult to imagine. Full tax-raising powers to the Scottish parliament would probably come first, followed by things like opposition to nuclear weapons in the Clyde, rejection of nuclear power (which Jack McConnell said last week is within the powers of the Scottish Parliament), council tax reform, abolition of post-graduation 'tuition' fees, introduction of congestion charging, extension of social housing, an end to private health expansion, sex education in schools etc..
The main stumbling block would be the SNP’s commitment to holding a referendum on independence. Jim Wallace always drew the line at this, but it was never clear why. Holding such a ballot - especially if a third federal option is included involving fiscal autonomy - could actually strengthen the Union because independence would probably lose. Anyway, it's surely the people's choice.
However, this is one area in which the contenders for his crown seem to be as conservative as Wallace. On BBC’s Politics Scotland, on Friday, both Rumbles and Stephen made clear that they would not accept a referendum on independence.
So,while a Nat-Lib coalition is an mathematical possibility, I don’t think we will see one in 2007. Nichol Stephen would, I have no doubt, prefer to deal with the largest party in Scotland if possible. That is the best way to ensure that Liberal Democrat bums remain fixed to ministerial seats. Similarly, Jack McConnell would much prefer to run a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats than opt for a chaotic minority administration. The Lib-Lab partnership has been too useful for both leaderships.
Labour could offer to go some way towards fiscal autonomy by setting up a committee, like the Richards Conmmission in Wales, to look at more powers for the parliament. I don’t actually believe council tax is a coalition breaker, whatever Mr Rumbles believes. There are signs that even Charles Kennedy is losing his enthusiasm for the local income tax alternative, which is unpopular among middle income families.
So, the most likely prospect is more Lib-Labbery in Scotland. However, the decision rests in the hands of the people of Scotland who will be voting in the 2007 Scottish elections. If there is a reaction against Labour, then the numbers could change dramatically. The LibDems might find a continued coalition to be so toxic they would have to look elsewhere. Nicol and Nichola could yet find themselves thrown into each other’s arms.

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