The bridesmaids?

Michael Keating explores the variety of coalition options that could emerge in the Scottish Parliament and looks at some European examples

In the run-up to devolution in the 1990s, a great deal was talked about a ënew politicsí in Scotland. It was never entirely clear just what this meant but it spoke to a frustration with the practices of the old cartel of political parties that had locked up politics for most of the twentieth century, a need for opening up the political process and a desire for more participation. The more idealistic visions may have suffered a shock in encountering politics as normal but one achievement that will last is proportional representation, now entrenched in three of the four levels of elections we have in Scotland. This more or less ensures that no party will win a majority in the Scottish Parliament so that all governments will be coalitions or minorities. Should Labour and Conservative decide once again to converge, as they have done at various times in their history, the electors will still have somewhere else to go and the experience, in Scotland, Wales, London and the European elections is that, given the choice, they are very happy to buck the old party cartel.

This goes against some deeply-ingrained traditions of British parties of both right and left. Labour is instinctively hostile to sharing power or the kind of political bargaining that is normal in most European countries, although in the 1990s its leadership was able to reach a tactical alliance with the Liberal Democrats, given the urgency of ending the long Conservative hegemony. In the late 1990s, New Labour seems to have seen the Liberal Democrats as partners in a realignment of the centre-left and, probably, as a way of weakening the old left and what its leaders liked to refer to generally as Old Labour. The fear of having to compromise with forces to their right and the uneasy knowledge that they have never commanded a popular majority in Britain or in Scotland was certainly one element in the hostility of the Labour left to PR. In fact, when forced into coalition in the Scottish Parliament, Labour found the Lib Dems pulling them mildly to the left and towards the libertarian pole. As a result we got free personal care for the elderly, a slightly better Freedom of Information Act, no requirement of ID cards for public services and, until Labour took back the portfolio in 2003, a slightly less reactionary line on law and order than that prevailing south of the border. Labour, however, never got used to coalition government and the key demand of the Lib Dems in the second session, PR for local government, seems to have scarred the psyche of the municipal activists.

Coalition government does, however, have its drawbacks. One was that at the beginning of each term the two parties would agree on a programme of government and legislation, which was then pursued systematically without regard for changing circumstances or the need for learning and innovation. Another was that, knowing that they had a majority, the coalition were less obliged to build support in civil society than the advocates of new politics had hoped. A third was the descent into pork barrel politics, in which a Borders railway could be traded against a Glasgow motorway extension; tolls have now been removed on all the major bridges less as a matter of progressive policy than because each seems to be owned by a political party.

Coalition politics also meant that the opposition parties were out of the political game, even when the old electoral discipline broke down and a flurry of minor parties and independents came in at the elections of 2003.

Minority government, as pursued since 2007, provides yet another political game. It is not particularly difficult as long as government does not have too ambitious a legislative agenda. The main need is to get the budget through and, unless they really want to bring down the government, the other parties will let this happen, albeit after a display of brinkmanship. Strangely enough, it is the Conservatives who have adapted best to this type of politics. Eschewing any ambition for government, even in coalition, they positioned themselves at the last election as a brokerage party, prepared to do deals with whoever came out ahead. They state their aims in advance and have tended to get what they asked for. Labour have played the oppositional role as though they were at Westminster, where the opposition can safely vote no to everything, and have been outmanoeuvred. The Liberal Democrats since the last election seem to be facing every direction at once, and the Greens seriously overplayed their hand this last time around.

Labour is instinctively hostile to sharing power or the kind of political bargaining that is normal in most European countries

Minority government and the fact that the SNP do not have the networks that the Labour Party has built up over decades, also means that the Scottish Government now has to reach out more into society. Who knows how long this will last but the collapse of the banks means that they will need more friends than ever if they are to succeed in making and delivering on policy.

Having broken with the old two-party mode, it is unlikely that Scottish electors will go back to their old ways. The SNP, even if it secures a second term, will tire eventually and lose, but this does not mean a return to Labour hegemony but more likely a revival of smaller parties, including leftist, green, localist and single-issue candidatures. Almost uniquely in Europe, Scotland is blessed by the absence of a serious extreme-right or populist-xenophobic party, so the prospect of further party fragmentation is not a cause for alarm. The old ideological barriers have come down and all manner of alliances are possible. The experience of Wales shows that coalitions unthinkable a few years ago can be contemplated with equanimity. A grand coalition of Plaid Cymru, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats almost came into being and, when it failed, was succeeded by an equally unlikely Labour-Plaid Cymru alliance.

Various coalition formulas are also possible for Scotland. One is a unionist coalition of Labour and Conservative against the nationalists and advanced home rulers. Such an alliance has just been formed in the Basque Country, even although the nationalists came first in the elections with the Socialists second and Conservatives third (it is not a full coalition but a pact in which a minority Socialist Government in supported in votes by the Conservatives). Another possibility is the renewal of the Labour-Liberal Democrat formula. Other formations would almost inevitably have to include the SNP, who have been ostracised by the unionist parties because of their insistence on an independence referendum. After the next election, however, this might not be an obstacle, either because a referendum has been held and lost or because the Parliament has rejected it and the SNP has accepted that it cannot proceed, or because the other parties have accepted a ëtwo-questioní ballot and agreed to the referendum on those terms. A ësocial democraticí Labour-SNP coalition on Welsh lines is unlikely, since both parties have majoritarian ambitions, although in Catalonia the Socialists have formed a coalition with a left-wing nationalist party against the mainstream conservative nationalists (even though the latter are more moderate on the national question). An SNP-Liberal Democrat coalition has long been seen as the most likely alternative to the Labour-Liberal Democrat formula, since there are few deep differences on social and economic issues. Last time, it foundered on Lib Dem dithering and the question of an independence referendum but next time it might be different. Such a coalition might be boosted by participation from the Greens, depending on their presence in the Parliament and by any left party representatives elected. Finally, there could be a ërainbow coalitioní of everybody except Labour and the SNP. Such a government, spanning Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the odd independent and even leftists, may seem unlikely but could provide some spoils for all.

There is also the attitude of the UK parties to take into account. It is clear that London Labour smiled upon the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in Scotland in 1999 as a precursor to a future arrangement at Westminster, although this did not come about. A Labour Party that had lost power at the centre might seek to come back in Scotland and Wales in alliance with any anti-Conservative forces available. London could even lose control and an autonomous Scottish party emerge. The Conservatives, for their part, could concede that they have lost the game and encourage their Scottish supporters to make their own way, including choosing their allies and their tactics. It is also likely that, as in Germany, the state-wide parties will seek to balance their options and alliances, seeking to avoid being identified with only one partner and losing their distinctive identity. This is already happening in Scottish local government.

The other possibility is a continuation of minority government, now that the SNP has shown that it can be done, unlike at Westminster. This is the Spanish way, where governments both at the central and the devolved level have frequently lacked a majority but have learned to negotiate pacts with other parties, usually falling short of a full coalition but ensuring a degree of stability in return for policy concessions. What is not going to happen is a return to the old ways of Westminster.