A deal between the SNP and Labour looks easier than ever to strike – here’s why

Nicola Sturgeon unveiling the SNP manifesto on April 20. Danny Lawson/PA

You can’t read the Scottish National Party (SNP) manifesto without keeping in mind the remarkable context in which it has been published – the referendum defeat, the predictions of SNP landslide on May 7, and the fact that the party is not pushing for a second independence referendum. Then there is the possibility that the SNP will prop up a Labour minority government (in Scottish political terms this is almost like Labour and the Conservatives coming together).

It is important to realise that the SNP is looking for a way to balance its long-term aims with a way to make its policies relevant to every possible election. In 2015 this means occupying ground to the left of UK Labour while doing what most parties have done in Scottish politics for decades: opposing the Tories.

It also means thinking, for the first time, about what it can hope to get from negotiations with a minority Labour government. In terms of the manifesto, we can put these demands into four categories.

Pledges everyone supports, with minor innovations

Much of the supposed debate between the Scottish parties is about things on which they all agree, and the new SNP manifesto is no different. Talk of protecting Scottish public services such as education and the NHS is the obvious example. Others include references to maintaining Scotland’s financial position or delivering the Smith Commission agenda on further devolution.

There is some scope for more devolution, however, driven by SNP pressure and Labour’s desire to look like it delivered “home rule”. Labour’s manifesto says that it will implement Smith and “go further, with a Home Rule Bill to give extra powers to Scotland over tax, welfare and jobs”. This represents the fact that it areas such as social security, the main obstacle for additional reforms seemed to come from ministers such as Iain Duncan Smith.

A little push in the right direction

You would expect most SNP success to come from pushing Labour to do things it already wants to do. For example both want to maintain a “triple lock” on the state pension and abolish the bedroom tax, while there is little ground between the SNP’s call for a minimum wage of £8.70 by 2020 and Labour’s “more than £8” by 2019.

Both make similar noises about abolishing an unelected House of Lords and increasing the representation of women in public life. Both want to find the right form of words to claim that they are cutting the budget deficit without cutting important public services, while investing for the future and avoiding austerity. So it could be in their common interest to come to a vague agreement on a plan to boost the economy and jobs.

Most remarkably, the SNP manifesto includes a list of Labour policies that it is happy to vote for: “the reintroduction of the 50 pence top tax rate, a tax on bankers’ bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance, the abolition of ‘non-dom’ status and reversal of the married couple’s tax allowance”.

In other areas, the wording of each party commitment leaves the door open for agreement, including: the SNP’s opposition to a child benefit cut and Labour’s proposal for a temporary cap; and the SNP’s opposition to an EU referendum and Labour not planning to hold one.

Mutual benefit in Scotland and England

In some cases, party agreement extends to policies that refer primarily to England but with some knock-on effect for devolved budgets. Take health, for example, where both Labour and the SNP want to boost NHS spending and limit NHS “privatisation”. The SNP would get more funding in Scotland from any English funding increase through the “Barnett” funding mechanism. Or take the fact that both parties support reducing university tuition fees in England. If the shortfall comes directly from UK government spending, this would boost Scottish government funding for the same reason.

In other cases, things get confusing because the SNP: effectively supports Labour’s commitment to 25 free hours of pre-school childcare in England while reminding people about its existing commitment to 30 hours in Scotland; wants to boost Labour’s UK housebuilding target (from 40,000 to 100,000 per year) while maintaining a more limited aim in Scotland; and, will “continue to support a moratorium on fracking” (there is one in Scotland, not England).

Housebuilding: much more broken ground required. Department for Communities, CC BY-SA

The red lines

The biggest bone of contention in the manifestos is Trident: the SNP wants to abolish it and Labour wants to talk about it as little as possible (its manifesto describes a “minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability” but not renewal). Much depends on how the renewal policy is pursued: if primarily through the budget, it will be tricky to secure SNP support for the overall budget; if via legislation, Labour could rely on Conservative support. Much also depends on Labour’s ability to put the issue off, to reflect the fact that many of its MPs would rather not renew.

On certain other policies, some issues may also need to play out before we know what will happen. The SNP has called for a return to allowing non-EU students to work in the UK temporarily after graduation, whereas Labour’s emphasis is more on curbing bogus student visas. On energy there is a common desire to tackle the big energy companies, but a separate SNP aim to challenge the UK rules on transmission charging could lead to conflict.

Then we come to the supposed impasse of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. Before the SNP published its manifesto, the debate resembled two childish tactics playing out simultaneously: the SNP relying on the “but you said” argument, to criticise the main UK parties for not delivering devo max (which they did not promise); and the other parties daring the SNP to keep asking for the fiscal autonomy it was not being offered (Scottish Labour in particular sees it as the thorn in the SNP’s side).

Now the SNP is talking about fiscal autonomy in the long term, highlighting how long it has taken to deliver far less ambitious further-devolution plans so far (the Calman review process began in 2007, to produce a Scotland Act in 2012). It is pretty much saying that it is prepared to see it delivered over more than one parliamentary term. As such, it has removed the most important red line.