After the next Holyrood elections in May, the Liberal Democrats will be desperate to do a deal with Labour, and Labour will not necessarily need to do a deal back.
Nick Clegg has sometimes justified the coalition at Westminster on the basis not of wanting to do a deal with the Tories, but simply to prove that coalitions work, and they could do a deal with anyone. The language of the Liberal Democrats since the election has been anything other than tribal and partisan, making it seem that a deal with anyone OTHER than the conservatives would be impossible, but if they are to have any hope of surviving as a separate party, they need to prove that they can work with other parties, and that they are not as partisan as they have been up to now.
The Holyrood parliament was designed to produce a proportional result, and as such there is only a small chance of the single party achieving a majority. The political situation is such that there are only two parties who will form a government, either as a minority, or in coalition, Labour and the SNP. In the 3 elections we’ve had since 1999, there has been two coalitions (Labour-Liberal Democrat) and one minority government (SNP). There are a number of coalition partner parties, who are unlikely to be the major party in Government, but who could support either a minority Government, or go into full coalition. Theres the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, the Greens and, if they return members to Parliament in 2011, the Scottish Socialists.
Until recently, the Conservatives had a policy of not going into coalition with anyone, on principle, which seemed to be a case of cutting their nose off to spite their face. Anonymous sources within the party however, have now intimated that they could do a deal with the SNP, in order to prevent Labour taking power.
The SNP, meanwhile, have rejected this, as they have a constitution preventing any deals with the Tories. But that wouldn’t stop them joining a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They are in power with them in several Councils across Scotland, including Edinburgh and Fife. But I think it unlikely that they would join in a coalition at Holyrood. The chance was there for such a deal in 2007, but it foundered on the issue of independence, and even if this were to be overcome, I think that the idea of propping up a party which had “lost” the election would be enough to put paid to it. Of course, if the SNP were to gain seats at the election and remain the largest party, I doubt they would be asking anyone for a coalition.
The Greens are not likely to wish to become coalition partners, but could hold a balance of power. Although the idea of Patrick Harvie as the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs is beguiling, I think the Greens will feel that they could achieve more by being outside of Government, demanding concessions to help the budget pass. As we have seen, though, this can backfire. And if a coalition is formed which can command a majority, then their power will be virtually nil.
The Scottish Socialists may return an MSP or two, but like the Greens, I think they would see their position being best served through staying out of a formal coalition – although they could give support to a left-of-centre Government on a confidence and supply basis, if a government was sufficiently left-wing, which may be unlikely in an era of reduced budgets.
Which leaves us with the Liberal Democrats. With Labour leading in the polls for Holyrood, it seems likely that they will be in the driving seat next May, and a minority administration should not be discounted. After all, what is sauce for the nationalist goose is sauce for the Labour gander. But having an overall majority will help implement policy which is something that the SNP has found to be difficult, and which will be more difficult in the financial climate of the next few years.
But we come back to the Liberal Democrats wanting to show that their coalition with the Tories is not personal. In fact, they will need to show this if, as expected their performance in the elections in England Wales and Scotland is less than they would have hoped for. In that likely event, they will want to show that they are not the re-incarnation of Thatcher that their opponents will proclaim. And the best way to prove that, is to form a coalition with Labour at Holyrood. Its been done before, and many of their MSPs will have worked in Government with many of the Labour MSPs. By joining forces, they can show that they are a force for progressive good, and not the mad axemen of Old London Town.
In Short, they will be desperate to do a deal, and that can only be a good thing as far as Labour is concerned.