The election draws remorselessly nearer, but the doubly close nature of the polls gives little clarity over what follows election day. In Brewer’s Green a group of Labour staffers work busily on transition plans, but their isolation from the day-to-day campaign seems as much a metaphor as a management decision, with even senior figures briefing the press they are confident only of a plurality of seats, not a majority.
Which raises the question: How would Labour play the post-election poker game?
For much of this parliament the presumption was that a humbled Liberal Democrat party, under a more Labour-friendly leader than Nick Clegg, would fold the coalition and support a Labour government, if only from a distance, in exchange perhaps for some significant constitutional renewal.
Senior Labour figures have been speaking warmly of progressive Liberal Democrats for some time, even while Nick Clegg went from king of hearts to parliamentary joker. Now, though, it seems even a Labour-Liberal Democrat alliance might not achieve a majority.
That gives the Scottish National party cards to play. Since the referendum Labour has tried to show indifference to Nicola Sturgeon raising the stakes. We are not about deals, we have said, though for many in the party, and especially the unions, the SNP’s bet on ending austerity, Trident cancellation and increased public spending sounds attractive.
The problem is not austerity. It is the simple fact that the SNP’s core aim is independence. Because of that, its political project is subordinate to its national one. Every offer of support will have a poison pill intended to make it impossible for Labour to accept, so the SNP can say only it stands up for Scotland.
Yet, while the SNP worked consistently with Scottish Tories when in a minority in Holyrood, now Sturgeon says the Tories must be beaten. That means that any SNP vote to allow the Tories to stay in office would be seen as hypocrisy of the highest order. Labour could call the SNP’s bluff, and demand it does not let David Cameron stay in No 10, conceding nothing. That would take a lot of nerve, but this is a high-stakes game.
Still, all these scenarios show how important it is Labour gets a majority.
To beat the Liberal Democrats’ busted flush and to put the SNP straight, the hand Labour really needs is simple: a full house.
Another intriguing signal of the balance of power in the party is the unanimous choice of John Cryer as chair of the parliamentary Labour party. The Cryers are a political dynasty and the approachable and friendly John is well regarded across the PLP, known and liked by many as a twice-selected member of parliament, his late selection in 2010 coming after he spent five years as a union political officer after losing ultra-marginal Hornchurch.
Yet three years ago the outgoing PLP chair Dave Watts beat Cryer to the job by a handsome margin, with the quiet support of the leadership. This time there was not even an opponent. What changed? As a backbenchers’ representative on the parliamentary committee Cryer is an assiduous worker, which meant last year he became vice-chair of the PLP, and many felt he was due reward for doing an unglamorous job well.
As a result it was clear that Cryer was the favourite and, while strongly on the left, he is no striker of pointless radical poses, so mutual goodwill was preferred to distracting division. The job of PLP chair will be crucial after the election, whether raising concerns with Labour ministers over difficult policies, discussing what flavour of coalition or minority government would be acceptable, or, even, speaking for the party if we are in opposition. Come what may, in May, Cryer will be a man in great demand.
The end of every election cycle brings with it departures from the parliamentary party, coinciding with the moment the National Executive Committee takes control of the shortlisting process. Many of the shadow cabinet know this is nothing new, as several of their own selections occurred in the spring of election year.
While the process is familiar, each cycle sees a change in the flavour of the resulting selections. For a decade or so the main beneficiaries of this process were special advisers and those promoted and supported by leading politicians, though by 2010 there was a more obvious grouping of candidates supported by unions and others.
This time, perhaps the main beneficiaries have been those on the NEC itself, with three recent selections translating graduates from the party’s governing body to presumptive parliamentary status.
This is a reflection of the powerful role the NEC plays in the Labour party in opposition, but, in two of the cases, it also demonstrates a willingness by left sections of the party to trade quietude over disliked policies in order to secure a greater future presence in parliament.
This is probably a smarter political strategy for influencing the future of the Labour party than writing opinion columns. Labour’s history suggests strength of organisation trumps acuity of analysis. Besides that, if the election is as tight as the polls suggest, the votes of a few MPs could have a major impact on any future Labour government. These selections could make a real difference.
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