Ed Balls has sought to quash speculation that Labour could strike a formal post-election deal with the Scottish National party by hinting that Labour would prefer a minority government to a coalition.
The shadow chancellor said a deal with the SNP “is not part of our plan; it’s not what we want” during a pre-election campaign visit to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The idea of forming another coalition government, he added, was now “very unpopular” at Westminster, after the collapse in Liberal Democrat support since Nick Clegg’s power-sharing deal with David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010.
“The idea of coalition now at Westminster is pretty unpopular and the Lib Dems are really, really unpopular. So there’s no enthusiasm for this kind of discussion with the Liberal Democrats or the SNP; that’s why we’re fighting to get a majority,” said Balls.
“The issue is going to be having a Labour plan or a Tory plan. If you vote SNP and let the Tories in, you will get the Tory plan.”
Balls and Jim Murphy, the shadow Scottish secretary, refused to explicitly rule out a minority Labour government making some form of post-election deal with the SNP and other parties during repeated questioning by reporters in Edinburgh.
Murphy said: “We don’t expect a deal or arrangement with the SNP. We’re not expecting the need to do that, because as Ed [Miliband] has said, we are aiming to be the biggest party and win a majority.”
Clearly unsettled by the polls putting Labour and the Tories neck and neck, and giving Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP a substantial 20-point lead in Scotland, senior Labour figures from Miliband downwards have repeatedly failed to reject outright a possible arrangement with the SNP.
They fear alienating disaffected former Labour voters in Scotland who are planning to vote SNP on 7 May and believe privately that they need to allow room to change tack if a deal becomes unavoidable.
But Labour is attempting to take a far harder public line on the issue, focusing attention on its case that every lost Labour seat would improve the Tories’ chance of winning in May. Recent polls suggest the SNP could take several dozen Scottish Labour seats, dramatically cutting Labour’s chances of winning an overall majority, but increasing the SNP’s bargaining power in the Commons.
Asked to confirm that a minority Labour government would need support from smaller parties such as the SNP or Lib Dems to command a Commons majority, Balls insisted it was a straight fight between Labour and the Tories.
“Whether or not we have Labour as the largest party or with a majority will depend centrally on whether or not people vote for Labour MPs, so we’re the largest party at Westminster,” he said.
“I can see why Nicola Sturgeon wants that to be the debate in Scotland, but it doesn’t help me because if you want a Labour budget, you have to vote Labour.
“If I start answering that question and go down that road in any direction, it makes more complicated a simple truth: if you vote Labour in Scotland, you’ve a good chance of a Labour budget. If you vote SNP, you will make it more likely you will get David Cameron and George Osborne. I would rather talk about simple truths rather than complicated hypotheticals.”
Balls brushed aside questions about the attractiveness of Sturgeon’s plans for a £180bn increase in public spending in the next parliament – a proposal the SNP says it would press for in any post-election deal.
Insisting he was concerned only with Labour’s blueprint for a 50p top income tax rate, a mansion tax and higher minimum wage, Balls said: “The SNP isn’t a party which has a plan to deliver on the economy at Westminster.”
Another key SNP demand, that a further Labour government abandons Trident nuclear weapons in return for an SNP deal, was rejected by Murphy, a defence hawk in Labour’s shadow cabinet. “Issues of national security are far more important than party politics,” he said.
This article was written by Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th February 2015 18.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010