Via Joan McAlpine's blog, I've just caught up with the story about a "senior SNP figure" supposedly sounding out Labour about a post-election deal. Of course, in the terms in which it was reported by the Scotsman, the story is a pure slab of Labour delusion. It presupposes that the SNP are resigned to defeat (in spite of two opinion polls putting them just fractionally behind Labour), and are so desperate for a deal that Labour can essentially dictate its own terms - ie. the dropping of the policy of independence, only dealing with the bits of the SNP they find less objectionable, and naturally Salmond would have to go. The complacency that is seeping out from Labour's every pore at the moment makes me wonder how on earth they would cope with the psychological trauma of a second defeat next May that could still very easily happen.
But let's just assume for the sake of argument that Labour do emerge as the largest single party, and then find themselves entertaining the idea of a deal with the SNP. Obvious question - if they're doing that in the first place, doesn't it indicate that they have no real choice? And if that's the case, who exactly is going to be dictating terms to whom? The lesson of the Westminster coalition negotiations this spring is that it's the smaller party that holds the whip-hand - after all, it was Nick Clegg demanding Gordon Brown's departure, not the other way round. So if Labour-SNP talks take place after the Holyrood election, it's safe to infer that Labour are the party with the most to lose. Indeed, from where I sit, the SNP already look like the party with the greater range of options for post-election cooperation - Labour can't credibly do even an informal deal with the Tories, and while it would be premature to completely write off the chances of a renewed understanding with the Lib Dems, it's hard to imagine such a relationship being anything other than deeply uncomfortable and unstable for as long as the Westminster coalition is in being. So how are Labour going to function, even as a minority government? A deal with the SNP may be 'unthinkable' at present, but as the UK Tories discovered in May, when something is the lesser of several unthinkable options, it can often be the one you end up pursuing.
It's clear from the original Scotsman article that this penny hasn't quite dropped yet, but in such a scenario Iain 'the Snarl' Gray and co are going to need the SNP far more than the SNP will need them. So at some point they'll have to forget the hubris about remaking the SNP in their own image under a more pliant leader, and start thinking instead about what carrots they can offer - which probably means either the prospect of an independence referendum, or the beefing up of Labour's own policy on further devolution. The Scotsman cites the example of the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition in Wales, suggesting that Plaid 'reduced its constitutional aspirations' in order to secure the deal. In truth, of course, it was entirely the other way round. Labour knew that without Plaid they might very well not have a role in government at all, and consequently simply swallowed hard and conceded what the nationalists had been seeking all along - an early referendum on Scottish-style powers for the Welsh Assembly. Something similar in scope will be required from Gray if he shortly finds himself in need of nationalist friends.