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Monday, 7 March 2011

The Herald puts cart before the horse

I'm beginning to despair of The Herald, I really am.

Let's take a brief look at what have recently passed for political news in Scotland's leading quality newspaper. In the last few days we've seen The Herald reduce the Liberal Democrats' position on drug sentencing to the glib headline "Lib Dems back move to give addicts NHS heroin", a truly irresponsible distortion if ever there was one. The Herald has also reported in the last few days that a "Green coalition could hand power to Labour" and that "any prospect of the Liberal Democrats forming an alliance with the SNP after the Holyrood election was receding."

What is such a respected newspaper doing not only pre-empting the result of the forthcoming election, but also pre-determining the outcome of any potential coalition negotiations? It's perhaps useful to consider the potential for the Greens to help form a government, but what The Herald does not make clear is why they would be the natural allies for Labour. The historic relationship between Labour and the Liberal Democrats is never even considered and, while a Labour-Lib Dem coalition is far from an obvious outcome, it is at the very least a potential option to be explored. The newspaper even admits that "the negative effect [of the tuition fees issue and the VAT increase] for both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats...have proved to be short-lived, however, with the coalition parties bouncing back virtually to previous levels." So while suggesting that the Liberal Democrats will emerge in a much stronger position than the Scottish Greens, the newspaper illogically supposes (on the strength of a single opinion poll that gives Labour 59 seats, the SNP 39, the Lib Dems 12, the Tories 12 and the Greens 6) that Iain Gray would be more inclined to negotiate a coalition with a working majority of one than explore other possibilities. Given that Robin Harper is sadly retiring, any coalition with the Greens would be likely to result in ministries being allocated to people with no experience of parliament, never mind the rigours and responsibilities of government. Hardly a recipe for stability.

It also underestimates in my view the regard in which Alex Salmond is held by the electorate. I accept that Labour are in a strong position and I would wager on them winning most seats on May 5th, but I would take with caution any prediction that gives Labour a 20-seat lead over the SNP. Even if Labour only won 58 of the available seats and the Greens manage 6, the electoral arithmetic for a coalition is, to put it bluntly, non-existent. No-one would seriously be putting all their eggs in that particular basket, however attractive it might appear to some. It should also be remembered that if a week is a long time in politics, two months is an eternity. However accurate that opinion poll, a lot may well change in the coming weeks.

The Herald's objective appears to be to remove the Liberal Democrats from the equation by suggesting that there will be little possibility for involvement in government following the Holyrood elections. On Saturday, the paper was quick to pour cold water on Tavish Scott's suggestion that Lib Dems should be working together with all parties - a clear indication that co-operation with the SNP could not be ruled out. "Any prospect of the Liberal Democrats forming an alliance [with the SNP] was receding" the Herald claimed. Why? Because the SNP are targetting seats that are currently held by Lib Dems. Really? Is that it? The fact that we're targetting Argyll & Bute (held by the SNP) no more rules out a potential coalition agreement with Salmond's party any more than the fact we're also targetting Edinburgh Central would rule out a deal with Labour.

It's plainly ridiculous to suppose the SNP wouldn't be targetting Lib Dem seats, especially seats such as Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale where - due to boundary changes - they actually have a notional majority. I wouldn't draw any conclusions other than that the SNP actually want to win as many seats as they can.

Of course all this is little more than speculation. But it's unhelpful speculation, and not necessarily well-informed. I am sure that all of the political parties appreciate that there may well be various options on the table after the election, and will have considered them. But I also have no doubt whatsoever that the respective leaderships will be, first and foremost, concentrated on getting the best possible result for their party in the forthcoming elections so that any potential deals can be negotiated from a position of strength. Only once the electoral outcome is known can serious discussions and negotiations begin. As far as The Herald seems to be concerned, the actual campaigns (which have not even kicked off in earnest yet) are of lesser interest to the public than one opinion poll and a heap of speculation about coalitions.

Perhaps The Herald can, like the parties themselves, focus on the election and the important policy issues rather than unnecessary conjecture. I'm sure come May they'll have considered the potential for an SNP-Tory-Green-Margo MacDonald-George Galloway coalition but none of this actually informs the public about political reality. The Herald is guilty of putting the cart before the horse. Let's leave talk of coalition agreements until after the election, rather than pre-empting them.

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