That is, don’t rule anything in and don’t rule it out. You have nothing to gain (you can fritter away your negotiation leverage when agreeing the pact) and everything to lose, in the event that you find yourself in a different situation from that expected and have to eat your words. Obvious, really. Wait until the moment comes and deal with things when you have all the information.
But it could also be argued that there one sensible exception to that rule: if the mere hint of a pact with another party could be damaging to yours even before the election. Especially when things are balanced on a knife-edge and almost anything could affect the result.
That has never really been the case with the Lib Dems: until 2010 they were a slightly dull, modestly successful and broadly respectable opposition party, whether we liked it or not. Now they are bloodied with the hard work of actual government and potentially facing a big hit at the polls, they are possibly less attractive partners. But neither are they toxic.
The same cannot necessarily be said for some other parties. Cameron would have to tread very carefully indeed in the unhappy event of ending in a coalition with UKIP, unlikely though that might seem – the toxicity of some of its members could sit ill with his (mostly) respectable party.
But worse still is the idea of a partnership between Labour and the SNP. Here’s why.
First, public perception. In Scotland the SNP is seen – at least by some – as a serious, governing party. In England, most people remember it as it was for most of its history, a small party full of cranks.
The impression left on the rest of the UK by the referendum has mostly been that this is no longer correct: it is now a large party full of cranks (if you think this too harsh, try going on to Twitter and criticising the SNP without being set upon by a pack of crazed CyberNats).
Second, the break-up of the Union. Call me old-fashioned, but I think most Britons are pretty fond of it, albeit in a rather understated, British way. We are not big flag-wavers.
Now, what was the most historically important political event of this parliament? Why, without doubt, the independence referendum.
What we saw last September was that apparently the most separatist-minded part of mainland UK was not, after all, that separatist-minded. However, non-Scots, too, saw the edge of the abyss. That it really might have happened. How happy do you think those people are to see Labour playing footsie with the very people who want to make it happen? And how would Miliband be remembered if it were to happen on his watch?
Third, the poorness of fit between the two parties. In Scotland, it is no exaggeration to say the two parties pretty much hate each other, and a divisive referendum made that sentiment stronger, not weaker. But worse, it is surely wanton cannibalism to take the very party which is close to wiping you out in your homelands and enter into a pact with it.
For example, Cameron’s unsellable message to Europhobes is “there is one party which would really do something about immigration from Europe, but don’t vote for it, vote for us instead”.
Similarly, a pact-seeking Labour Party’s message to undecided Scots is “the SNP will likely form part of our government anyway but, hey, please vote for us not them”. Not good, is it? And much less so when the prospect of a Scottish wipeout is staring you in the face.
Fourth, because it is a gift to the Tories. Cameron – aided and abetted by his predecessor-but-three, John Major – last weekend pressed the point, because it is good electoral tactics. He knows how unpopular the SNP is everywhere but Scotland (and it’s not even that popular there. It did lose a referendum and a leader in the last six months, which might reasonably be viewed as somewhat careless).
Fifth, because by pacting you exacerbate the meltdown already threatening Scottish Labour. As it is, rebuilding the party will be a slow and painful process.
Although the reality may be end up being a bit less cataclysmic than polls suggest, there is no need to turn a strong possibility into a racing certainty.
Sixth, because in order to leave a pact on the table, you have to see it as remotely workable – this isn’t. A fairly unpopular leader with an even more unpopular leader (in England at least) as coalition partner. With strong pressure within both parties to defy economic gravity and end austerity. And, of course, the very real threat of Scottish secession; with a battered Scottish Labour Party probably in open revolt after a coalition deal, a second referendum would have ideal timing. It is difficult to think of a governing model less suited to stable, successful government.
As Sam Dale has already written here at Uncut, such a coalition presents basic issues of economic and political stability, which could easily dog an SNP-Labour coalition. And, as was also written here, it seems pretty likely that Labour’s leadership would take it, at least if there were no other palatable option. And, as former Labour MP Eric Joyce argues here, a full coalition is not as unlikely as people think.
That would be a mistake of epic proportions.
So, it is not just that it wouldn’t work – its very mention is damaging to Labour. It conjures up an image of a hotch-potch government, whose senior partner, to stay in power, concedes policies with whichever wackos they need to, whether it be for economic fairyland or the break-up of the nation, or both.
Politically, not a good look. And Britain is a country with a history of political evolution, not revolution.
The truth is that Miliband realises that he will probably need to govern with a partner and, in the heat of a post-election scramble, things will surely move fast.
But, as they say: marry in haste, repent at leisure.
This post first published at Labour Uncut