Taking the whip

20100205 SDLP IMG_4715
20100205 SDLP IMG_4715 by Allan Leonard, on Flickr.
According to Wikipedia, Northern Ireland’s “SDLP is […] working to strengthen its ties with the Parliamentary Labour Party, whose whip they informally accept.” I must admit I’m not entirely sure what this means. Normally taking the whip means participating in a parliamentary group, including voting with it in important votes, but I don’t know how they do that informally — do they just vote with the Labour party without getting the influence that comes with participating in internal parliamentary party business?

Normally this wouldn’t interest me terribly, but like others I’m finding Labour’s different attitudes towards the SDLP on the one hand and the SNP on the other quite puzzling, given that both parties advocate independence from the UK through peaceful means. When you ask Scottish Labour, they reply that the difference is that the SDLP takes the Labour whip at Westminster.

In other words, it would appear that it’s not actually the SNP’s commitment to an independent Scotland that really upsets Labour, but the fact that the party won’t always vote with Labour in the UK Parliament. Of course, there’s also the fact that Labour is a major party in Scotland, so there is a lot of rivalry between the parties here, not like in Northern Ireland where Labour never contests elections (something which the local Labour members are quite upset about).

Would UK Labour be happy to disband Scottish Labour if the SNP in return promised to take the Labour whip at Westminster in perpetuity? From an SNP perspective, I think this would be disastrous, and I haven’t heard anybody advocating this ever. However, would it suit UK Labour? From their point of view, it would give them free rein to pursue their policies in the parliament that matters to them. In practice this would be very similar to the way the Scottish Unionist Party operated before 1965:

Independent from, though associated with, the Conservative Party in England and Wales, it stood for election at different periods of its history in alliance with a small number of Liberal Unionist and National Liberal candidates. Those who successfully became Members of Parliament (MPs) would then take the Conservative Whip at Westminster just as the Ulster Unionists did until 1973. At Westminster the differences between the Scottish Unionist and the English party could appear blurred or non-existent to the external casual observer, especially as many Scottish MPs were prominent in the parliamentary Conservative party, such as party leaders Andrew Bonar Law (1911-1921 & 1922-1923) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963–1965), both of whom served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

This sounds rather similar to the current relationship between the CDU and the CSU in Germany. I’m not entirely sure how the Unionist/Conservative handled policy differences (it was probably easier in those days when political parties were less centralised), but it was clearly more attractive to Scottish voters than the post-1965 UK-wide Conservatives.

I can’t see the SNP would gain anything by being forced to vote in favour of austerity and Trident in return for Scottish Labour being dismantled, but it would clearly make things a lot easier for UK Labour.

To return to the SDLP, I’d love to find out whether it’s just the party whip that differentiates them from the SNP in the eyes of UK Labour. Surely Miliband should take one of the following two positions: (1) Peaceful sovereigntism is bad, so Labour will refuse to deal with the SDLP, not just with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, or (2) Taking the Labour whip is all that matters, so the SNP will be welcomed as a sister party if only they take the whip. Which one will it be?

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