HOW serious is Ed Miliband in asserting: “I’m not going to have a Labour government if it means doing deals or coalitions with the SNP”?

Which logically can mean only that he would rather see David Cameron back in Downing Street than work with fellow social democrats in the SNP.

Senior Labour figures immediately queried Miliband’s seemingly suicidal intransigence. Wily old Henry McLeish told the BBC: “At the end of the day, Ed is not going to exclude himself from being prime minister by not talking to anyone.” Andy Burnham, Labour’s pugnacious health spokesman, was adamant: “of course” a minority Labour administration would have a dialogue with the SNP. Hilary Benn told the BBC’s Daily Politics that such conversations were “the normal to and fro of the House of Commons”.

Miliband spent the weekend holding to his line of “better Tories than a progressive alliance”. But here’s a funny thing. For decades, in and out of government, Labour have been in regular partnership with another social democratic yet nationalist party within the UK: the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) of Northern Ireland. So committed are Labour to their Westminster parliamentary relationship with the SDLP that they do not stand candidates in Northern Ireland. So why work with the SDLP but not the SNP?

The pro-civil rights SDLP were founded in 1970, at the start of the Troubles. They rejected both the violence of the Provisional IRA and the abstention (from UK elected bodies) of earlier moderate Irish nationalists. Instead they sought to combine support for a united Ireland with pragmatic participation at Westminster and in any devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. For the last 45 years, no-one has queried the SDLP’s democratic right to take part in UK politics while advancing (peaceably) the case for the Six Counties joining the Irish Republic. UK Labour have embraced the SDLP as a sister party.

This relationship was not always easy. During the fraught years of the minority government of Jim Callaghan in the late 1970s, SDLP leader Gerry Fitt sat on the Labour benches at Westminster and helped prop up the party though many knife-edge votes. An outspoken opponent of the IRA, Fitt was admired for his commitment to non-sectarian, working-class politics. But he became disillusioned with the failure of the Callaghan government to reform Northern Ireland, and with dodgy deals made between Labour and the right-wing Ulster Unionists, who he warned (correctly) would betray Callaghan.

When Callaghan changed the voting rules to give the Ulster Unionists more seats, a disgusted Fitt voted against Labour in the infamous no-confidence motion in March 1979. The SNP are continually castigated for their no-confidence vote in 1979, triggered by Callaghan’s refusal to accept the majority vote for a Scottish Assembly in the 1978 referendum. Yet present-day

Labour continue in alliance with the SDP, even extending the whip to their three Westminster MPs.

Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy rail against any dealings with the SNP, on the grounds that the party seek the break-up of the UK. This is self-serving hypocrisy. Labour have been in a Westminster electoral pact with the Irish nationalist SDLP for 45 years. Why is that different from an agreement with the SNP to keep the Tories out of power?

Until very recently, Labour HQ in London refused to grant party membership to anyone living in Northern Ireland. This meant that someone living in Hollywood, California could join, but anyone living in Holywood, County Down – a part of the United Kingdom – would be refused. This peculiar state of affairs changed only in 2003, after threats of legal action from GMBU union activists in Northern Ireland. However, that has not altered the ban on running official Labour Party candidates in elections in the North.

Last March, Boyd Black, general secretary of the Labour Party of Northern Ireland, flew to London to meet Miliband and ask if the group could run Labour candidates. Miliband rejected the notion out of hand. This from the man who argues he won’t consider discussing post-election deals with the SNP because the only thing on his mind is winning a majority on May 7. So why is he ignoring the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland?

An angry Black publicly denounced Miliband for having an “undemocratic, 1950s, colonial governor mindset”. Well, it’s not the first time a Labour figure outside London has denounced headquarters for treating them like a branch office.

Which raises the obvious question: why does Miliband treat the SNP differently from the SDLP? Particularly, as the SDLP – while broadly social democratic on most issues – clearly has a blind spot on women’s issues. The SDLP opposes changing the law in Northern Ireland to allow abortions – even in cases where a woman has been raped, or is carrying a foetus with a lethal abnormality.

There are various theories. The one touted by Black is that UK Labour are unwilling to antagonise their Irish supporters living on the mainland (particularly in London) by openly opposing a united Ireland. In fact, UK

Labour have been studiously ambivalent regarding Irish unity while claiming Scottish self- government would be the equivalent of Armageddon.

Therein lies a clue. UK Labour have nothing to lose by working alongside the SDLP, as it they never had any seats in the province. Scotland is a different matter. Miliband says he is willing to let the Tories back into power rather than abandon his Scottish branch office. As Black so eloquently sums up, this is the mindset of a colonial governor.

To be clear, I think UK Labour are right not to organise in Northern Ireland, though I wish it would hold a dialogue with the SDLP on women’s issues. Equally, I think Miliband is being disingenuous, not to mention hypocritical, by rejecting a priori any arrangement with the SNP, yet agreeing to work with the SDLP. Certainly, the SDLP (with a likely three seats) is a very junior partner with Labour.

But listen to the words of Dolores Kelly, a senior SDLP member, speaking last week about Tory plans to cut £12 billion from UK welfare spending: “Their intention to cut child benefit and child tax credits is a further attack on struggling families…The best way to ensure that these cuts never see the light of day is to lock David Cameron out of government. That’s what we intend to do by supporting a strong Labour government that is held true to its values by social democrats in the SDLP, SNP and Plaid Cymru.”

Absolutely correct, Dolores. Can I prevail on the Irish nationalist SDLP to talk to Miliband, and get him to see sense in Scotland?