A chance missed or an opportunity to gain?

On the question of an English parliament, Labour has a critical choice to make.

What's happening? Is democracy for England trying to reassert itself?

In the past few months, and especially since the general election, a number of Labour MPs have talked openly about a new politics for England. Now David Miliband and Jon Cruddas have gone public about what the public in England has known for some time: that Labour, in its love affair with multinationalism and its rushing through of devolution, had forgotten England and English needs. Most people accept it was Labour that created the current unstable and unbalanced Union of nations laughably still called the United Kingdom.

As we await Labour's new dawn, the question has to be whether the party is willing to correct this -- or will it become a marginalised pressure group within the UK, with only Welsh and Scottish interests at the party's heart? The party needs to rediscover itself in England, as England is home to 55 million people and is the power base for establishing real change and influence within our group of nations and Europe. In short, Labour needs England.

Devolution didn't just fail England; it failed the UK and all the nations within her. The future in England could easily be Labour's if it tackles this subject. We all know that democratic accountability has to be protected and the current situation has to change. Labour's denial of this situation will rob us all of stability and democratic cohesion.

With Labour out of government, the party now has the perfect opportunity to take over the Conservative ground of expressing English concerns. What's to say that if more Labour MPs started to engage in meaningful debate on the subject the people of England wouldn't embrace them and the party again?

The coalition, or potentially the new evolving "Liberal Conservative Party, has failed to capitalise on this new public awareness and mood. Nick Clegg's focus is more towards voting reform, and for him, constitutional reform for England is on the back burner. He said as much at Hay-on-Wye when he rejected out of hand the need for an English parliament.

What Clegg fails to realise is that he now speaks for a government which includes traditional conservatives, and yet this group of conservatives procrastinates about what to do or say. A wiser Labour Party can step in, not so quietly, and take up the baton for English democracy.

If Labour waits too long, the procrastination will end and the party's opportunity will be missed when the Conservatives establish a clear mandate for England. Labour needs to be brave, because along with the public having had enough of empty words and MPs' expenses scandals, the wounds of partial devolution have cut deep.

It will be interesting to see which of the leadership contenders takes up the baton and expresses England's mood, because finding the courage to do so might win not just the leadership race, but also win back the people of England. It's easy to forget that the Liberal Democrats finished third in the elections and didn't have much English support.

Many academics are privately saying that the referendum on AV will fail, because the public wants simple solutions to restore political faith and AV isn't understood or wanted. A federal system is a much simpler solution to restoring political faith and it gives long-term stability for the future of the UK.

Let Labour boldly campaign for English democracy and the party may be resurgent far earlier than pundits expect.

Eddie Bone is a council member of the cross-party Campaign for an English Parliament.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.