Has Ed Miliband gone far enough in his devolution promise? Photo: Getty
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Ed Miliband’s Constitutional Convention: is he letting a crisis go to waste?

The Labour leader has responded to David Cameron’s ideas for constitutional change with a plan of his own. But does it go far enough?

Ed Miliband has responded to the Prime Minister’s post-referendum speech with his own plan for a constitutional shake-up. While David Cameron’s proposal for English votes for English laws was expected, as I predicted at 3am this morning, what the opposition’s would be was less clear-cut.

It’s a tough situation for Miliband, whose party – which could be governing in 2015 – has far more Scottish seats than the Tories’ one representative over the border. This makes the West Lothian Question a particular pain for the Labour party, who could end up being in charge of Britain, but significantly weakened when it comes to voting through their own legislation.

To add to the pressure, Miliband and key members of his team, such as the policy review chief Jon Cruddas MP, have been proposing that powers be further devolved to the regions for some time. For example, Miliband gave a big speech in April this year promising “the biggest economic devolution of power to England's great towns and cities in a hundred years”. With devolution now a fraught part of the national conversation, and his party having devolution on its manifesto, Miliband cannot delay nor dilute any of his plans.

So he’s come up with what he calls a “Constitutional Convention” for the UK. This aims to address the need for further devolution in the UK by rooting the debate in its nations and regions. These debates will bring together not only elected representatives, but also ordinary people. As laid out nice and clearly by LabourList, Labour’s plan – which will be set out in the coming weeks – will involve each region in the UK producing a report outlining recommendations, which include:

  • How sub-national devolution can be strengthened
     
  • How the regions can be given more of a voice in our political system
     
  • How we can give further voice to regional and national culture and identity
     

This consultation would then be followed in the autumn of 2015 with the Constitutional Convention itself, which would determine the future of UK-wide devolution.

In a speech following his arrival at Labour party conference in Manchester, Miliband laid out this plan, saying that he didn’t want to use “this moment to be used for narrow party political advantage”.

Opinion among Labour insiders on Miliband’s approach is mixed. One source tells me their view is that it’s “a sensible approach” for Miliband not to go all-out in attacking Cameron, or make hasty plans to rival those of the governing party. “There’s no point being bounced into responding to Cameron when he just looks increasingly desperate,” they tell me.

However, there is also a lack of enthusiasm among some in the party’s ranks, because Miliband hasn’t gone far enough. One source close to his frontbench tells me there’s a definite feeling of “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” among MPs who want further English devolution. From what they’ve heard of this Convention, they don’t see it tackling the huge disaffection there is with Westminster on both sides of the border. This echoes what Tory chairman Grant Shapps says of Miliband's plan: that it "would kick this vital issue into the long grass".

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

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

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