Ed Miliband's party is struggling with the English question. Photo: Getty
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Where does the Labour party stand on English votes for English laws?

Time for the party to think of England.

The Labour Party has a problem with "EVEL". EVEL – English votes on English laws – describes various ideas on how MPs from England could be given a privileged, or even exclusive role in deciding laws that affect England only. The aim is to balance devolution outside of England with an institutional recognition of England within the UK Parliament.

Though Hilary Benn and Sadiq Khan dipped their toes in the water in a barely-noticed blog a month or so ago, Labour has typically shied away from EVEL. More precisely it has shied away from thinking about England as a whole as a political unit, as EVEL does.

Labour’s instinct has been to look instead to regionalisation within England, most recently city-region devolution inspired by the example of local authority cooperation in and around Manchester. It has done so in the face of a hefty weight of evidence which shows that:

1.       People in England are deeply dissatisfied with the way they are governed currently, not least because they see that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own explicit institutional recognition since devolution

2.       These dissatisfactions do not vary significantly by region – there is an England-wide discontent

3.       Regional devolution is the least popular institutional alternative for addressing that discontent

4.       Some form of EVEL is – by some way – the most popular alternative.

Why Labour is taking so long to adjust to this evidence is clear enough. Labour has long returned 40+ MPs from Scotland. As Labour’s strength in England has waned from the 2005 UK election onwards those 40+ MPs look increasingly like the necessary foundation for a UK-wide election victory. So any reform in the House of Commons which removed the voting power of Scottish Labour – as full-blown EVEL would do – has been a no-go area.

The disguised implication, of course, was that Scottish lobby-fodder would, if needed, be used to shore up an overall Labour majority in a scenario where Labour lacked a majority in England. That position was always one of dubious credibility. It now looks redundant as Labour’s traditional strength in UK elections in Scotland looks under threat post-referendum.

Most post-referendum polls suggest Labour could lose many, if not most (and in some cases all) of its Scottish seats to the SNP. If Labour were to lose big in Scotland, then of course EVEL is by definition less threatening to Labour – it would be SNP, not Labour MPs that were shut out of English laws.

Of course there is another scenario: Labour in Scotland, now under Jim Murphy’s leadership, recovers. But any recovery has a logic. Murphy needs to fight on the SNP’s turf as the defender of Scottish interests. He showed how he might do so last week when he set out how the proceeds of Labour’s proposed UK-wide mansion tax would generate most of its revenues in London and the South East, and that the proceeds in Scotland would be pumped into the Scottish NHS.

English taxes for Scottish nurses – a ‘win-win’ for Scotland as Murphy put it. Others had a different view. Labour’s Diane Abbott called the idea ‘unscrupulous’ and Boris Johnson ‘a mugging’. We are certainly in new territory. Either the Labour Party gets drubbed by the SNP in Scotland and is forced to rely on its strength in England. Or Labour recovers in Scotland by adopting a more ‘patriotic’ rhetoric that could alienate English voters.

In either scenario Labour needs to think differently about England. There is a need for an English Labour to assert itself and begin contesting elections in England around a distinct English platform, just as the party in Scotland is being forced onto a more distinctly Scottish platform.

And there lies the rationale for Labour’s conversion to EVEL. As Scotland, through the referendum and beyond has become a more distinct place politically, there is a spillover effect in which England also becomes a distinct place politically. Time indeed for Labour to think about England.

Charlie Jeffery is Professor of Political Science at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change. He was research coordinator of the Future of the UK and Scotland Programme and served as a member of the MacKay Commission. For more on Charlie’s research, follow @UKScotland


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Unconvinced by Ken Loach’s benefits story? That says more about Britain than the film does

The director has clashed with a film critic about his representation of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s new film, has kicked off a row between the director and The Sunday Times’ film critic, Camilla Long.

Published on Sunday, the review – which called the film a “povvo safari for middle-class do-gooders” – has led to Loach and some audience members rowing with Long online.

Long also describes the film – which is an unforgiving drama about the cruelty of welfare bureaucracy – as “misery porn for smug Londoners”.

Her contention is that it is “condescending” and “patronising” to benefits claimants, partly because it will mainly be seen by affluent audiences, rather than “the lowest part of society” – so acts as a vehicle for middle-class guilt rather than an authentic reflection of people’s lives.

I’ve seen the film, and there are parts that jar. A reference to the Bedroom Tax feels shoe-horned in, as if screenwriter Paul Laverty remembered last-minute to tick that box on his welfare scandal checklist. And an onlooker outside the Jobcentre’s rant about the Bullingdon Club, Etonians and Iain Duncan Smith also feels forced. (But to me, these parts only stood out because the rest of the script is convincing – often punishingly so.)

A critic is free to tear into a film they didn’t enjoy. But the problem with Long’s review is the problem with the way Britain in general looks at the benefits system: disbelief.

For example, Long calls it “a maddening computer error” and “a mysterious glitch” that Daniel Blake – a 59-year-old carpenter who has been signed off from work by his doctor after a heart attack – is denied his disability benefit.

Actually it’s because he’s been found “fit to work” after an agonising tick-box phone assessment by an anonymous adviser, who is neither a nurse nor a doctor. This is a notorious problem with work capability assessments under a welfare system constantly undergoing cuts and shake-ups by successive governments.

Both the Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disability Living Allowance in 2013 under the coalition) and Employment and Support Allowance (which replaced the Incapacity Benefit in 2007 under New Labour) have seen backlogs and delays in providing financial support to claimants, and work capability tests have repeatedly been under fire for being intrusive, inappropriate, or just wrong. Funding for those in the “work-related activity group” who claim ESA – in which you work if you are deemed able to during continual interviews with an adviser – also suffered a 30 per cent cut in last year’s budget.

Also, when people claiming ESA believe they have wrongly been found “fit for work” and appeal – as Blake does in the film – more than half of decisions are overturned when they reach a tribunal.

It’s a system that puts cost-cutting above people’s welfare; Jobcentre staff are even monitored individually in terms of how many sanctions they impose (Blake’s friend Katie is sanctioned in the film), making them feel as if they are working to targets.

The situation for disabled, sick or broke people claiming welfare is unbelievable in this country, which is perhaps why it’s so difficult for us – or for some watching Loach’s portrayal of the cruel system – to believe it at all. At best, it’s because we would prefer to close our eyes to a system that we hope we never have to grapple with. At worst, it’s because we don’t believe people when they say they cannot work, and demonise them as “shirkers” or “scroungers”.

By all means question Loach’s cinematic devices, but don’t question the point of telling the story at all – and the story itself. After all, it’s the very inability of people who rely on the state to have their voices heard that means they are always hit the hardest.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.