Ed Miliband's party is struggling with the English question. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour will soon be forced to make clear its stance on Brexit

The Great Repeal Bill will force the party to make a choice on who has the final say on a deal withg Europe.

A Party Manifesto has many functions. But rarely is it called upon to paper over the cracks between a party and its supporters. But Labour’s was – between its Eurosceptic leadership and its pro-EU support base. Bad news for those who prefer their political parties to face at any given moment in only one direction. But a forthcoming parliamentary vote will force the party to make its position clear.

The piece of legislation that makes us members of the EU is the European Communities Act 1972. “Very soon” – says the House of Commons Library – we will see a Repeal Bill that will, according to the Queen’s Speech, “repeal the European Communities Act.” It will be repealed, says the White Paper for the Repeal Bill, “on the day we leave the EU.”

It will contain a clause stating that the bit of the bill that repeals the European Communities Act will come into force on a date of the Prime Minister's choosing. But MPs will have to choose whether to vote for that clause. And this is where Labour’s dilemma comes into play.

In her Lancaster House speech Theresa May said:

“I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”

Later that day David Davis clarified May’s position, saying, of a vote against the final deal:

“The referendum last year set in motion a circumstance where the UK is going to leave the European Union, and it won’t change that.” 

So. The choice the Tories will give to Parliament is between accepting whatever deal is negotiated or leaving without a deal. Not a meaningful choice at all given that (as even Hammond now accepts): “No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain.”

But what about Labour’s position? Labour’s Manifesto says:

“Labour recognises that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do damage to our economy and trade. We will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option.”

So, it has taken that option off the table. But it also says:

“A Labour approach to Brexit also means legislating to guarantee that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal (my emphasis).”

Most Brexit commentators would read that phrase – a meaningful vote – as drawing an implicit contrast with the meaningless vote offered by Theresa May at Lancaster House. They read it, in other words, as a vote between accepting the final deal or remaining in the EU.

But even were they wrong, the consequence of Labour taking “no deal” off the table is that there are only two options: leaving on the terms of the deal or remaining. Labour’s Manifesto explicitly guarantees that choice to Parliament. And guarantees it at a time when the final deal is known.

But here’s the thing. If Parliament chooses to allow Theresa May to repeal the European Communities Act when she wants, Parliament is depriving itself of a choice when the result of the deal is known. It is depriving itself of the vote Labour’s Manifesto promises. And not only that - by handing over to the Prime Minister the decision whether to repeal the European Communities Act, Parliament is voluntarily depriving itself of the power to supervise the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May will be able to repeat the Act whatever the outcome of those negotiations. She won’t be accountable to Parliament for the result of her negotiations – and so Parliament will have deprived itself of the ability to control them. A weakened Prime Minister, without a mandate, will have taken back control. But our elected Parliament will not.

If Labour wants to make good on its manifesto promise, if Labour wants to control the shape of Brexit, it must vote against that provision of the Repeal Bill.

That doesn’t put Labour in the position of ignoring the referendum vote. There will be ample time, from October next year when the final deal is known, for Labour to look at the Final Deal and have a meaningful vote on it.

But if Labour supports the Repeal Bill it will be breaching a clear manifesto promise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues. 

0800 7318496