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

 

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt