Anything but. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The government's plans for English votes for English laws get worse the more you look at them

The government's plans for English votes are undemocratic, bad for accountability, and bad for the United Kingdom. Other than that, they're great, says Ian Lucas MP.

The keystone of a democratic nation’s legislature is that its elected representatives have an equal voice. On Thursday 2 July 2015, in the United Kingdom Parliament, that principle was set aside. The Government’s proposals to give additional rights to MPs from England, compared to MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland abrogates that principle and, as a consequence, the future of the United Kingdom is threatened.

The creation of a separate English Grand Committee with exclusive, real powers also introduces English devolution by the back door. It means that, from next week, the Tories will, for laws deemed English, increase their majority from 12 to 105. This makes the Tories’ majority unassailable, transforming them from a marginal majority government, into one with a landslide majority.

When, in 1997, Labour legislated to introduce devolution, it introduced the Additional Member System in the devolved legislatures to mitigate the impact of its-then-overwhelming majority. The Tories have no such qualms, retaining the First Past the Post voting system to preserve their majority in the new English Grand Committee.

And they will do so without legislation, simply by amending Standing Orders of the House of Commons. This means that the House of Lords will not consider the change.

Conservative MPs from England say repeatedly that there are already two classes of MP – that they are second class MPs because there are devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is wholly untrue. All MPs in the UK have, in practical terms, the same standing as regards matters devolved to the nations’ legislatures. Thus, as an MP from Wales, I have the same rights as an MP from England to ask questions on devolved matters: none, because Parliament has decided to devolve responsibility for these matters to the devolved institutions.

If England would prefer to have a devolved legislature, it is entirely open to it to create one, or a number of devolved legislatures, if it so wishes. That it has not done so is a matter of choice of Parliament. If one is to be created, it should be done using the law of the land to effect constitutional change. It beggars belief that an English jurisdiction is being created without legislation.

In the Commons, I asked the Leader of the House of Commons to name one power that I, as an MP from Wales, have that he, as an MP from England, does not have. He could not do so. If these proposals go through, he, on the other hand, will have powers that I do not have: the keystone of equality for MPs within the House of Commons is gone.

It is extraordinary that a Secretary of State who professes himself a Unionist cannot see the danger of this proposal. Giving additional rights to MPs from England, as distinguished from those in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, gives additional impetus to the nationalist arguments that they are being treated unfairly. For, as the Democratic Unionist MP from Northern Ireland, Nigel Dodds, has highlighted, the Government is refusing to give the same rights to MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in non-devolved areas that he is giving to MPs from England.

What is even more bizarre is that the Government does not propose that this rule should apply in the House of Lords. I have a working peer living in my constituency. In future, my rights to take part in legislative proceedings, as an elected member, will be limited in a way that his will not be.

The implications of this policy are immense: it is likely that MPs from outside England will be unable to be Ministers on those bills that are deemed to be England only as they will be excluded from relevant committees. The question arises whether it will be possible to have a Prime Minister from outside England as he will be unable to participate fully in England only legislation.

Those of us who love the United Kingdom, from whatever party, must act now. The Government’s proposals pose an immediate threat to the Union. They must be withdrawn and replaced by a considered, open process to address the challenged posed by constitutional change.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.