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Labour have put themselves on the wrong side of the English

Ultimately, exhorting the SNP to vote against fox hunting in England and Wales will hurt Labour, warns John Denham.

Labour will pay a heavy price for its opportunistic response to English Votes for English Laws. It’s as though they have already forgotten how English sentiment swung the last election against the party. Last week’s feeble response to the debate on Evel has been made worse by the open plea to the SNP to vote on hunting with dogs. Only the Tories and the SNP will benefit in the long term, even if has helped the foxes in the short term.

This is one of those classic issues where Scottish MPs will vote on English policy when it is Scottish MSPs that decide the same issue in north of the border. In this case, the SNP MPs will be voting to reject for England a policy that actually exists in Scotland! Growing numbers of English voters simply don’t accept the anomaly as democratic or defensible. By making its appeal to Scottish MPs Labour’s frontbench knew full well that it was also making a much more important, uncritical, defence of the constitutional status quo.

It’s easy to see why a demoralised Labour enjoyed the Government’s discomfort over Evel last week.  The Evel case was poorly argued and the Government’s response was technically flawed.  It’s fun to see your opponents forced onto the back foot on their own proposal. This amusement can’t be allowed to disguise how weak and feeble was Labour’s own response.  The thin recognition that ‘something must be done’ from the frontbench was not followed by any indication of what changes Labour thinks should be made., or any sense of urgency that change should be made.

Worse was the jibe from Labour’s backbenchers that the Tories were doing this to ‘increase their majority from 12 in the UK to 100 in England’. Many Labour MPs don’t seem to realise that the Tories have a majority of 100 in England because that’s what English people voted for. It’s the hardest evidence yet of the depth of denial in Westminster about our election defeat. Instead of working out how to win an English majority, too much Labour clings to the hope it can govern Westminster through it’s Welsh and - it hopes - Scottish MPs.

Tristram Hunt argued this week that progressive patriotism and support for England will be key to Labour’s recovery. By refusing to speak to England’s political identity, and by seeking SNP support to decide English policy, Labour will simply allow the Tories to consolidate their hold over a key section of the English electorate. The SNP will gloat at their hold over Labour, making recovery in Scotland much the harder.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a lifelong campaigner against hunting. I’m still proud of the day I got the New Forest Staghounds’ licence suspended for cruelty. So I understand the powerful call to defeat the Tories cruel and cynical proposal. Until the Commons rules are changed, there is no bar on any MP from voting. But Labour also needs to pin its flag to clear Commons reform and a clear defence of England’s right to determine its own domestic policy.

 

John Denham is former Labour MP four Southampton Itchen, and Professor of English Identity and Politics, Winchester University.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.