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Labour is on the wrong side of the argument as far as English votes for English laws are concerned

For the sake of a few foxes, Labour has fallen into a Tory trap, warns Michael Kenny.

The growing debate over English Votes for English Laws (Evel as it has come to be known) has so far focused on the difficulties facing the government as it seeks to design and implement a complicated, and potentially incendiary, set of changes to the procedures of the Commons. Faced by a united front from the opposition parties at Westminster, as well as disquiet from within its own ranks, Chris Grayling has been forced to delay the vote to change Standing Orders until after the summer recess.

The decision, yesterday, to delay another vote – this time on relaxing the law on foxhunting in England and Wales will be seen by many as a further indication of the weakness of the government’s legislative position.

But this impression is in some ways misleading. There are good reasons to believe that this turn of events could strengthen the government’s hand on Evel, and lead its political opponents into difficult, unpredictable waters. The SNP’s announcement that it intended to vote on the hunting legislation that very clearly affects only England and Wales represents a major U-turn. The party has for a long time adopted the practice of not voting in the Commons on legislation that does not affect Scotland. Scottish opinion has tended to support this stance, with around half consistently supporting the principle in opinion polls over recent years.

The party’s main criticism of the government’s Evel proposals has been to insist that

many matters that appear to relate only to England in fact have pretty important consequences for Scotland, especially when it comes to legislation that has consequences for funding through the Barnett formula. But no such argument can be made when it comes to the hunting legislation that the government wants to advance – which affects England and Wales only.

In 2000, when hunting was debated in the Commons, SNP leader Alex Salmond indicated that he would be advising MPs for Scottish constituencies to miss the vote: ‘I don't think it is fair, if the Scottish Parliament is going to make a decision on hunting, for them to start interfering and poking their noses into what is an English domestic affair’. The suggestion that the SNP now wants to punish the Conservative government over the Scotland Bill risks painting it as a party that puts tactical expediency above principle – exactly the criticism it has offered of Westminster politics.

For Labour, meanwhile, what may look like a relatively harmless episode reflects a telling insensitivity to the question of how English voters might feel about this issue. While most people do not support the government’s relaxation of the rules relating to hunting foxes, there is another, territorial dimension to this controversy which Labour has missed.

Its approach to the foxhunting vote reflects a tactical desire to embarrass the government, and a profound indifference to the democratic, as well as national, questions associated with English devolution. By publicly urging the SNP to vote on this legislation, Labour’s PLP returned to the pretence that there is no English question to be considered in British politics, and chose to ignore the well documented sense of unease about the terms of union which many English people feel

None of this is to suggest that Evel is the right or only answer to the English Question. The Conservatives may well come to regret that its reforms are now so closely entwined with an issue – foxhunting – where a clearly majority of opinion in England and Wales is against it. And yet, in the longer term, this rather curious episode may well stiffen the Tories’ resolve to implement Evel, and will certainly weaken the position of a number of potential rebels, worried about the possibility that these changes will heighten territorial tensions within the union. Now that the SNP and Labour have shown themselves so indifferent to the principle that legislation affecting England alone (or in this case England and Wales) should only pass with the consent of political representatives from these territories, a moderate version of Evel appears less likely.

The real winners from this controversy are those – mostly on the right of the Conservative party –  who want to see a much more robust form of Evel, perhaps enshrined in primary legislation. Ironically, had the government’s model been applied to the hunting issue, the legislation would probably not have passed, as it would have required a UK-wide majority, as well as the consent of English MPs. In the wake of this week’s controversy, radical voices will now be more empowered to demand that a much more robust, and potentially divisive, form of Evel be contemplated. Demands to restrict the voting rights of non-English MPs, or to force a clearer separation of English business – and, even more controversially, English taxes – are likely to be much more prominent in debates on this issue.

But, aside from the rights and wrongs of Evel, in political terms the Labour party has once more gifted the Conservatives the opportunity to present themselves as the party that speaks up for the interests of England, while its opponents refuse to acknowledge its democratic rights. And for that, Labour will continue to play a high political price.

 

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. He is a Visiting Fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change, and is leading a research project on ‘English Votes for English Laws’.

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.