But they're so cute. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.