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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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.