Ed Miliband’s Constitutional Convention: is he letting a crisis go to waste?

The Labour leader has responded to David Cameron’s ideas for constitutional change with a plan of his own. But does it go far enough?

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Ed Miliband has responded to the Prime Minister’s post-referendum speech with his own plan for a constitutional shake-up. While David Cameron’s proposal for English votes for English laws was expected, as I predicted at 3am this morning, what the opposition’s would be was less clear-cut.

It’s a tough situation for Miliband, whose party – which could be governing in 2015 – has far more Scottish seats than the Tories’ one representative over the border. This makes the West Lothian Question a particular pain for the Labour party, who could end up being in charge of Britain, but significantly weakened when it comes to voting through their own legislation.

To add to the pressure, Miliband and key members of his team, such as the policy review chief Jon Cruddas MP, have been proposing that powers be further devolved to the regions for some time. For example, Miliband gave a big speech in April this year promising “the biggest economic devolution of power to England's great towns and cities in a hundred years”. With devolution now a fraught part of the national conversation, and his party having devolution on its manifesto, Miliband cannot delay nor dilute any of his plans.

So he’s come up with what he calls a “Constitutional Convention” for the UK. This aims to address the need for further devolution in the UK by rooting the debate in its nations and regions. These debates will bring together not only elected representatives, but also ordinary people. As laid out nice and clearly by LabourList, Labour’s plan – which will be set out in the coming weeks – will involve each region in the UK producing a report outlining recommendations, which include:

  • How sub-national devolution can be strengthened
     
  • How the regions can be given more of a voice in our political system
     
  • How we can give further voice to regional and national culture and identity
     

This consultation would then be followed in the autumn of 2015 with the Constitutional Convention itself, which would determine the future of UK-wide devolution.

In a speech following his arrival at Labour party conference in Manchester, Miliband laid out this plan, saying that he didn’t want to use “this moment to be used for narrow party political advantage”.

Opinion among Labour insiders on Miliband’s approach is mixed. One source tells me their view is that it’s “a sensible approach” for Miliband not to go all-out in attacking Cameron, or make hasty plans to rival those of the governing party. “There’s no point being bounced into responding to Cameron when he just looks increasingly desperate,” they tell me.

However, there is also a lack of enthusiasm among some in the party’s ranks, because Miliband hasn’t gone far enough. One source close to his frontbench tells me there’s a definite feeling of “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” among MPs who want further English devolution. From what they’ve heard of this Convention, they don’t see it tackling the huge disaffection there is with Westminster on both sides of the border. This echoes what Tory chairman Grant Shapps says of Miliband's plan: that it "would kick this vital issue into the long grass".

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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