Labour's real devolution challenge comes from its own MPs, not troublesome Tories

As the party powers through its last conference before the election, the idea of “English votes for English laws” plagues the leadership. And it's not just Tory MPs who are causing the trouble.

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Yesterday evening, at a Huffington Post event during Labour party conference, it came out that the Labour leader and shadow chancellor between them have refused to answer the question “do you support English votes for English laws?” 20 times.

When asked again about the subject by the event’s interviewer Mehdi Hasan, Balls revealed how apprehensive his party really is about addressing the English devolution question:

This idea you can simply say, in a David Cameron-Farage like way, you know, we've got to sort out this situation where we stop anybody but English MPs voting on English laws, if you say we are going to do that because anything else is unfair, the consequences of that is the fracturing of the union.

It leads you immediately into two parliaments or two prime ministers or two classes of MPs. There is no way the union would survive that.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have been put into a tight position during their last party conference before the general election by the Scottish referendum’s aftermath. Or, more specifically, how David Cameron hastily seized upon the situation in his speech immediately following the No vote.

Pandering to his backbenchers – and resurrecting a proposal from his 2010 manifesto – Cameron announced the need for “English votes for English laws”. According to the PM, this is the way he will address the West Lothian Question ahead of devolving further power to Scotland.

I have already written about the implications of the PM’s plan for Labour, and about the shortcomings of their response by way of a “Constitutional Convention”. But how is it affecting the party’s conference and MPs?

Speaking to a shadow cabinet aide, I hear that the party is very keen to get talking about the economy and jobs again rather than delving into the intricate throes of constitutional reform. This is unsurprising, but I am also told that more policy meat was planned for this conference, which is now being held back for later this year, because devolution concerns have taken over.

Another interesting aspect of this conundrum I’ve picked up is that some Labour MPs aren’t that far from their Tory counterparts in feeling dubious about their leader’s plans for devo-max. Those representing northern seats in particular are as likely as Conservative backbenchers to resent the idea of more power to Scotland without England getting an equal look-in. They are closer to Scotland than Westminster, and will feel betrayed by a leader who prevaricates over the English Question when cities and regions are supposed to be central to Labour's support.

One adviser to a northern MP tells me the party is unlikely to have such a natural cut-through in the regions and cities as it thinks: “I just don’t think the northeast and northwest regions are going to buy the idea of austerity-lite,” they tell me, referring to Balls' tough speech to conference yesterday.

And other northern party insiders don’t trust their leadership to be able to engage with regions away from Westminster, because of what they see as an increasingly London-focused party. One backbench source tells me, “it’s clear that the political classes are now playing catch-up with a massive shift away from an anachronistic Westminster model”.

But they are cynical about Labour’s ability to catch up with this shift: “One of the reasons this collapse in confidence has come about is because people do not feel they have a proper local voice. Hardly surprising with so many selection stitch-ups. When you have situations where Luciana Berger [MP for Liverpool Wavertree] doesn’t even know who Bill Shankly is and Helen Goodman [MP for Bishop Auckland] doesn’t know the difference between Durham and Yorkshire, then it’s hardly surprising people feel remote from politicians.”

Miliband should focus on the devolution challenge emerging from his own side, rather than the opposite benches. 

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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