The Labour conference has not opened in the circumstances that Ed Miliband would have wanted. The Union has survived, and with it his party’s 40 Scottish MPs, but David Cameron has raised the politically radioactive issue of England. As a result, Miliband finds himself forced to answer awkward questions on English votes for English laws when he wants to focus on his pledge to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020.
Challenged on the Marr show this morning to back the Tories’ proposal to ban non-English MPs from voting on English-only legislation (such as health and education, which are devolved to Scotland and Wales), he rejected the idea for two reasons: it is hard to determine which are English-only issues, and the government should not create two classes of MPs. He said:
The practice, the reality is, it’s very hard to separate out legislation. Take tuition fees in England, you might say that’s an English-only issue, it has knock-on effects for Scotland and Wales in terms of public spending, is that an English-only issue, or more universally applied? Secondly, I’m not favour of a House of Commons that becomes divided, so that somehow the House of Commons chamber is no longer 650 MPs, you’ve got to have one prime minister of the United Kingdom because we have a United Kingdom parliament.
However, he said several times that he was open to the idea of “greater scrutiny” of legislation by English MPs. This could, for instance, mean the creation of an English grand committee as proposed last year by the McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question. As I noted on Friday, Nick Clegg has supported this idea, which would mean UK MPs, including those from Scotland and Wales, would still have the final say.
In response to Marr’s suggestion that he was opposed to English votes for English laws because it would make it harder for future Labour governments to pass legislation, he said: “I’ve got to say to you, that’s not the history. The history is that when Labour has won majorities across the United Kingdom, we’ve won majorities in England too.” But as most in Labour concede, it will be hard for the party to win a majority across the UK in May 2015, let alone in England.
With Labour already ruling out English votes for English laws, we can expect the Tories to make it an election issue, framing Labour as the anti-English party. Miliband made clear his exasperation at Cameron’s behaviour, revealing that the PM did not raise the issue with him during their conversations on further Scottish devolution. As the effects of this political grenade still reverberate, the danger for Miliband is that they crowd out all of the subjects he wants to talk about.