The Labour Party has a problem with “EVEL”. EVEL – English votes on English laws – describes various ideas on how MPs from England could be given a privileged, or even exclusive role in deciding laws that affect England only. The aim is to balance devolution outside of England with an institutional recognition of England within the UK Parliament.
Though Hilary Benn and Sadiq Khan dipped their toes in the water in a barely-noticed blog a month or so ago, Labour has typically shied away from EVEL. More precisely it has shied away from thinking about England as a whole as a political unit, as EVEL does.
Labour’s instinct has been to look instead to regionalisation within England, most recently city-region devolution inspired by the example of local authority cooperation in and around Manchester. It has done so in the face of a hefty weight of evidence which shows that:
1. People in England are deeply dissatisfied with the way they are governed currently, not least because they see that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own explicit institutional recognition since devolution
2. These dissatisfactions do not vary significantly by region – there is an England-wide discontent
3. Regional devolution is the least popular institutional alternative for addressing that discontent
4. Some form of EVEL is – by some way – the most popular alternative.
Why Labour is taking so long to adjust to this evidence is clear enough. Labour has long returned 40+ MPs from Scotland. As Labour’s strength in England has waned from the 2005 UK election onwards those 40+ MPs look increasingly like the necessary foundation for a UK-wide election victory. So any reform in the House of Commons which removed the voting power of Scottish Labour – as full-blown EVEL would do – has been a no-go area.
The disguised implication, of course, was that Scottish lobby-fodder would, if needed, be used to shore up an overall Labour majority in a scenario where Labour lacked a majority in England. That position was always one of dubious credibility. It now looks redundant as Labour’s traditional strength in UK elections in Scotland looks under threat post-referendum.
Most post-referendum polls suggest Labour could lose many, if not most (and in some cases all) of its Scottish seats to the SNP. If Labour were to lose big in Scotland, then of course EVEL is by definition less threatening to Labour – it would be SNP, not Labour MPs that were shut out of English laws.
Of course there is another scenario: Labour in Scotland, now under Jim Murphy’s leadership, recovers. But any recovery has a logic. Murphy needs to fight on the SNP’s turf as the defender of Scottish interests. He showed how he might do so last week when he set out how the proceeds of Labour’s proposed UK-wide mansion tax would generate most of its revenues in London and the South East, and that the proceeds in Scotland would be pumped into the Scottish NHS.
English taxes for Scottish nurses – a ‘win-win’ for Scotland as Murphy put it. Others had a different view. Labour’s Diane Abbott called the idea ‘unscrupulous’ and Boris Johnson ‘a mugging’. We are certainly in new territory. Either the Labour Party gets drubbed by the SNP in Scotland and is forced to rely on its strength in England. Or Labour recovers in Scotland by adopting a more ‘patriotic’ rhetoric that could alienate English voters.
In either scenario Labour needs to think differently about England. There is a need for an English Labour to assert itself and begin contesting elections in England around a distinct English platform, just as the party in Scotland is being forced onto a more distinctly Scottish platform.
And there lies the rationale for Labour’s conversion to EVEL. As Scotland, through the referendum and beyond has become a more distinct place politically, there is a spillover effect in which England also becomes a distinct place politically. Time indeed for Labour to think about England.
Charlie Jeffery is Professor of Political Science at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change. He was research coordinator of the Future of the UK and Scotland Programme and served as a member of the MacKay Commission. For more on Charlie’s research, follow @UKScotland