On the day after voters in Scotland rejected independence both David Cameron and Ed Miliband set out plans to change how England is governed. The Prime Minister linked further powers for Scotland to the issue of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). Miliband called for a Constitutional Convention, comprising members of the public and representatives of civic society, to consider the broader issue of how the UK is governed.
Since then William Hague has brought forward a proposal to implement EVEL, with the Liberal Democrats offering their own variant. Labour has not backed the Hague proposals and, having offered up a weaker version of EVEL towards the end of 2014, seems content to let the issue move out of the spotlight.
Beyond the EVEL discussion, the period since Scotland’s referendum has seen George Osborne form an alliance with some of Labour’s local government grandees in Greater Manchester. The result: the ‘Devo Manc’ proposals to devolve nearly £8 billion of public expenditure to the city-region. Worryingly, these developments have taken place with little public consultation or engagement. Labour, in 2014, planted themselves firmly on the ground of devolving powers to city-regions. Aside from recently being caught flat-footed on the issue of devolving the NHS budget to Greater Manchester, Labour appear to remain committed.
One of our colleagues has suggested that Labour need to back EVEL in order to assert themselves as a party that understands the importance of England as a whole as a political unit. Our findings – from a survey of over 7,400 people across the UK including more than 4,000 in England – suggest a more nuanced picture and one in which EVEL is no silver bullet response to the so-called ‘English Question’.
EVEL remains a popular policy across England. More than 70% of people in all English regions who express a view on this issue (except Greater London) support EVEL. Unsurprisingly people identifying with the Conservative Party (84%) and UKIP (86%) are overwhelmingly supportive, Labour identifiers somewhat less so (59%).
When asked to choose one preferred option from the status quo, EVEL, regional assemblies, and an English Parliament, EVEL comes out on top in all English regions. But there is interesting variation with those in the North West and Yorkshire favouring EVEL only slightly more than regional assemblies. While Conservatives and UKIP identifiers strongly prioritise EVEL, those close to Labour are torn: they do not favour EVEL over regional assemblies or the status quo – all receive the same support.
So, whilst EVEL may be popular, Miliband should make more of his package of proposals for reforming how the UK is governed. Our survey suggests that he is closer to public attitudes than he is being given credit for.
Accommodating some form of regionalism – so often written off because of the failed 2004 referendum – is a good idea. 50 per cent or more of people across all English regions support propositions for regional assemblies. City regions are also similarly popular with 50% or more in each English region supporting more powers for such regions. Whilst the precise structure and scope of sub-national government in England remains to be determined what is clear is that people do not see EVEL and some form of regionalism as mutually exclusive.
There are thus two facets to the English Question. The first is about England as a single unit being properly represented in the governance of the UK. And for that, EVEL may well be the answer. The second, just as important, is about decentralisation. And for that, voters actively favour various options.
The best way to move forward, amidst a degree of fluidity amongst attitudes and a general acceptance of various possible options, is a Constitutional Convention as suggested by Miliband in September. With 44% of people in England saying we spend too little time discussing how we govern ourselves, and only 27% thinking we spend too much time, the evidence is of a public ready and willing to engage. Indeed 60% of people in England support the establishment of such a convention (and only 1 in 10 oppose it) and that number is similarly high in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The bottom line is this: our survey shows an England ready and willing to talk about how they are governed, open to various governance arrangements that decentralise power in England, and keen to see some variant of EVEL implemented. Ed Miliband’s proposals tick those boxes. It’s time Labour started to shout a bit more loudly about them.