Labour have put themselves on the wrong side of the English

Ultimately, exhorting the SNP to vote against fox hunting in England and Wales will hurt Labour, warns John Denham.

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Labour will pay a heavy price for its opportunistic response to English Votes for English Laws. It’s as though they have already forgotten how English sentiment swung the last election against the party. Last week’s feeble response to the debate on Evel has been made worse by the open plea to the SNP to vote on hunting with dogs. Only the Tories and the SNP will benefit in the long term, even if has helped the foxes in the short term.

This is one of those classic issues where Scottish MPs will vote on English policy when it is Scottish MSPs that decide the same issue in north of the border. In this case, the SNP MPs will be voting to reject for England a policy that actually exists in Scotland! Growing numbers of English voters simply don’t accept the anomaly as democratic or defensible. By making its appeal to Scottish MPs Labour’s frontbench knew full well that it was also making a much more important, uncritical, defence of the constitutional status quo.

It’s easy to see why a demoralised Labour enjoyed the Government’s discomfort over Evel last week.  The Evel case was poorly argued and the Government’s response was technically flawed.  It’s fun to see your opponents forced onto the back foot on their own proposal. This amusement can’t be allowed to disguise how weak and feeble was Labour’s own response.  The thin recognition that ‘something must be done’ from the frontbench was not followed by any indication of what changes Labour thinks should be made., or any sense of urgency that change should be made.

Worse was the jibe from Labour’s backbenchers that the Tories were doing this to ‘increase their majority from 12 in the UK to 100 in England’. Many Labour MPs don’t seem to realise that the Tories have a majority of 100 in England because that’s what English people voted for. It’s the hardest evidence yet of the depth of denial in Westminster about our election defeat. Instead of working out how to win an English majority, too much Labour clings to the hope it can govern Westminster through it’s Welsh and - it hopes - Scottish MPs.

Tristram Hunt argued this week that progressive patriotism and support for England will be key to Labour’s recovery. By refusing to speak to England’s political identity, and by seeking SNP support to decide English policy, Labour will simply allow the Tories to consolidate their hold over a key section of the English electorate. The SNP will gloat at their hold over Labour, making recovery in Scotland much the harder.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a lifelong campaigner against hunting. I’m still proud of the day I got the New Forest Staghounds’ licence suspended for cruelty. So I understand the powerful call to defeat the Tories cruel and cynical proposal. Until the Commons rules are changed, there is no bar on any MP from voting. But Labour also needs to pin its flag to clear Commons reform and a clear defence of England’s right to determine its own domestic policy.

 

John Denham is former Labour MP four Southampton Itchen, and Professor of English Identity and Politics, Winchester University.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University