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8 February 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 8:59am

Labour’s woes in England won’t be solved with an English Parliament

Labour has an English problem - but an English parliament isn't the solution, argues Tom Railton.

By Tom Railton

Who will speak for England? The front page of the Mail last Thursday may have been subjected to the kind of instant ridicule that makes Twitter worth enduring, but for some Labour MPs this is a question that deserves serious attention.

Since May, English identity politics has become something of a cause celebre in a parliamentary Labour Party which is increasingly anglicised. Partly this is a response to attempts by Labour north of the border to become more overtly Scottish in the face of an electorate with a sizeable nationalist element. Mainly though, it is a reaction to feedback from hundreds of doorstep conversations with voters who were convinced Ed Miliband was prepared to sell out England in a backroom deal with the SNP. 

Labour MPs are certainly right to be concerned. A perceived ambivalence towards English cultural identity is toxic in an electoral system where majorities are won and lost among older voters in the market towns of middle England. For many former Labour voters, the squeamish attitude of the left towards England is merely confirmation that politically correct cultural relativism has replaced common sense patriotism. The infamous incident of Emily Thornberry in Rochester only cut through with voters because they already believed that Labour felt uncomfortable with the flag of St George.

In response, a whole raft of answers have been proposed. At one end of the scale is Labour MP Toby Perkins’ campaign for a new English national anthem. This is an eminently sensible idea that is long overdue.

But some are convinced that more radical change is needed and have fixated on the idea of an English Parliament. This idea was floated again by Tristram Hunt in a speech to the grandly named Centre for English Identity and Politics, founded by former Labour MP and long-standing Englishness campaigner John Denham.

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Calls for an English parliament have been echoing around the corridors of the palace of Westminster for decades and have been leant renewed vigour by the extension of devolution to other national assemblies. John Redwood and a small cabal of right wing Tories have obsessed about the perceived injustice of our asymmetric institutional arrangement at length, but there is little evidence that their ardour for a new English assembly has reached beyond the political classes. I heard English suspicion of the intentions of the SNP time and time again on doorsteps during the election, but not one person suggested to me that the problem would be solved by a new English parliament.

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The fact is that the public simply do not care about constitutional injustice. This is a country where the majority of people are comfortable with an unelected monarch of German descent signing off all legislation. A country where even the modest campaign for the alternative vote was dismissed as irrelevant nonsense.

 Even Wales, which has more cause for grievance than England, only approved its own assembly by the barest majority. Now that a clumsy form of so-called English Votes for English Laws is in place it is impossible to even sustain the argument that the West Lothian Question in urgent need of an answer. It may be hard for political obsessives to grasp, but the public simply do not care. Like most campaigns for constitutional change, the crusade for an English parliament is an elite political project driven by a handful of bubble-dwellers. To put it simply, when people dress as crusaders at a cricket match people think it is funny, when they do so on a political campaign people think they are mad.

For Labour, it is hard to escape the conclusion that MPs are succumbing to a severe bout of “something must be done-ery”. Labour has an English problem. Something must be done to prove that Labour cares about England. An English Parliament is a thing. Therefore Labour should support an English Parliament. The post-traumatic stress of a general election and the powerless frustration of opposition can clearly have an interesting effect on people’s judgement.

None of this is to deny Labour’s problem with English identity, but it would make much more sense to channel energy into a better understanding of the symbols of national identity. A national anthem is a good idea. The flag of St George must be reclaimed from the far right in the same way the Union Jack has been wrestled out of the hands of the BNP. Politicians must become far more comfortable talking about Englishness, including talking about why so many first and second generation migrants have found Englishness such a hostile identity. That work is indeed urgent and it is encouraging that some Labour MPs are showing a willingness to act. But an English Parliament is a flamboyant distraction, not a solution. It is the answer to a question that the public are not asking. Labour MPs can already speak for England, they don’t need to build a new parliament to find their voices. 

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