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26 September 2017

An EVEL dilemma – could Labour govern without an English majority?

The current constitution could still leave Scottish MPs overruling dissident English Labour.

By John Denham

Jeremy Corbyn spent much of the summer in the Scottish marginals that, along with substantial English gains, could deliver a Commons majority. But that may not be enough. Recent changes to Commons procedures pose a real threat to Corbyn’s chance of delivering a radical Labour programme in England. New legislation on schools, social care, children’s policy, higher education, transport, housing and health – all the issues currently devolved to Wales and Scotland – might be at risk. The issue of Scottish influence over an English Labour government exploded across the 2015 election; it could break out again.

Until recently, a UK majority was all that mattered. Where those Labour seats fell across Britain was very much an afterthought. All that has now changed. Barely noticed or understood by the public or, it seems, many MPs, “English Votes on English Laws” gives English MPs a veto on any legislation affecting only England. The whole House of Commons may approve a new law, but it will only pass if the English MPs alone also vote for it.

Introduced after the Scottish referendum as a response to palpable English resentment, EVEL hasn’t yet become politically important. That’s because the Conservatives have a comfortable 60 seat majority in England. Labour would find it very different. Without an English majority, it would struggle to pass any new radical English law.

How likely is that? In the best of all possible worlds, Labour might escape this fate. A uniform swing of around 3.5 per cent would deliver both an English majority and a UK majority. The problem is that uniform swings seem to be a thing of the past. Even as some areas become more Labour (or Scottish Nationalist), others go to the Tories. 

It is plausible to imagine Labour trying to form majority or minority governments without an English Labour majority. But as a new paper by the leading academic analyst of EVEL, Prof Michael Kenny, makes clear, Labour’s choices will be limited and none of them easy.

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Labour could accept EVEL as it now stands, and work within its constraints. But this would mean abandoning key pledges, relying heavily on executive action to circumvent parliament, or seek agreement with any Greens or Lib Dems. It could simplify EVEL, and make it easier to understand. However, most moves in this direction would tend to strengthen, not diminish, English influence.

A very different approach would end EVEL by changing parliament’s standing orders (the written rules that govern the house). That would be consistent with Labour’s stance when the idea was first introduced. But the political cost could be high. In one stroke, it would be clear that Labour was going to use MPs from other parts of the UK to impose policies that England had not voted for.

Most people probably wouldn’t care too much so long as the policies were popular, but real governments are rarely popular all the time. As national policies on tuition fees, prescription charges, social care and hospital parking increasingly diverge (with different income tax and corporation tax rates likely to follow), it will be less and less legitimate for English policy to be determined by MPs from elsewhere. It may not be a burning issue today, but a majority of English residents sign up to the principle of English parliamentary decision-making, backing either EVEL or an English Parliament. It would not take much to set the issue alight.

Labour might get lucky and win both an English and a UK majority. But even if it did, the party’s current constitution could still leave Scottish MPs overruling dissident English Labour, as happened when foundation hospitals and tuition fees were imposed under the last Labour government.

While Jeremy Corbyn is right to say: “We are a UK party seeking a UK majority”, this skirts the issue. Before devolution, all parts of mainland Britain – Northern Ireland has always had its own and complex relationship with the rest of the union – were governed by the UK government. Since devolution gave Wales and Scotland control of their own domestic affairs, only England is subject to rule of the UK government. Under today’s Conservative government, English policy depends more on the will of the Democratic Unionist Party than on the choice of English voters.

The current constitution imposes an inherently illegitimate, undemocratic and unstable governance on England that, in turn, creates tensions with other parts of the UK. As Prof Kenny argues, Labour could make “a more wide-ranging democratic argument for a more federal UK-wide system, a stance that would help Labour shift from being the party of the status quo to being the architect of a more durable, post-Brexit settlement for the UK”. The 2017 manifesto commits to a “relationship of equals” between England and other parts of the United Kingdom. A constitutional convention and a Minister for England opens that democratic door. As yet there is little sign Labour has really thought about what lies beyond.

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