Labour will never win again if it can’t acknowledge, let alone answer, the English Question

The old New Labour narrative that England is not a nation, only a set of would-be regions, is damaging the party. 

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The Labour Party’s political woes can be explained as much by the English as the Scottish Question. To govern at Westminster is also to govern England. If this was not well understood before the pandemic, it is now. Since the “West Lothian question” was resolved in 2015 with the introduction of English votes for English laws in the Commons, Labour would need to win a majority of English seats to legislate for England. Otherwise, a Labour government would have to begin life by using SNP votes to change how English laws are made.

But Labour is in denial about this English predicament. Its priority in its current UK-wide constitutional commission – launched by Keir Starmer in 2020 and headed by Gordon Brown – is constitutional change to address the Scottish Question. Brown repeatedly insists that the UK is a union of nations and regions in which England is not a nation, only a set of would-be regions. This is an old New Labour narrative that has already damaged the party, culminating in its defeat in the Hartlepool by-election in May. Indeed, the story of the Conservatives’ assault on Labour’s north-eastern seats is the history of what happens when Labour flounders over what to do about England.

It was during James Callaghan’s premiership between 1976 and 1979 that Labour first ventured into these difficult waters. Fearing that devolution would lead to more Treasury resources heading to Edinburgh, Labour’s north-eastern MPs secured an amendment to the 1978 Scotland Act, which stipulated that devolution could only occur if at least 40 per cent of the whole Scottish electorate voted for it. This set in motion the events that brought the Labour government down in March 1979 after the Yes vote in Scotland earlier that month didn’t reach the 40 per cent threshold.

[See also: Gordon Brown on vaccinations, poverty and the climate crisis]

When New Labour won power in 1997, the old fear among northern Labour MPs about money flowing to Scotland reappeared. Although it was John Prescott, representing Kingston upon Hull East, who insisted that Labour needed to devolve powers to the three northern English regions, the party’s attitude towards the north-east was always Janus-faced. By refusing to attend the Durham Miners’ Gala, Blair used his distance from the region’s distinctive Labour traditions as a way of defining the New Labour project. But as the most uniformly Labour part of England, the north-east also provided parliamentary constituencies for New Labour luminaries, including Peter Mandelson and David Miliband.

In July 2004, Blair and Brown postponed the referendums on regional devolution for the north-west and for Yorkshire and the Humber, but the vote in the north-east went ahead in November that year. In it, 77.93 per cent of those who voted were against regional devolution. It turned out to be a harbinger of a future where Labour’s English problem morphed into its EU difficulties.

As early as 2000, the future Conservative leadership candidate David Davis attacked the idea of regional assemblies as “bleak outstations of Brussels”. Eager to learn how to run referendum campaigns, Dominic Cummings organised the north-east’s No campaign: the one he really wanted to run was a vote on the EU constitutional treaty. If it had taken place in the second half of 2005 the Conservatives would have opposed ratification, and probably won.

In the years after north-eastern voters overwhelmingly rejected a regional assembly, both English identity and a belief that Scottish devolution put England at a constitutional disadvantage grew. A 2012 report by the Institute of Public Policy Research showed that, far from seeing themselves as belonging to any regional political community, northern voters shared the same degree of sentiment about being English, and the same convictions on English governance, as voters elsewhere in England.

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Although in the 2010 election Labour’s vote held up in the north-east, rising Euroscepticism soon reinforced the estrangement materialising between the party and the region. In the 2013 by-election after David Miliband vacated his seat in South Shields, Ukip came second.

In the 2015 election, it was in the south-west where Labour’s ignorance of the English Question helped the Tories – presenting the spectre of a Lib-Lab-SNP coalition – topple the Liberal Democrats. In the north-east, the Conservatives increased their vote share in nearly 60 per cent of seats while making little progress in either the north-west or Yorkshire, albeit starting from a higher base. Since almost all local authorities in the north-east delivered Brexit majorities in 2016, Labour’s position by the summer of 2019 on a second referendum invited it to lose seats in the region in its general election defeat at the end of the year.

Now, having already paid the price for telling the north-east’s Leave voters to think again on EU membership, Labour’s constitutional commission appears prepared to tell them to change their minds about Englishness too. Brown is encouraging Labour to go deeper into this territory. In a 2019 article he presented the “three constitutional pillars” of the Union as “Scottish parliamentary representation, the devolution settlement and the funding arrangements”, and thinks remedies for the pressure on them should come from English concessions.

The majority of English voters – including in those regions with constituencies Labour must win to have any chance at Westminster – sense English identity has become irrelevant. Brown may be right or wrong about the Scottish Question on its own terms. But recent history has already shown what happens to Labour, and the stability of the Anglo-Scottish Union, when Labour keeps insisting there is no English Question. 

[See also: Why Scotland is still trapped in limbo-land]

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 02 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West

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