David Cameron one, Ed Miliband nil. In a masterstroke of political opportunism, the Prime Minister ended last week with a dawn raid on the temporary cross-party alliance, extinguishing Labour’s post-referendum glow. At 07:00 he committed to entwining Scottish constitutional reform with equivalent changes in England. Having faced revolt from his disgruntled backbenches over the kneejerk ‘Vow’, he shrewdly crowbarred future Scottish powers into the English devolution timetable. This not only ensures that the government has something to offer the English people ahead of next year’s election, but it comes as a stark reminder of where ultimate authority in the Union lies.
How Scottish reform will best translate into legislative reality remains open to debate – Labour leader Ed Miliband has criticised the government of deciding the UK’s constitutional future ‘on the back of a fag packet’. A failure to fulfil promises to Scotland in a timely manner will risk upheaving everything that Better Together campaigned towards, but equally dangerous would be rushing through an ill-considered ‘modern form of home rule’. Anything other than a pinpoint balancing act could spell disaster. Do nothing to assuage the significant pro-independence lobby and watch it rear its perennial head within a generation. It should not be forgotten that 1.6 million Scots were in favour of a split, even if two million were against it. The Prime Minister has committed to delivering a draft ‘devo-max’ settlement by January, an extraordinarily short space of time for such imperative legislation. It absolutely must ensure long-lasting, legally-sustainable change.
Secondly, it is not clear how English devolution will manifest itself. An English parliament? Well, that would not only require a whole new administrative framework of civil servants and public offices, but it would open up the possibility of an English ‘First Minister’, a direct (and conflicting?) rival to the Prime Minister. Demarcating powers would be difficult, but there are European precedents. What about greater autonomy for England’s cities? London Mayor hopeful Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister, has called for the capital to receive greater financial autonomy. After all, it keeps just 7% of the tax revenue it raises, whereas New York retains 50%. And what of the north? Newspapers in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Middlesbrough have united to back a second so-called devolution ‘Vow’, this one granting the region ‘far more control over its own affairs.’ The reform package would have to deliver ‘the tools to…creat[e] jobs in the [local economy]’, they argue. Addressing this question has to be a priority for the next parliament. Why? Because with the wedding of English and Scottish reforms comes the prospect of extended policy delay. It could take years to debate the legal intricacies of the uncodified constitution.
Now championed by David Cameron, English devolution risks becoming face-saving conciliation to alienated backbenchers. Anything to prevent a vote-splitting exodus to UKIP. There is the added appeal of definitively addressing the ‘West Lothian’ question, which could critically and permanently weaken Labour’s parliamentary strength. It currently has 41 MPs representing Scottish constituencies, and is keen to ensure that they maintain a voice on all matters in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister’s reception at Chequers strategically targeted 20 MPs threatening his authority. It proved the ideal setting to call out Labour for not backing decentralisation, which will now be positioned as a key election topic.
A Newsnight appearance just prior to the Labour Party conference was used by Shadow Business Minister Chuka Umunna to discuss his party’s stance on devolution. He struggled with a riposte and was unable to promise anything beyond a ‘constitutional convention’ and a ‘dialogue’ with England’s ‘regions and cities’. Fundamentally, he stated there are no plans to overhaul Westminster, suggesting Labour’s manifesto will be blinkered toward the empowerment of urban areas.
The issue even managed to overshadow the conference itself, generating a flurry of expectation from the party faithful and an awkward silence amongst the party leadership. Ed Miliband tried to steer his keynote speech toward his own political agenda, focussing on headline policies such as a mansion tax and £8 per hour minimum wage. Yet, The Evening Standard rightly points out that he offered ‘too little for families contemplating a better life after the long downturn — daring to think of a new car, or a bigger home’. In the event, as Mr Miliband ‘shifted modes from job application to plan of work’, he inadvertently omitted the economic deficit. A blunder matched only by his post-conference backpedalling. The fact remains that the constitutional ball is still in David Cameron’s court, which could damage the Labour Party if Nigel Farage has anything to say about it.
With the referendum decided, the UKIP leader told the BBC it is no longer acceptable for England to be ‘ignored’, especially when ‘English voters [feel] they’re picking up a big bill’ on Scotland’s behalf. This will resonate with both Tory and Labour voters. It is not inconceivable that Mr Farage will position himself as the ‘English Alex Salmond’, a nationalist able to divide the Conservative Party and destabilise Labour’s stronghold in the north. He would add a positive domestic policy issue to the Party’s otherwise Eurosceptic focus. However, campaigning for the repatriation of powers from Brussels and Westminster is a problematic brief. It would require articulating the complex gulf between supranationlism and acute regionalism.
With all three main parties yet to deliver a substantial plan for a devolved England, the race to win hearts and minds is wide open. Whilst decentralisation has never been a salient grievance among English voters, the referendum has undoubtedly increased awareness of regional fiscal powers and addressing problems locally. For David Cameron it is a means of papering over his party’s cracks, at least until next month’s by-election in Clacton. For Ed Miliband, it is the policy that cannot be mentioned – not if Labour is to maintain its parliamentary strength. Only Nigel Farage stands to immediately gain from a pro-devolution policy, but at the expense of his Party’s distinctive message. As he walks away from Scotland’s top job, Alex Salmond must surely be chuckling to himself. He may have lost the referendum, but victory in Westminster is looking increasingly Pyrrhic.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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