Conference 2014: Labour is losing credibility on devolution

On English votes for English laws, Labour has been caught like a rabbit in the headlights.

On English votes for English laws, Labour has been caught like a rabbit in the headlights

In his annual pre-conference interview with Andrew Marr, responding to questioning on Labour’s position on English votes for English laws, Ed Miliband declared “we can’t do it in a back-of-the-envelope, fag-packet way”.

Let’s make no mistake about it, David Cameron’s statement just after the referendum in Scotland in which he called for action on the English question to proceed at the same time as further powers being devolved to Scotland blindsided both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

It shattered the consensus that led all three main UK party leaders to issue their vows as Scotland considered divorcing the rest of the UK and opened a political trap which Labour is in very real danger of falling into.

First and foremost, the devolution package and timetable pledged by the leaders must be sorted out and kept to strictly. To do otherwise would lead to another referendum much sooner than anyone thought, with a near certain vote for Yes to independence rather than No.

But on English votes for English laws, Labour has been caught like a rabbit in the headlights.

The simple reality is that, for all the talk of Cameron playing politics with the issue, which he undoubtedly has, the argument that things are being rushed is simply not credible.

It was in 2013 that the former clerk of the House of Commons, Sir William McKay, published his report for the government on the consequences for the Commons and how it votes within the context of the devolution settlement.

In 2012, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published its ideas on the topic, which in many respects were reflected in the McKay Commission.

And ultimately, we have known since 2012 that Scotland would be going to the polls to determine the fate of the UK and plans should have been in place for a comprehensive response whatever the vote was.

One wonders what the party has been doing all this time if it hasn’t been figuring out a plan to answer the West Lothian Question given the wealth of material that has been published on the topic.

With roughly eight months to the general election, rather than opting for the long grass option of some sort of vague constitutional convention, Ed Miliband must give more concentre indications as to how Labour would deal with what is undoubtedly a lance that needs boiling.

The Labour chairman of the Local Government Association, David Sparks has already warned the party leadership of ingoing the anger that English people feel over being under-represented. Meanwhile recent polling by YouGov has shown that 71 per cent of the public would support the idea of English votes for English Laws.

Although those around the Labour leader are frustrated that that their agenda is being hijacked by what they view as constitutionally geekery, the reality is that the issue goes to the heart of Labour’s problem.

Having stolen the ‘One Nation’ mantra last year, Ed Miliband is fast looking like someone unable to command the attention of any part of the UK. In Scotland Labour remains’ in dire straits, as recent polling on voting intentions north of the border indicates, whilst south of the border it is the Conservatives who are positioning themselves as the guardians of the English interest.

Giving evidence to the McKay Commission, the former Welsh Labour MP and minister Kim Howells admitted that the government of which he was a part had made a “conscious decision” to “stay well away from” the West Lothian questions.

The danger for Ed Miliband is that history is repeating itself with all the electoral damage it could ultimately inflict on the party next May.

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