Why Labour should support English votes for English laws

Labour must push a radical vision of progressive constitutional change


Where has all the debate and speculation about the constitution that was so loud and urgent before the election gone? Have all those keenly discussed constitutional issues disappeared because the Tories gained an unexpected majority?

Pre-election debate about the constitution was dominated by the ability of Labour to form a minority government along with what to do about the question of EVEL (English votes for English laws) if the party failed to get a majority in England.

Some of this may seem pretty academic now, but that does not mean that the once-in-a-lifetime ‘constitutional moment’ described by many academics has gone away.

Take the question of Labour and EVEL. The Tories have pledged to introduce EVEL in this parliament. EVEL is not a minor issue of procedure in the Commons. Its introduction will fundamentally alter the way parliament deals with legislation.

It will remove the powers of some MPs (from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and privilege others (from England).

The question therefore remains: should Labour support or oppose EVEL?

The new Compass pamphlet ‘Progressive Politics and the Question of English Votes for English Laws’ argues that Labour should support EVEL, but only as part of a radical vision for progressive constitutional change.

Actually Labour has no choice; constitutional change will dominate things for the foreseeable future.

The government has a list of proposals that will profoundly effect our political system and the nature of the Union.

They include redrawing the constituency boundaries that is likely to reinforce a Tory majority in England; taking forward the commitments in the Smith report on the radical devolution of power to Scotland; introducing EVEL into the decision-making processes at Westminster; devolving power to ‘Northern Powerhouses’, starting with Greater Manchester; holding an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU; and abolishing the Human Rights Act.

Underlying this is a failing electoral system which gave us the ‘most disproportionate result in British election history’, where the government was elected by only 36 per cent of voters, and a skewed opposition that does not even approximate voters’ wishes.

A system that has led to an unprecedented situation where the four component parts of the United Kingdom are all led by different political parties. Because of the piecemeal nature of devolution, we have stumbled into creating a quasi-federal state.

The Tory response to these challenges has been largely reactive and piecemeal. It is driven by a desire to appease the right wing backbenchers, as well as plans to build in political advantage ie. by changing the rules on constituency boundaries.

The government has also rejected any question of electoral reform, and their proposals for democratic accountability of the new city regions are threadbare.

So how should progressives respond to these challenges?

The government’s incoherent constitutional reform ‘strategy’ provides progressive parties and organisations with a great opportunity to seize the agenda.

Labour could play a central role in working with others to create a democratic and inclusive vision for the United Kingdom that gets to grips with the shortcomings of our existing political and electoral system.

Labour should build upon the ideas outlined in the manifesto:

  • Devolving power to regions, cities and local authorities
  • Creating a citizen-led constitutional convention
  • Replacing the House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations and Regions

This strategy is rooted in the recognition that a more equal society can only come about through radical devolution of power.

Labour must not lose sight of this vision. Such a strategy that would provide the opportunity to challenge the government with a positive set of ideas based on the themes of devolving and sharing power, increasing community involvement and creating more effective forms of decentralised decision-making.

We suggest this the strategy should consist of the following elements:

Supporting the Introduction of EVEL as a first step in constitutional reform

Devolving and localising power to the regions and beyond as a way of addressing the gross imbalance of size (and therefore power) of the four nations of the UK

Working with other organisations and parties to organise an independent constitutional convention to examine questions around the power relationships between the nations, the regions, local government and neighbourhoods

The creation of a House of Nations and Regions to replace the Lords

An all-party campaign for electoral reform

The issues related to EVEL and the need for an ambitious programme of constitutional and structural change cannot be avoided. But the government’s approach lacks coherence and vision.

This vacuum can and must be filled by Labour developing a grand progressive coalition for constitutional change, one that maps out a clear vision for democratic change, decentralisation and inclusion.

Colin Miller is an independent consultant and photographer. Read more about his research into community development here

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12 Responses to “Why Labour should support English votes for English laws”

  1. Ian Wigg

    … ‘most disproportionate result in British election history’, where the government was elected by only 36 per cent of voters, and a skewed opposition that does not even approximate voters’ wishes…

    Actually that would be Labours’ victory in 2005 when Blair only got 35.2% of the vote (and that was before they lost Scotland)

  2. Colin Miller

    Yes Ian, but what did you think of the stuff about constitutional change?

  3. Ian East

    I agree with much of what you say, but not confident the conservative dinosaurs in the Labour Party will rush to establish an all party campaign for electoral reform. Will any of the leadership candidates recognise that to again become a church broad enough to beat the Conservatives the Labour Party needs to cooperate not compete with the Greens, LibDems and SNP. We must not repeat the mistakes of the 1980s when a divided left kept the Tories in government for a generation.

  4. steroflex

    Colin stick to the photography, if you will take my advice.
    Our constitution has evolved and if you accept evolution, don’t be catastrophic! The House of Lords needs reform (thank you Lord Levy). The House of Commons needs reform with the West Lothian Question (thank you Tony Blair). The electoral districts are very unfair (thank you Nick Clegg). The EU sends a lot of Directives down without parliament. How many? Sorry, none of your business. You do not mention the EU and DGRegio. John Prescott found to his cost that splitting our England up is not popular with us plebs.
    There is desperate need for reform.
    But fine tuning is the way to deal with the British constitution: not going nuclear.

  5. Chrisso

    Fair comment about Blair remaining PM on just 35% of the popular vote in 2005. But had to laugh at your comment about Labour ‘losing Scotland’ a decade later.

    Since 1992 the Tories have retained just a single MP – or no MPs at all – in Scotland. So the Tories ‘lost Scotland’ way before Labour did. Their vote share there has steadily declined since the 1979 Thatcher victory, from 31% to less than half that. Meanwhile, until 2015 it was only Labour that could claim that it had significant representation throughout the UK. The Tories have not been able to claim that since 1955. Scotland today endures government by a party that cannot muster more than one Tory MP.

  6. Ian Wigg

    My comment about Labour losing Scotland wasn’t meant as a dig at Labour but simply meant to point out that Labour gained the 2005 victory with only 35.2% of the vote whilst they still had the majority of the vote in their Scottish heartland. Conservatives had larger percentages of the vote in 2010 & 2015 even without Scotland.

    Re your last comment – then Scotland should have voted for independence but they didn’t and in addition, if Labour had won a majority in 2015, the situation in Scotland would have been the same (don’t recall Labour having vast numbers of MPs there either!)

  7. Chrisso

    “If Labour had won a majority in 2015, the situation in Scotland would
    have been the same (don’t recall Labour having vast numbers of MPs there
    If Labour had won a majority then it’s unlikely they would have lost 40 seats in Scotland. But if Labour had won a majority the situation in Scotland would not have been the same as Labour has/had a different approach towards further devolution.

  8. Ian Wigg

    I’m sorry but that answer is simply a cop out. I could equally argue that if the Conservatives had been elected by a larger majority then they in all probability would have gained several seats in Scotland thus making the situation different.

    I do take it that you agree it was unacceptably disproportionate that UKIP, with 12.5% of the vote, only gained 1 seat whereas Labour, with only approximately 2.5X the percentage of the vote, gained 232 seats (your belief that it was unacceptable for the Conservatives to have 331 seats on 3X that amount taken as a given)?

  9. Chrisso

    “I could equally argue that if the Conservatives had been elected by a larger majority then they in all probability would have gained several seats in Scotland…”

    Unlikely. The Tories are viewed as even more toxic in Scotland than Labour. But if they had two or three rather than one seat then they might have enhanced their credibility. The Scots have long had to endure government by a party that had neither *the largest vote-share* [I did not suggest that 50.1% was necessary] nor the *largest number of seats* in Scotland, but the Tories having just zero or a single seat since 1997 puts that position into sharp relief. Indeed the last time the Tories got 2 or more seats there was in 1992 when they gained 24% of the vote share. This time the Tories got their lowest ever vote share in Scotland – 14.9%, so don’t let us get carried away!

    However I do agree with your suggestion that a more proportionate electoral system would be fairer. Yes that might aid Ukip but it would be more democratic. The SNP actually back a more PR system. It’s pretty clear that the SNP and Ukip results demonstrate how farcical our system is.

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  11. flotom

    This article might be worth reading if the author knew the difference between the British Union and the English flags

  12. Colin Miller

    Im the author I sorry to tell you this but I did not choose the image, merely wrote the blog and the pamphlet.

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