In a recent speech, Ed Miliband has announced that the Labour Party has in recent years shied away from talking about England. That Labour has been happy to promote a unique Scottish or Welsh identity through pushing through the devolved governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff. But that Labour has rejected talking about England because it made them “uncomfortable.”
Well, I suppose that is the closest we are going to get to an apology from Labour! And it is about 15 years too late.
Unfortunately, he has limited any future Labour involvement on talking about “Englishness” to some vacuous nonsense on identity rather than anything actually practical. He has rejected out of hand the concept of an English parliament in favour of devolving more power down to local councils. He used the same argument that an English parliament would simply create another level of parliamentarians which is unnecessary and horribly expensive.
One of the main reasons for his recent speech has been the release of the IPPR report “The dog that finally barked. England as an emerging political community.” A report that details the rise of the English politically. It has conducted plenty of surveys and come out with plenty of new figures. For example:
35% of the English believe that governance of the UK has got worse since devolution. A number that has doubled since devolution was passed.
45% of the English believe Scotland gets more than its fair share of public money, and 40% believe England gets too little.
52% believe that the Scottish economy secures more benefits from being in the UK, than out, more than England.
80% support devo-max in Scotland, and 42% support Scotland gaining full independence.
79% believe that Scots MP’s should be barred from voting on English only matters (English votes on English laws.)
Only 25% support the status quo being maintained!
59% now believe that the UK government does not govern with England’s interests at the fore.
And now, 40% see themselves as English first, then British. About 30-35% see themselves as equally British and English. The number of people seeing themselves as British first has seen a steady decline post-devolution.
Post devolution many people where warning of some kind of calamity in the UK, and it largely did not happen. The English as a group essentially carried on blithely unaware of the changes. However, dissatisfaction with the status quo has seen a shift in these numbers.
As more and more stories have filtered out detailing how people in Wales get more free NHS care than people in England, these have all impacted on a feeling of injustice. Other events have served to jolt this process as well. Biggest example is education. With Labour having to call upon its Scottish MP’s as a bloc to help ram through changes to university funding in England. A bill that would have been defeated if the idea of “English votes on English laws” had been followed, because enough English Labour MP’s rebelled to bring the government close to defeat.
The report goes on to detail that across England there is little demand for any regional solution. Mainly because “The Regions” are largely a political construct. Liverpudlians would never see themselves as similar to Mancunians despite both being “Northwesterners” and in the southwest, you try telling the Cornish they are the same as those from Devon!
The report highlights that it is taking time, but England is growing more and more dissatisfied with the status quo, and wants some kind of answer. Support for Englishness is rising, with symbols of England more and more common all the time. It is something that is happening all cross England, apart from in the immigrant communities which see themselves still as more British than English.
However, the report does go on to say that support for Englishness is also rising in immigrant communities. Just starting from a much lower base. Also, politicians have signally failed to promote the idea of Englishness.
In England, at the moment, there is no solidified option to fix these problems. Support in England seems to be settling on either the idea of an English parliament, or on the English votes on English laws. There is, however, a growth of unhappiness with the governing classes. Labour has hoisted itself on its own petard with its support for its failed regional plan (championed by Prescott) and is hobbled by its reliance on the blocs of Scots and Welsh MP’s Labour needs to call upon (voting through university changes in England.)
The Conservatives are currently the only 1 of the major parties who actually have a solid policy idea, with backing for “English votes on English laws.” However, the actual commitment to the policy seems to be lacking. Whilst on the face of it, it is the simplest of all the answers, it is not without problems. Funding is brought into the equation, with the Barnett Formula needing reform if English votes is to be followed. Something they are not willing to do. Out of what looks like fear at losing support north and west of the borders.
Also, another constitutional anomaly would arise in Parliament where based on the results of a general election, the winning party would lose its majority to vote on English laws. For example, Labour won the 1964 election with a majority of only 4. In England itself, Labour held 245 seats, whilst the Conservatives sealed 255. Enough to give them an overall majority of English seats. If the idea of English votes on English laws where followed, the government of the day would be in the situation of proposing policies, only to lose, whilst the opposition would be able to nominate its own policies, and despite not being “the Government,” would be able to pass English laws.
In 1974, the February election saw Labour win 301 seats. Short of the 316 needed to prevent a hung parliament. This election saw the Tories take a bigger chunk of seats in England, at 267. However, the following election later in the year saw Labour take 255 seats to the Tories 252.
The Liberals, being the most federally minded, don’t help themselves in England by reject English votes as a concept, and that of an English parliament. Favouring the already discredited idea of regional assemblies which have already been shown as a non-starter.
What is to be done? Well, the political classes ARE going to have to do more to promote Englishness. Something Miliband has finally accepted Labour failed to do so. Certainly as a concept they will have to do more. As someone who utilises props from the British Council here in Japan, it would be wonderful to see parity. I have received posters and other items promoting Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All I got for England? A sheet of stickers.
Also, practically, things will change. The idea of English votes is opposed for creating a 2 class system of MP’s, and an English parliament is seen as a danger to the UK parliaments primacy. The political elites don’t want to handle either, but as demand grows in England, then the concept of an “English dimension” in UK politics is going to get forced on those who “serve.”
Another reason why things will change is that people in England are now demanding parity. It does not matter how it all works, but as a base level of democracy, the UK is failing. Democracy is supposed to be one person one vote. That everyone gets an equal say. Problem is, the UK looks more like Animal Farm! “All animals are equal. Except that some are more equal than others.”
Our political class complain that the English vote idea would create a 2 tier system of MP, whilst there is no true demand for an English parliament/an English parliament would be too expensive.
Fact is, MP’s gain their power from us, the people. If we hold that to be a basic right, that MP’s serve at our pleasure, then surely we should all be equal? Fact is, we are not. If we look at a voter from each of the home nations, you can see England gets cheated.
For a start, the other home nations are over represented, with 1 MP having an electorate of around 70-80,000 people. Whilst in England, its something like 1 MP per 110,000 people . Making 1 voter in Scotland worth almost 1.5 voters in England. Also, look at the levels of voting. An English voter gets votes in local, UK and European elections. Scots voters vote in local, UK, and European elections. As well as in devolved elections.
This means that a Scots voter’s choice has further reach than that of an English voter. An English voter who votes in the UK election chooses an MP who can vote on UK matters. Problem is, many of the UK matters are English only, with their impact on the other home nations being devolved to their respective administrations. So, an English voters impact is felt mostly within England. Whilst Scots voters impact covers the UK, all the time.
On this fundamental level alone it is patently unfair, and needs serious work.
Many MP’s argue that an English parliament would be too big and unwieldy, and is unnecessary given the UK parliament covers such issues. Problem is, the UK parliament is just not governing with Englands interests at heart.
The easiest solution is simply to break up the Union. But if the UK is to remain, there is a simple solution. If we look at our American cousins, their government works (kind of) with far less people than ours does! In the UK, there are 650 MP’s, and 786 Peers. In the US, there is 535. In total. 435 in the House of Representatives (lower house, like the house of Commons) and 100 in the Senate (upper house). This, despite the US being about 5 times greater in terms of population!
Fact is, in the US, because there is a strong line drawn between the federal and state government, the federal government can operate with far fewer people. If the UK is to be maintained, then surely the answer would be to adopt something similar? Each home nation having its own parliament with domestic responsibilities, with UK wide responsibilities being handled by a smaller UK parliament. What powers to be handled where, I am not sure. Such things would be at the end of a long debate.
However, Ed Milibands acknowledgement that Labour failed England is welcome. It is, at last, an acknowledgement that England matters. That the English are beginning to wake up, and their demands are to be met. It is going to be messy, and possibly bloody. As the answers the English seek are in many ways politically unpalatable to the elite classes, there is going to be resistance. However, as the English grow more and more unsettled, the political classes will have to wake up and adapt. Or face political oblivion. Something Labour is beginning to realise given that they demand to govern, but often have to rely on votes from outside England whenever they want to influence events inside England!
Change is coming. People in England are slowly demanding more of their government. It may protest, but as England demands more and more, the government will have to adapt. Or die.