Labour now has big questions to answer

by Jonathan Todd

The Scottish referendum is the most tumultuous event in British politics in my lifetime. Writing on Labour Uncut in February, I anticipated that Scotland would stay together but potentially on bitter and cantankerous terms. What I didn’t see until much later was that Yes victory would seem a distinct possibility and that bitterness and rancour would spill from Scotland into the rest of the UK.

Kevin Meagher has catalogued on Uncut the failing of Better Together. The factor that he sees as common to all of these failings is that Westminster leaders “seriously underestimated the prospect of independence”. In so doing, these leaders also underestimated how profoundly they are mistrusted and how deeply angry many are. This frustration is so intense that many were prepared to take the gamble of UK breakup. Such a step would certainly have been a leap into the unknown but many calculated that this was the best option because the likelihood of anything worse than the status quo was minimal.

This calculus, in my view, was faulty. UK breakup would reduce the Scottish tax base and capacity to raise finance on money markets. Both of which would have increased pressure for public service cuts in Scotland, which many voting Yes thought they were voting against. All those who value well resourced public services, including all Labour party members, should be relieved that UK breakup has been averted.

But this certainly does not spell the end of Labour’s challenges. Broadly speaking, these now take two forms: cultural and constitutional. The cultural challenges are involved with the anger and mistrust that both Yes and UKIP have fed on, while the constitutional are concerned with resolving the west Lothian question in the context that now exists following “the vow” of additional powers for Scotland jointly made by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.

Yes and UKIP both have an appeal to some sections of traditional Labour support, particularly the disenfranchised working class. “UKIP is tearing off this section of the electorate”, Matthew Goodwin recently argued, “creating a fundamental divide in British politics between those with the skills, education and resources to adapt, and those who have little and feel intensely angry.” When we dissect why Yes won Glasgow, Scotland’s most working class city, I expect we’ll find similar voters to those that UKIP appeal to being decisive.

Yes was high on energy and short on detail. Nigel Farage has comparable energy. He was up early this morning posting letters to Scottish MPs asking them to not vote on English matters. He will be looking forward to getting his bandwagon into fifth gear in Clacton, seeking to trade on both English grievance at the strongly asymmetric devolution created by “the vow” and the anti-politics mood. Yes also benefitted from this mood, precipitating “the vow”, but Farage will now seek to augment his long-standing antipathy to the leading UK parties with the charge that they are a conspiracy against the English.

Cameron often has two strategic motivations: keeping a lid on UKIP and undermining Labour. By taking forward some mechanism for “English votes on English issues”, he will achieve both. This would both limit the impact of Farage’s attempt to be a vessel for English anger at the imbalanced devolution of “the vow” and counter Labour efforts to respond to the west Lothian question through devolving power within England.

English votes in Westminster on English issues, assuming we can even identify what such issues really are, would be as removed from day-to-day life in west Cumbria, where I grew up, as votes in the UK parliament currently are. London felt very far away in my youth. Local and regional identities are more easily worn by many in England than English identity, as much as Farage and Cameron will now encourage the English to be English.

If we truly believe in the virtues of subsidiarity, the ugly word for the beautiful idea that power is devolved to the most local level possible, and in creating a politics that people can better identify with, there are strong cases for making UK devolution more balanced by devolving more power within England. The advantage that Cameron and Farage have, however, is that English votes on English issues is a simple solution to this complex set of problems.

Yes have demonstrated the power of simplicity. In spite of commitments by Ed Miliband to “the biggest devolution in a century“, Labour lacks a response to the questions opened up by “the vow” of comparable simplicity to English votes on English issues. If Labour frustrates such votes, the party risks being on the wrong side of English anger at the implications of “the vow”, while at the same time locking in a constitutional settlement that keeps power as removed from Labour heartlands in the north and the midlands as it presently is.

If Labour can resolve this conundrum before the end of the party conference opening on Sunday, it will be an achievement as spectacular as the stellar efforts of Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy in keeping the UK together. Cameron will already be well aware that the sequencing of the conferences this year creates the opportunity for him to use the Tory conference to rubbish whatever Labour do offer. No pressure then, Ed.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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8 Responses to “Labour now has big questions to answer”

  1. Stuart Bruce says:

    I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers to the radical constitutional reform we need, but I do know the answer definitely isn’t English votes for English matters. London was remote when I was a teenager in West Cumbria, but for many people where I live in Leeds now it is just as remote.

  2. Ex labour says:

    As a Scotsman I can say that the English are the forgotten ones under the New Labour devoultions of a few years ago. With Scotland now to get yet more powers and apprently retain Barnett formula monies, it would be grossly unfair to move forward without first giving England some extended powers of its own. Cameron has said this afternoon that the increase in Scottish power will go alongside increases for England, Wales and N Ireland and of course Miliband has immediately come out against this. This may go against “The Vow” timetable.

    Devolvment to local governance has been tried and rejected previously with large cities and conurbations such as Newcastle and the North East voting against it. So is this really a solution ? Imagine the fiscally incompetant Labour councils around the country being given control of the purse strings. It would not end well.

    What absolutely cannot happen is Scottish MP’s voting on anything affecting England, which effectively will neuter Labour’s voting power. Miliband knows this and has stated today his disagreement with the PM’s power devolvment statement.

    UKIP will clearly play both ends against the middle and Labour will feel additiona pain.

  3. 07052015 says:

    We know the answer to the conundrum ,devolved powers to cities and counties.And that is what ed will say.

    The problem is how to sell that when the conservative solution,of an english parliament, is superficially attractive to a politically unsophisticated electorate manipulated by a right wing press.It was ever thus for Labour.

    Fortunately the left is relatively united, under cameron the right is badly split.However boris is such an opportunist he would ditch cameron and osborne and seek common cause with farage.And that doesnt bear thinking about.

    In those circumstances it is is difficult to see how the UK would stay together.

  4. Sep says:

    It’s right we need to pass down more powers to our City. Places such as the West Midlands need new powers to help charge direction and compete with London.

    But an answer to the English question is still be needed as these regional governments will not be making Law and if Labour still believes that using Scottish and Welsh MP to pass law in England is tenable, Labour will fail badly in large areas of England.

  5. In so doing, these leaders also underestimated how profoundly they are mistrusted and how deeply angry many are.

    And it’s not just the leaders Jonathan, it’s politicians in general. More particular with Labour it’s the loss of the allegiance of its core vote. Of course unless people like yourself are willing to admit your own part in this problem that relates so very closely to New Labour ideas, then you will not be part of the solution and will just help Labour to be as irrelevant as PASOK is now in Greece.

  6. Mike Stallard says:

    The most shocking thing that has come out of all this is the decay of the Labour Party in Scotland, which used to be firmly in Labour hands.
    Here are some suggestions as to how to put that right:
    1. Just like the Tories, Labour is based firmly in London. Just like the Tories, the heartland is outside London. Something needs to be done about that – and fast.
    2. If Labour is just about sending money to Rab C Nesbitt, then it has really lost its way. Dress it up any way you want – anti-austerity, government provision for the disadvantaged, economic stimulus – this isn’t going to win votes outside the inner cities and Rab C Nesbitt isn’t going to support Labour when he gets a better offer from Yes or UKIP. Labour, surely, is better than that. Fairness does not mean pandering to people who are not making the effort. It never has been that.
    3. UKIP is not the enemy. The EU may have deep Socialist roots and Marxism may have been an international movement, but the EU is not in any way democratic and it is getting really dangerous in Ukraine by stirring up trouble with Russia. With accomodation with UKIP, and some attempt to face up to the EU take-over of UK, the Labour Party could soon attract a lot of people.
    4. Why is Labour, the party of the working people so against the new industry of fracking? Why is it not itching to do something about nuclear power stations? Only asking…

  7. Madasafish says:

    What does the public think of politicians?

    They largely think they are incompetent (true), liars (true) and incapable of running a drinking party in a brewery .

    Labour’s Official position on the West Lothian issue just epitomises this. A sensible leader would recognise it’s a “lose-lose ” situation and win brownie points with the electorate by being honest and saying it’s unacceptable.

    After all, reverse the position: imagine if the Tories had 41MPs in Scotland and they wanted them to continue to vote on English issues. Labour would be up in arms about it….

    Any party leader trying to defend the indefensible – which even the dumbest voter in England AND Scotland can see is indefensible – is basically setting himself – and his Party – to ridicule, scorn and contempt – and that’s only from his own followers in England.

    Parties vote for the leaders they deserve .

    Surely this is the opportunity to win plaudits for a far sighted and principled stand which will contrast favourably with the Tories? A stand which would resonate with the electorate who think politicians are unworthy of trust?

    Clearly not.

  8. Landless Peasant says:

    The biggest questions Labour needs to answer are whether they will abolish Benefit Sanctions or not, and whether they will increase JSA to the correct legal amount. On these questions my vote depends.

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