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A new constitutional settlement for England

8vs0fqWe could well be days away from ending the 307 year old union between Scotland, and England and Wales. This penny has finally dropped with establishment politics. They have looked into the abyss and are terrified that irrelevance could be staring right back at them. Characteristically, their attempt to ward of the spectre has been threat and promise. The former has been the gift of Scottish financial institutions this week, pledging to move headquarters down to London in the event of a Yes vote. Particularly amusing was Deutsche Bank’s David Folkert-Landau warning that Scottish independence would be a decision right up there with those that triggered the Depression. No need to pull your punches, David! On promises we’ve had the peculiar resurrection of Gordon Brown. Our political Lazarus dusted off the backbench cobwebs by manfully seizing Better Together by the throat. He threw down proposals for new Scottish powers that were eagerly seized upon by the Westminster parties, even though all three are signed up to further devolution (not that you’d know it thanks to BT’s negativist campaign). Now is not the time for a novice indeed.
What’s missing from all this is England and Englishness. Yes or no, the constitutional settlement has to be redrawn. With Scotland in more powers for it, Wales and Northern Ireland will surely follow. That means devolution for and in England has to be addressed. And if Scotland goes, it likewise means the rump UK is in for some major renovation. With the EU crowded out by existential crisis, already some on the right have begun staking out territory. Farage has been talking about federalism. Likewise Paul Goodman at ConHome, raising the prospect of nation specific referendums on devomax as well as House of Lords reform. And John Redwood is banging the drum for an English Parliament. From the centre left are Ed Miliband’s proposals to hand more power to Wales and local authorities generally and that’s about it. Not good enough. Every trade union should follow the lead given by Paul Emebery, the London regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. Now is not the time for leaving politics to the politicians. Questions of how we are governed are in the direct interests of working people, and our movement needs to wake up to it. Leaving the field to our opponents and our enemies is folly.

What could a new constitutional settlement look like? I think we need to keep two intertwined principles in mind. We need a politics that is accessible and as close to the electorate as possible to overcome the rancid legacy of anti-politics, a system that does not disenfranchise massive numbers because they happen to live in safe seats, and a settlement that encourages and rewards an active citizenry. 

I would like to see devolution in England handed to regional assemblies. It makes practical sense that Scotland/Wales-style settlements would work for the likes of the South East, the WestMids, etc. because of their roughly proximate sizes. London, of course, already has its own regionalised devolution. The problem with an English parliament is that England is so much larger and more diverse than the UK’s other nations and may replicate all the sins of Westminster. Then there is a certain wariness of giving English nationalism a boost. Understandable as it has come to be associated with insularity and xenophobia (ably assisted by UKIP). Yet I think the left needs to bite this bullet. We can’t really start talking about remaking England if, at the outset, we regard England and Englishness as something illegitimate. An English Parliament it is then. One would assume it would be subordinate to the federal parliament at Westminster on foreign affairs, energy policy, UK-wide tax regimes, etc. and pick up responsibility for the NHS, education, social security, and so on. But if the left are serious about making it work, we need to work to establish its legitimacy from the off. It means setting it up away from London – Stoke-on-Trent or Derby will do! But requires a voting system that presses the democracy on offer downwards, so the relationship is much closer. The left should advocate the Single Transferable Vote, which combines the much-vaunted constituency link with proportionality. (See here and here).

An English Parliament is not the be-all and end-all of devolution. Ed Miliband’s commitment to give more power to local authorities is a good idea, and one I hope will be implemented across all of the UK (assuming Scotland votes no). In addition, it’s high time the state had a written constitution specifying the legal, political, and social rights and responsibilities of UK citizens, and how the organisation operates. If the overwhelming bulk of countries, never mind organisations from chess clubs to local authorities have constitutions, then we should have one too. The moment is also ripe for Lords reform. Peerages should no longer be the province of Westminster cliques. Direct elections are the only way a second chamber can hope to retain legitimacy. Questions around accountability, including the right of recall require implementation. And while we’re at it, party funding reforms need bringing in. It is not right that the Tories get around transparency rules in relation to donations. It’s time these were toughened up. I would also like to see tough rules governing private lobbying of political offices (civic organisations are fine, big business is not), a professionalisation of the arrangements governing MPs expenses and offices, and – as the constituency link is embedded into the English Parliament – a shrinkage of Westminster MPs and their election via a PR system. FPTP is probably best retained for local elections only. Lastly, so the federal parliament is properly constituted the reserve powers held by the monarchy should be invested in and subject to democratically elected and accountable authority. 

Proposing a new settlement is not a matter for the wonks, nor is it an exercise in constitutional cretinism. It is driven by the kinds of politics you want to see prevail. As a socialist, I hold to the old idea that our politics are everywhere and always conditioned by the need to shift the balance of power and wealth decisively in favour of working people and their families. In that regard, the shopping list above are just some suggestions. But whatever happens on Thursday, the Scottish referendum gives us an opportunity to reforge politics anew. The labour movement should seize it.


  1. James Martin says:

    Yes Phil, but the problem with all this legalistic stuff of constitutional settlements is that it is at best meaningless and at worst highly dangerous when it comes with no extra resources at the end of it for the regional parliaments or ’empowered’ local authorities to administer.

    In fact it is exactly what the Tories have been doing steadily in this parliament with their ‘localist’ agenda which has returned certain things like public health to local people (or not in reality). However, as this is combined with cuts that then are imposed locally the anti-cuts fight then becomes dissipated and localised (which was always their intention of course).

    ‘Municipal Socialism’ has some legs where there are still some crumbs left to fight over and spend on jobs, services and housing (as Liverpool and Lambeth showed in the 80s), but in a period of austerity it becomes a picture of Labour authority after Labour authority making cut and cut and redundancy after redundancy. Regional Assemblies would be just as bad as without having national influence and economic power we will just be giving yet more civic non-entities posh sounding titles and endless expenses accounts but with no improvement for the workers at the bottom.

    1. Robert says:

      but with no improvement for the workers at the bottom.

      No improvement for the working class surely..

      But the issue is the same, you gave Wales devolution, no you did not you offered Wales a bigger local council which has to be paid by Parliament with the Barnett Formula this formula is of course easy to cut as they did when the banking crises struck.

      Wales has stated it does not want to have full tax powers or welfare passed over to it, but enjoys the other things which have seen more and more people being given jobs as AM’s but who in fact are doing little to improve the lives of the people.

      Scotland will I hope get real devolution, not the patched up idea we have in Wales and NI.

  2. SpinningHugo says:

    The interest of Labour not having devolution to England as a unit is obvious. Michael Howard won the popular vote in England in 2005, and so the Tories will be guaranteed power. It is precisely the same objection the Tories had to Scottish devolution pre-1998 (although the subsequent history of devolution in Scotland didn’t pan out as expected).

    So, naturally enough, Labour needs to find an alternative solution to the easiest and most obvious (Scottish MPs not being allowed to vote on devolution matters).

    So, like a dog to vomit, we return to the solution that was tried last time we had devolution: regional assemblies. These have the advantage that Labour will win some of these (in the north, and sometimes the Midlands).

    The problem remains the same as it was in 2004 when the north east assembly was rejected by a voters in a referendum by a 60% majority (not a typo). It makes no sense.

    We simply cannot make work devolution of the same kind that Scotland is going to get. Separate Secretaries of State for Health, Education etc and separate tax rates in Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol and Dover makes no sense whatsoever.

    So, the only assemblies that make sense are weak versions: which are very unpopular indeed.

    Nope, what is going to happen is the obvious solution. Scottish MPs don’t get to vote on devolved matters. That is a direct result of Gordon Brown’s promises last week.

    that means the majority Labour need to pass an English budget just went up from one to forty.

  3. David Ellis says:

    I do hope Wales follows Scotland out of the Union because otherwise the New Union Jack will be an image of St George slaying a Dragon. England too should have its own parliament in the Midlands free from and bypassing Westminster corruption then the three sovereign peoples can negotiate what federal arrangements are needed if any.

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