The future of the left since 1884

Three steps to Tackle the English Question

Everyone I know who isn't a Labour politician thinks English votes for English laws is a start, but just a start in dealing with the question of power in England. Only Conservative MPs think it resolves it. The Tory move...


Everyone I know who isn’t a Labour politician thinks English votes for English laws is a start, but just a start in dealing with the question of power in England. Only Conservative MPs think it resolves it. The Tory move is craven opportunism. But it reflects the rage people across this kingdom feel about their alienation from authority, and the radical disconnection between who they think they are and who they think has power. We should quickly back it. But then, Labour needs now to build a broad, practical coalition of people wanting a far more radical dispersal of power in England as well as Scotland.

The change needed in the different nations of the United Kingdom is about far more than what our MPs vote on. It’s about where authority lies in all institutions of the country, in public institutions like schools and hospitals, and in banks and big firms. Elites in business, bureaucracy and politics seem locked in their own self-sustaining worlds, making decisions from a distance which have no grip on the rest of our lives. That’s what sparked the recession. It’s what 45% of Scots voted against. It drives support for UKIP, and the general feeling of frustration which suffuses our polity.

I argued in Letting Go that the centre-right have historically been the real centralisers in Britain. Conservative ministers rarely trust citizens to have real power outside the narrow constraints of market transactions. Since the 1980s they’ve only been interested in the one sector that always demands power is centralised in London, the City. They haven’t moved on from the Thatcherite plan to convert the state into a business tightly controlled by managers at the top.

Labour was seduced by this Thatcherite business model during the 1990s. But since 2010, inspired by Jon Cruddas’s policy review, an energetic debate has bubbled in Labour circles and beyond about how to connect identity and power. Politicians and thinkers make the case for radical decentralisation. Most Labour activists support a radical and wide dispersal of power, in England as well as Scotland.

Here, south of the border, the Conservatives have stolen a march on us, by offering English votes and then closing the debate down. It isn’t the first time they have outsmarted us tactically. But this time, springing the trap is easy.

The first step in tackling the English question is for Ed Miliband to turn to the Prime Minister and say, with a laugh –  ‘is that all you can come up with?’. ‘Is your answer to the rage and frustration people in England feel about who wields power really to give Tory MPs more power? Yes, we’ll back it, we don’t want to govern England without a majority of English MPs. We agree that our Scottish MPs won’t vote on English issues, for the rest of this parliament and the next until a permanent settlement comes into place (nothing enshrined in law now though, that’d lead to a badly thought out mess). But we challenge you, the government, to start a real process which really disperses power. If you don’t we will’.

That’s when the real work starts. In Scotland, we need to make sure promises made about further devolution are honoured, quickly. We’ll need to make friends with strange bed-fellows, allying with the SNP in pushing for the government to stick to the timetable promised before the referendum. North of the border, it’s a question of continuing the conversation started a long while ago to create a permanent political settlement.

Here in England, we’re at a different place, and need a separate process. The second step is for Labour to call for an English Peoples’ Convention which brings different interests and communities together, to create a consensus to transform our polity. It can’t be dominated by politicians. It needs to reflect the experience and opinion of people throughout the country, drawing on a radical, popular English patriotism. It needs to be rooted in the plurality of England’s peoples – our different accents and interests, particularities and projects. Above all it needs to reflect two essentially English characteristics: a hostility to being bossed around by distant superiors, and the importance of conversation. It can’t be concentrated in London, or any other one place. It needs to spark debates in cities and towns across the country. To mean anything it needs to be a massive, popular debate that comes to my and your neighbourhood, then channel the voice of millions into a big transformation.

The convention needs to address all the issues now on the table – an English parliament, regions, city devolution, the power of Whitehall against parliament. Running throughout needs to be the argument about how to radically disperse authority and bring, as Jon Cruddas puts it ‘the end for Westminster control’. But it needs to be about much more than the constitution. It must connect together the debate we’ve been having on the economy, public services and identity, and pose big questions about power: about how institutions – councils and businesses, schools, hospitals and banks – are managed, and who holds them to account. Should councils be able to make laws and set their own taxes? Should workers go on the boards of businesses? Who should manage schools and hospitals? It needs to end with the negotiation of real changes, a few of which are put to the people in a series of referenda.

So step two for Labour to tackle the English question is to quickly build a coalition of the willing (think-tanks devolution, charities, unions, politicians, academics) to get together over the next few weeks and agree a plan and timetable about how we practically disperse authority in England now.

But promising the convention won’t be enough – it’ll just be dismissed as more talk. It needs to start to really happen, before the next election. We need to put a practical plan to the government. If they refuse to accept it, step three is to make it happen ourselves, and let the debate create proposals which a Labour government would put into practice. We need a short manifesto which outlines a small number of pledges such as raising the minimum wage – and then let the conversation be our election campaign.

According to a friend who is there, Labour party conference is divided this year between those talking about the minimum wage, and those talking about England. The first half say its only weird politicos like us who care about who has authority in Britain. What matters are bread and butter issues. Jobs, the cost of living, the NHS, things a Labour government just needs to ‘deliver’ by crunching the levers of power after winning the election. The argued is misguided and tin-eared. It wrongly assumes the majority of people in England are crudely materialistic, and don’t have the same concern for the long-term future of their country shown by Scottish citizens.

I’m not at conference this year. The conversation amongst my non-political friends, colleagues, students, family members is about identity and power, about living standards and a fair deal for people in England. It’s about the Tories’ craven opportunism, but why Labour (time after time) fails to offer a serious challenge to places where authority and money are concentrated with too few people. They know the question of living standards connects to the issue of power, that a prosperous economy depends on coordination by local democratic powers, and on citizens being organised in their neighbourhoods and workplaces. They’ve lost trust in the capacity of any political elite to ‘deliver’. Their trust will only be restored if they see a different kind of politics in practice close up.


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