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English votes for English laws – a conundrum for Labour, but a Pandora’s box for the Tories
The Conservative party’s simple mantra of ‘English votes for English laws’ is a powerful message aimed firstly at voters in their heartlands and secondly at voters in Labour/Conservative marginals. It chrystalises an issue that marginalises UKIP and to a slightly lesser extent the Liberal Democrats. It also serves to distract Tory and UKIP supporters from arguments over the EU, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.
It also attempts to put Labour in a position of defending the rights of Scottish MPs to vote on some matters that appear to be only of concern for MPs with constituencies in England. Yet Labour’s strongest card may be to play the long game. For, the constitutional implications of Cameron’s rush to judgement over devolution will inevitably unravel over the coming months.
Less than nine hours after the polls closed on the referendum on Scottish independence, the Prime Minister’s unseemly haste to announce a review of the voting arrangements for English MPs could not (as it has turned out) have been more self-serving. Cameron and Osborne (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), as ever masters of tactics and strategic dolts, made a raw calculation based on immediate electoral advantage and played their hand.
The beauty of its simplicity, however, belies the complex constitutional issues that could arise if such a naive approach is adopted, The simple truth is that Cameron’s concept of devolution for England is ‘to give more power to fewer people in Westminster’ i.e. 533 English MPs compared to a House of Commons of 650 (82%). After the next election the figures will be 502 out of 600 (83.6%).
For Cameron, the problem is that he has already opened ‘Pandora’s box’. The debate about devolution in England already has a momentum all of its own, with ideas of regional assemblies or even a separate English parliament being discussed. Whilst Cameron hopes to retain and draw power to the centre, most of the constitutional ideas being discussed focus upon more democracy and devolving powers from Westminster.
One issue the Tories would like to finesse is the unelected house of Lords and the hereditary principle itself. Why should a small part of the aristocracy be able to vote on ‘English laws’? Why should the hereditary principle exist at all in the British constitution  (monarchial legitimacy)? Why should the Bishops of a minority religion be able to vote on ‘English laws’? Why should Lords who owe their position to the political patronage of party leaders be able to vote on’English laws’. At least Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs are accountable to their electorate every 4-5 years.
Even commentators on the right such as Peter Oborne, the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph are aghast at Cameron’s rush to judgement. On the BBC’s Newsnight programme this week he stated that it is “a grubby little solution for the benefit of the Conservative party”, “the process is ghastly” and “Labour is quite right about the need for a constitutional convention” rather than a “sordid little committee run by William Hague”.
He has also accused Craig Oliver, director of communications for David Cameron, of briefing the Sunday Telegraph and Mail on Sunday that as the referendum polls in Scotland closed, “Cameron and Osborne sat together and discussed how they could stitch-up Labour”. This was an attempt to convince the centre-right press how strategically clever they both were.
The Conservative’s proposals do not take into account many of the ways how parliament would work. What happens to Select Committees’ membership? The same for Standing Committees on legislation? Who decides what is a solely English matter that only effects the English electorate? Can a Scottish MP ever be a Minister again except for a few exceptions (e.g. Defence)?
For instance, decisions on transport often have cross-border implications. The upgrading of the A1(M) in say North Yorkshire or Northumberland would have profound logistical implications for industry and transport firms North of the border.
Decisions about airport hubs in England e.g. Heathrow’s proposed third runway or an upgrade Gatwick will impact on feeder airports such as Glasgow and Edinburgh. Decisions about the proposed HS2 train line from London will impact on journeys from Glasgow. Any proposed HS3 on the East coast will have a similar effect in Scotland. Closures of hospital accident and emergency departments in border areas are not simply issues for one country or another.
In fact, changes that affect border regions are far more important for those close to say Berwick-on-Tweed (an English town) on either side of the border than an English MP in the South-West of England.
What happens if a proposed law that only impacts on England has an amendment tabled that adds a clause that has a UK-wide implication? Surely, non-English MPs would then be entitled to vote? Or would they? Who decides? The speaker of the House of Commons? A specialised Select committee?
What happens with the Lords? If it is only ‘English votes for English laws’ then the Lords needs to be disbanded and an elected second chamber rolled out in its place. How does one then decide on its make-up, regional boundaries for electoral purposes? What powers would the second chamber have, especially if it has an electoral mandate? If that is not acceptable to the Tories, how does one distinguish between Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish Lords and the English ones?
If, as I suspect, the Conservatives wish to retain an unelected second chamber (‘no direct democracy for English laws’?), how do you decide who is deemed to be English for voting purposes. Does one decide on place of birth? How about current address, which can be infinitely mobile? Address when ennobled? Would Neil Kinnock be catergorised as Welsh (by birth) or English (by current domicile)? Would several of the Lords who live for the majority of the time abroad be disqualified entirely?
It’s all very well choosing a short time period to decide on residency in the case of  referendum but people in the UK are exceptionally mobile, housing turnover is one of the highest in Europe.
Talking of the EU, who would decide who represents the UK on certain matters. Eighty percent of the UK’s fishing fleet, who fish in international waters is Scottish. Surely that would disbar any UK Minister with a constituency in England from speaking on behalf of the UK on EU fisheries policy. Then there is oil exploration and extraction: why should any English MP, even if a Minister of the Crown, be allowed to pontificate on such an issue?
The there is the issue of London’s governance. Would non-London MPs have any right to intervene in the House of Commons and vote on matters that have been devolved to the London assembly and the Mayor such as transport?
A constitutional convention which conducts a wide-ranging inquiry into the constitution and how the inter-relationships of political power across the UK can be fine-tuned to take account of the increase in devolved powers and how they impact on parliament as a whole is a necessary first step. Any rush to ‘stitch-up’ a short-term solution based on party advantage is the worst of all possible worlds.
Tim McNamara
  1. You appear to be under the illusion that the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 has been approved. It hasn’t.

    Comment by card on October 23, 2014 at 12:16 pm
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