Labour's latest policy announcement, creation of a committee of English MPs to scrutinise bills only relating to England, highlights the party's panic over the Conservatives popular English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) proposals. Labour panic is not misplaced as the UK's inevitable constitutional shake up could bring about the death of the party as we know it today. The sad ironic twist to this story is that the UK's devolution agenda is one pioneered by Labour.
Labour's proposal is that a committee of English MPs scrutinise bills that relate to England only. They claim creating such a committee would "strengthen England's voice without creating two classes of MP." There are two glaring problems with this statement. Firstly, whilst English MPs would have a role to play in scrutinising bills that only apply to their constituents, the final decision on whether or not the legislation passes will remain in the hands of MPs from the UK as a whole. This proposal will not put England on a level footing with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where devolved matters are legislated on by their individual assemblies and parliaments independent of Westminster. Instead, English legislators will have to be supervised and scrutinised over how they run their own affairs by others from the rest of the UK. Secondly, we already have two classes of MP. One hundred and seventeen MPs, almost one fifth, can vote on and debate issues such as health, local government and transport as much as they like - it has no impact on their constituents, who look to their MSPs, AMs and MLAs on these issues.
In the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum the Labour Party pledged increased taxation and other legislative powers to Scotland.Welsh Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones has stated that Wales should be offered the same powers as Scotland. With an ever increasing amount of power concentrated in the hands of devolved assemblies, why are Labour keen to ensure that England's power over its own affairs is still open to influence from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
Consider the UK's electoral history since 1945. Both Labour and the Conservative parties have enjoyed five stable General Election wins (for sake of argument, with a majority of +30), three less stable General Election wins (with a majority of less than +30) and one plurality each where the overall result has been a hung parliament. Consider England's electoral history over the same period however. The Conservatives have won the majority of English seats eleven times, compared to Labour's five. Of these five Labour victories in England, three were under the leadership of Tony Blair, who is credited for making a considerable break with the traditional Labour mould. Otherwise, only Harold Wilson in 1966 and Clement Atlee in 1945 have been able to win the majority of English seats. On two occasions where the Conservatives have failed to take the majority of English seats, Labour have failed to take advantage and secure an English majority. Labour simply does not perform as well in England. Indeed, in October 1974, 1964 and 1950 Labour failing to take control in England saw their parliamentary majorities reach +1, +1 and +2 respectively. Even more damaging, despite not winning the General Election, Conservative victories in the majority of English seats robbed Labour of parliamentary majorities in 2010 and February 1974.
Also consider the UK's demographic makeup. As of 2014 the UK's population is 64.1 million. 84% of these reside in England, with 8.3% in Scotland, 4.8% in Wales and 2.9% in Northern Ireland. Take Gross Value Added (GVA) data for the UK as well (GVA represents GDP excluding taxes and subsidies). England's percentage of the UK's total GVA is 86.5%, compared to Scotland's 7.8%, Wales' 3.5% or Northern Ireland's 2.2%.* In short, with a better quality of life and considerably more people the vast majority of the UK's tax base is in England, where Labour is regularly outperformed by the Conservatives.
As Gordon Brown reminded the public during the Scottish Independence Referendum, having a large tax base allows for a greater redistribution of wealth. As a party that defines as "a democratic socialist party" which "believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more" redistribution of wealth is a key principle of Labour. Imagine a scenario where Conservative proposals to give English MPs exclusive votes on England only legislation are realised. Further imagine a scenario where Labour wins a majority or a plurality at a General Election but fail to win a majority of English seats, leaving English legislation to be controlled by the Conservatives or a Conservative lead coalition. There were such electoral outcomes in the October 1974, February 1974, 1964 and 1950 General Elections.
How would redistribution of wealth out to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be possible if English MPs simply did not legislate to raise the taxes necessary? One can assume as Scotland is to be granted enhanced tax powers and there are calls from most political parties for Wales to take on the same, a considerably amount of tax legislation will fall under the EVEL umbrella, rather than UK be the responsibility of the UK Government. By shrinking a Labour UK Government's tax base, it would be considerably harder to realise the Party's core principle of redistribution to the level it would perhaps like. Labour have real cause to panic over EVEL.
* Harari, D. Regional and Local Economic Growth Statistics Standard Note: SN05795 House of Commons Library, London, 12/12/2014