In this Parliament AV was rejected, Lords reform stumbled and even the Tories attempt to ‘equalise’ constituencies fell. ‘The Implications of Devolution for England’ already looks unhealthily like these other failed constitutional reforms. Nonetheless, the issue holds real dangers for Labour.
Hague’s partisan and divisive Commons statement showed the Tories’ more concerned to maximise difference than to bring people together for the good of England. Yet even this couldn’t disguise Conservative divisions. In three months his Cabinet Committee failed to reach agreement on any set of proposals: all we got was a lot of unanswered questions, three different Tory options and one from the LibDems. Having boycotted the Committee, Labour at least now has a dog in the fight after the recent decision to link limited changes in Commons procedures to the call for a wider constitutional convention.
In a reasonable world, such confusion about the scope and purpose of EVEL would prompt reflection and a new search for common ground. But Westminster is not a reasonable world, particularly pre-election. So the Tories will press ahead with a short debate and vote to change the rules, provided they can find an EVEL plan that will hold their party together. They don’t care if it passes; only that Labour (and perhaps the LibDems) should vote against. (If it did pass a divided House, the dangerous precedent would let every subsequent Parliament can change the rules to suit itself.)
What drives the Tories is the knowledge that Labour is both divided and seen as on the wrong side of public opinion. This week’s Populus poll for SAGA shows three quarters of over 50s backing the principle of EVEL, reflecting other work by the Future of England project. Labour’s endorsement of the principle of change was both welcome and essential. But a lot of Labour MPs are unenthusiastic; some cling to the idea of the Union Parliament long after that pure notion sailed off with devolution. Others take the practical, if democratically untenable, view that a Labour Government might need Celtic votes to legislate for England. While all the momentum is with the MPs who back change as a good thing, and those who accept it is inevitable, party agreement is a long way off.
So Labour must move more nimbly than we have in recent months. We must challenge the illegitimacy of Hague’s approach while defending and extending the need for change.
Labour should both reiterate its demand that the Government calls a Constitutional Convention, and put energy into ensuring the public discussion of constitutional change starts now, not after the election. Interestingly, the SAGA poll shows twice as many voters wanting decisions delayed until after May election as wanting it forced through now. A substantial minority are concerned about the impact on the constitution. A real popular debate would highlight the Tories’ willingness to shut the people out.
If the Government press for an early vote, Labour might argue for a free vote on all the options for reform, just as the principle of Lords reform and the degree of election was considered several years ago. By doing so, our own spread of views becomes an asset while exposing the splits in the Tories. We should insist that this expression of Westminster opinion should be the basis for discussion in a Convention.
Cameron’s sectarian approach undermines the real consensus on constitutional change that should be achievable. Given the shared direction of travel it should be possible to codify English devolution; there is a majority in this Parliament, and will be in the next, for an elected second chamber; and it is clear there could be agreement on reforms to the Commons. If endorsed by a popular Convention, that is a settlement that could work for England and for the Union.
John Denham is the Labour MP for Southampton Itchen