There are three tests for Labour’s democracy review. Does it enhance party democracy? Does it make Labour more likely to win? And does it help Labour govern effectively as a radical, democratic socialist party? So far as England is concerned, it’s bad news on all fronts. The current proposals being considered by members of the party’s National Executive Committee reflect a deep constitutional conservatism that is unchanged from the imperial, centralist, unitary view of the state promoted by Blair and Brown. It gives English party members fewer rights – and it does not provide a clear focus on what we need to do to win.
England and the UK
Under the current constitutional UK settlement, domestic policy has been devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In a hangover from the old imperial British state, England is now the only part of the UK governed permanently by the UK government. We might have expected a radical Labour democracy review to challenge this legacy of empire, but this one entrenches it. With the abolition of the (admittedly unloved) National Policy Forum, the review shifts responsibility for English policy even more clearly towards the UK NEC and the UK Labour Party conference.
While Blair and Brown backed devolution to Wales and Scotland, they both insisted that England had no identity as a nation, and no need for democratic governance. They had no compunction in using Scottish and Welsh MPs to impose unpopular policies on England – such as tuition fees and Foundation NHS Trusts – thereby overruling opposition from English Labour MPs. All Blair and Brown would countenance was a degree of mild devolution to English city regions in which all real power was held at the centre.
The democracy review reflects exactly the same thinking. Real power lies at UK level, but we’ll offer to recreate regional conferences and executives. But those ‘English regions’ are a creation of Whitehall bureaucrats. Few of them shadow any regional decision-making or power; even fewer have any public recognition or support. For more than 10 years the dynamic focus of English devolution has been on combined authorities and city-regions, a development often not understood in London, Wales and Scotland. These emerging centres do have some real, if limited, local power, yet they are not even mentioned by the review, even though they offer far more potential for future radical devolution than the top-down imposition of regional bodies. There is no discussion about how these emerging power structures should be influenced by and accountable to local Labour members.
In an extraordinary step, the review even announces that regional executives will set policy for ‘regional government structures’. There has been no constitutional convention, as promised in our manifesto, no serious discussion with the party, and there is precious little support amongst Labour in local government. But it looks very much like the leadership have already decided to go down the doomed route of unpopular regional assemblies, which failed last time Labour was in power.
For those of us who were around at the time, the democracy review feels very like New Labour 1994-1997. It prefigures another period of centralist control of England by the UK government, not radical change, democracy and devolution.
Democracy – some animals are more equal than others
If you are Welsh or Scottish, you can shape policy for your nation, and your national Labour Party can decide how to make that policy. If you are English, you have no such right – you are merely part of UK Labour. The English parts of the National Policy Forum could have been used to develop English Labour policy. In principle, regional conferences could play the same role. But the review makes no mention of allowing the Labour Party in England to make English policy.
Welsh and Scottish Labour will have guaranteed places on the national executive and will even be asked how those reps should be chosen. It’s a measure of the tokenism behind the proposals for English regions that regional English representation has been rejected, and regional conferences won’t have the same rights to decide on NEC membership as the Welsh and Scottish conferences.
In denying England a political identity, the review has been forced to grant English members reduced rights.
Will it help Labour win?
Electorally, Labour must win England. Labour’s target seats (and defensive marginals) are largely outside the big cities, where voters are more likely to identify heavily as English than British. Their communities have often suffered economically and socially over the past thirty years. But voters have been turning against Labour, and are less likely to say ‘Labour stands for people like me’.
To win, we have to convince voters we not only stand for them, but that we are people like them. Our policies need to reflect the priorities of declining towns, not just booming cities. Our campaigning must be rooted in the local not just the national and international.
Cutting England, English democracy and English policy out of the review is a bad first step. While we won’t win just by talking about England, by appearing anti-English we erect another barrier between ourselves and the voters we must reach.
The review has rejected measures to encourage or ensure NEC representation from these areas. Labour elections will be focussed on the UK-wide factional battle, which always ends up producing a London-centric politics.
And the review has not addressed how Labour’s English policies are put to voters. The English Labour Network argued very strongly for an English manifesto drawn up by Labour members in England. We have not got these in the review but will still press the case.
On the review
The English Labour Network has no complaints about the conduct of the review. Katy Clark was generous with her time and honest in saying our ideas wouldn’t win through without a real groundswell of support. We know we have yet to engage many members in this key debate. But England is at the centre of Labour’s challenge – it must be built into the heart of our party.
John Denham is director of the English Labour Network and a former Labour cabinet minister.