As we all gear up for an election, party strategists should recognise a key group of English voters. These voters think England has interests that are different to the rest of the UK; they want parties to stand up for English interests and they want England to be more democratic. They are a minority – a quarter to a half of England’s voters on different measures – but that’s enough to swing key seats for both the major parties.
This ‘English interests’ group emerges from new polling by YouGov for the Centre for English Identity and Politics, which shows that:
- A quarter of voters think that England’s interests are “significantly” or “very” different to those of the rest of the UK.
- Two in five voters say it is “very important” that a political party stands up for the interests of England within the UK (and another quarter think it is “fairly important”).
- Over half (55%) want English MPs only to vote on English Laws.
The political parties aren’t matching these aspirations. 31% do not think any party stands up for the interests of England (and a further 21% don’t know). In this poll, the Brexit Party, on 18%, gets twice as much endorsement as either of the major parties (Labour 9%, Tories and Lib Dems 8%). Over recent years, answers to this question have been very volatile against the background of Brexit. The safest conclusion is that no party has established a clear ‘English’ brand or loyalty.
Over half – 56% – of Labour’s 2017 voters think it is important for a political party to stand up for England, but less than a quarter (23%) think Labour is best at it. 2017 Labour voters also want English MPs to make English laws. What is key is that support for English interests is most widely held amongst older, working-class, English-identifying Leave voters. These are the voters we have lost, at different times, to ‘not voting’, UKIP, the Tories and the Brexit Party. Labour lagged amongst them in 2017 and it’s doubtful that we can win our small town and coastal target seats without bringing some of them back (and they are people and places that Labour should always want to represent).
This type of polling does need to be treated with caution, of course. Just because someone says ‘x is important to me’ doesn’t make it their top priority in the polling booth. But we know that the question of identity – ‘will this person/party stand up for the interests of people like me?’ – is the most basic test that every candidate has to pass. Some voters will certainly be more attracted to a Labour Party with a clear English identity; others will certainly turn their backs on a Labour that rejects the English. How many exactly is hard to say, but in a marginal every vote counts.
‘English issues’ clearly influenced two of the last three national votes. In 2015, English fears that a minority Labour government would be held to ransom by the resurgent SNP wiped out Labour’s campaign and helped deliver David Cameron’s surprise majority. Current polls suggest Labour will fall well short of an overall majority: we’ll soon need a better answer to the ‘Scottish question’ than we had four years ago. In 2016, English identifiers delivered the bulk of the Brexit vote. ‘Take back control’ appealed to voters poorly represented in and by the political class, so it’s no surprise that the right to elect people to make English law gets their support.
The polling hints at how Labour might respond. 70% of those polled could identify areas where England’s interests are different to the rest of the UK, including higher education fees, Europe, the NHS, immigration, social care and schools. All are issues where policy is either ‘England only’ or the English perspective is different to other parts of the union. On these issues, an English manifesto would set out how Labour policy would shape England (and be our red line promise to England, one we would never negotiate away, in the event of a hung parliament).
Changing voting in the Commons has ramifications that go well beyond England, but Labour could at least acknowledge the desire for change by fast-tracking plans for its long-promised constitutional convention.
Labour currently shows little interest in England, branding its English campaign ‘Rebuilding Britain’ and not naming England in our policy documents. Is the party doing so well that we can ignore this important group of voters?