The constitutional issue hangs over Labour's conference like a spectre at the feastby Jonathan Derbyshire / September 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
The first MP I saw when I arrived at the Labour conference this morning was Jon Cruddas, the head of the party’s policy review. On my way to the conference centre, I’d been thinking about a fascinating interview with Cruddas by Mary Riddell In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. The main topic of conversation, inevitably, was the fallout from the Scottish independence referendum and the challenge David Cameron has set for Labour in his early-morning statement in Downing Street about the pressing need to solve the “West Lothian question” with “English votes on English laws.”
Cruddas was interested in the “English Question” long before it became either fashionable or, thanks to the “vow” by the three party leaders that the Scottish Parliament will be given further significant powers, unavoidable (though some Labour members in Manchester would rather talk about living standards and the living wage than constitutional questions, which they’re inclined to dismiss as a side show.) So, coming from him, the suggestion that the Prime Minister’s timetable for resolving the multiple problems of English representation is simultaneously too ambitious and too narrowly conceived sounds less evasively tactical than it might. “[It’s] better,” Cruddas told Riddell, echoing Ed Miliband’s call for a constitutional convention, “to crack this issue open and invite the views of citizens and representatives of civil society.”
It should be noted, though, that it seems some MPs would prefer a more decisive response to the West Lothian Question, Ben Bradshaw among them (as the Telegraph reports). Voters may also judge the Labour leadership harshly if they are perceived as indecisive on the issue. According to a YouGov poll in the Sunday Times yesterday, 72 per cent of the English electorate want Scottish MPs excluded from parliamentary votes on English affairs.
The Referendum in Scotland, Cruddas said, signalled “the end of top-down Westminster control of England and a massive decentralisation of power…” His enthusiasm for redistributing power, to the cities and regions of England, rather than to just to English MPs at Westminster, seems to be widely shared in his party, at least if the number of fringe events devoted to decentralisation and regional representation is anything to go on (Andrew Adonis made one of the most interesting interventions in this area at a Policy Network event this morning, when he argued for a sort of variable geometry of devolution, with greater powers given to the five “combined authorities” as well beefed-up county councils).
But, for all this enthusiasm for giving away power at the centre, the West Lothian question looms over the conference like a spectre at the feast, whether Cruddas and his colleagues like it or not. It remains to be seen if a nation facing once-in-a-generation questions over its political and cultural identity will be satisfied by city regions having greater control over infrastructure spending.