Ed Miliband will shortly deliver his final conference pitch before the election. Many Labour MPs here are pressing him to recognise the problem posed by the West Lothian question; Labour must endorse English votes for English laws (EVEL) in some capacity.
There is an anxiety that he will avoid addressing the issue directly, and cede an issue to Cameron that Labour should be running on. He should be unafraid to point to the recent reports by two of the party’s intellectual forbearers, Andrew Adonis and John Cruddas, who both advocated devolution long before the Scottish referendum, the argument runs. EVEL should be part of a larger transfer of power away from Westminster.
As data from the British Social Attitudes survey shows, the public have long recognised the problem with Scottish MPs voting on English matters. Two in three voters agree they shouldn’t do, and, spun another way, 90 per cent of those who express an opinion say as much.
So Miliband must recognise this anomaly. But what options does he have? Is there a greater and lesser “EVEL”?
New parliaments and assemblies
The first question is whether a solution can be confined to the House of Commons, or new devolved bodies must be set-up. Should regional assemblies be created in major metropolitan areas – Manchester, the Midlands, Yorkshire – to match the one London has now had for 14 years?
The proposition found little support when it was tabled in the North East in 2004. Fewer than 50 per cent of the electorate even voted, and only 22 per cent of those that did backed the idea.
BES research has found a similar antipathy across the UK.
As the data shows, the idea of an English Parliament, an erstwhile wish of the Tory right, also finds little support. But the public do think parliamentary procedure should be changed. So how could this work?
New committees and bill stages
The Coalition convened a commission to consider these ideas in 2012. Known as the McKay commission, its ideas quickly gathered dust after they were published last March. Its fate looked set to mirror Ken Clarke’s report on the issue in 2008, which Cameron commissioned in opposition and ignored once in government.
But strategists are now turning to McKay, which offers a “menu from which the Government might wish to make a selection”.
One idea is to create a “grand committee” where English MPs could consider England-only bills before they reached the floor of the House. This body could have to pass a “Legislative Consent Motion” to give the Commons the authority to legislate.
This would mirror Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish grand committees that already exist though rarely meet. This idea, once tabled by the former Tory Defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind, is also favoured by some in Cameron’s party.
It is also one Nick Clegg may endorse. On Friday he endorsed McKay’s suggestion of a “new stage” where “English MPs only can make their views known”. This pre-empted Ed Miliband’s vague suggestion two days later that some form of “greater scrutiny” is necessary.
This needn’t necessarily happen through a committee. Instead a fourth stage could be added to bills that gives English MPs the chance to amend clauses in legislation that affect only them, or the committee stage of a England-only bill could be reserved for English MPs.
Proportional “English votes for English laws”
But some in Miliband’s party fear any such approach could let the Tories use a majority among English MPs to obstruct Labour governments. There is little evidence there should be fearful. In the past 96 years this has only been possible twice – in the short-lived parliaments of 1964-66 and February-October 1974.
Nevertheless, one solution recently offered in the pages of the Economist is for English-only scrutiny, but with the seats on any committee apportioned on the basis of proportional representation. This would limit the power of the major parties, empower smaller ones and give new purpose to voters in safe seats.
Even Thatcher didn’t win 50 per cent of votes in England during the 1980s. Under four-party politics, and with the major two polling around 35 per cent, a proportional system would make unilateral obstruction impossible.
It’s unclear how much attention the issue will warrant in Miliband’s speech. On the one hand the McKay report points to the BES and other evidence showing ‘a significant level of grievance’ among the English over the issue. But as one top adviser put it to me yesterday, the public’s interest in constitutional wrangling rates somewhere far below climate change, often notoriously absent, on people’s list of concerns.