England’s awkward answer to the West Lothian Question

Peter KellnerPresident
October 20, 2014, 7:49 AM GMT+0

David Cameron and Ed Miliband must both face up to the tricky politics of delivering English votes for English laws

England’s politicians are caught between a rock and a hard place. The fallout from Scotland’s referendum makes more urgent the need for a new settlement on who should decide laws and policies that affect only England. On the other hand, the complex and time-consuming process of arriving at such a settlement contains serious risks. Millions of voters may regard it as a self-indulgent distraction from the more vital tasks of reviving the economy, raising living standards and protecting our public services.

This month’s YouGov/Prospect survey explores the two big components of the “English question”: how strongly do English voters feel about stripping Scottish MPs from voting in Parliament on issues that affect only England? And, within England, how big is the appetite of voters for decentralising power, so that decisions are taken closer to the people they affect?

The cause of stripping Scottish MPs of some of their voting rights seems to be popular. A YouGov survey at the time of the recent referendum found that 72% of English electors want them banned from voting on England-only issues. Indeed 55% would go even further, and so something that no English politician has proposed: stop Scottish MPs from voting on tax and spending decisions.

Yet any party that made a big fuss about this might find the cause not so attractive after all. The danger emerges clearly from the YouGov/Prospect poll. We gave people a list of 18 things that Britain’s government could do over the next few years, and asked them “which four or five do you think are most important?” Despite all the publicity for the issue, and the apparent support for change, curbing the voting rights of Scottish MPs comes half way down the list. Just 23% regard it as one of the main priorities, a long way behind tighter immigration rules, spending more on the NHS, holding down energy prices and increasing the minimum wage.

Had we asked for just none or two priorities, we should not be surprised by low support for constitutional change. Of course health, living standards and immigration matter more to millions of voters. But we asked for up to five priorities. People could choose those issues AND demand a robust answer to the English question. Less than one in four English voters did so.

That overall finding conceals some big differences by age and party. 34% of people over 60 regard English-votes-for-English-laws as a major priority, compared with just 15% of people under 40. And the issue is of much greater concern to Conservatives (38%) and Ukip supporters (40%) than Labour (10%) and Liberal Democrat voters (15%).

Here, then, is David Cameron’s dilemma. Tackling the English question may appeal to his core Conservative constituency, and even to some of the votes he has lost to Ukip. But he risks the charge from other, more centrist, voters of being distracted from issues that matter more. After all, this kind of constitutional change is complex and time-consuming. The danger is that the Prime Minister could look as if he is fiddling while British society burns.

If anything, Ed Miliband’s dilemma is even sharper. He has promised to tackle the English question, too. Yet the issue matters little to his target voters south of the border. So, if he becomes Prime Minister, should he follow through and risk the charge of ignoring what matters – or kick the issue into the long grass and face the accusation of breaking his word?

The second part of the English question arouses even less enthusiasm – the proposal that if England is to run more of its own affairs, then major powers should be devolved to regional and/or local level. For a start, only 12% regard this is as a priority – it comes 17th out of 18 in our list of possible government measures.

Responses to our other questions explain this. Bluntly, few voters want decisions taken “closer to the people”. Scots want their taxes and benefits to be decided in Edinburgh; but few English voters want politicians in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds or Bristol to set the rates for their regions. Likewise for the NHS: few patients want politicians, managers or doctors to decide regional or local priorities. They want nationally-set standards. Nowhere did our survey mention “postcode lottery”, but plainly many people fear being deprived of treatment available elsewhere in England. Much the same applies to state schools. Three in four voters want London to continue to decide what core curriculum subjects our children should be taught.

Of ten kinds of decision we tested, just four were deemed suitable for local or regional decision: the siting of new towns and major housing projects, refuse collection, the rules governing rents for social housing, and strategic priorities for local police forces. But to meet most of these demands would involve only modest changes – such as limiting the right of central government to override local or regional planning decisions. Only social housing would need significant new legislation, if local authorities were to have the freedom whether, and if so how much, to subside rents and, perhaps, enforce or scrap the bedroom tax.

This does not mean that it would be wrong to bring serious devolution to England’s regions and cities. The lack of public demand should never act as an automatic veto on radical change. But to carry it through would need vision and determination – of the kind that Margaret Thatcher displayed when she embarked on her programme of privatisation three decades ago, when polls found little public demand for breaking up the nationalised monopolies.

A handful of Liberal Democrats aside, few politicians these days display any vision for transferring powers from London to England’s regions or cities. Labour’s attempt ten years ago to kick start regional government came to grief when a referendum in the North East produced a massive majority against the idea. To drift into English devolution today merely in order to tidy the mess left over from Scotland’s referendum would be a recipe for disaster.

This commentary appears in the November issue of Prospect

Image: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

See the full YouGov/Prospect results

See the full Sunday Times results