UK Politics

Labour views: English devolution

Julie Simpson
Image caption Gateshead councillor Julie Simpson wants power to be devolved to local authorities

It is probably the very last thing Labour Party members would want to to be talking about at their final conference before a general election.

But English-votes-for-English MPs, the West Lothian Question, or whatever you want to call it, is suddenly the most pressing issue in British politics.

The party leaders are very far coming up with a satisfactory solution to an issue that has stumped Westminster's finest minds for decades.

Everyone at Labour's conference in Manchester seems to agree that Ed Miliband and David Cameron cannot break their promise to Scottish voters to hand more power to the Scottish Parliament as soon as possible.

They also agree that the current system at Westminster is unfair and in need of reform.

'Very remote'

"It doesn't make sense that the Scottish MPs are able to vote on things that the English MPs can't. It doesn't make sense, really," says Julie Simpson, a Labour councillor from Gateshead.

But the idea of an English Parliament - whether a new, glass and steel building in a regional capital or special, English MP only sessions at Westminster is not seen as the answer.

Image caption Robert Walker says people are angry about the growing North/South divide

What they want is devolution to the English regions.

"The northern part of the United Kingdom is very, very remote now from the central part," says Julie Simpson, who wants local councils to be given more power over their budgets.

Robert Walker, from Colne Valley, who has sons who live in North London, says the North/South divide is growing wider every day.

Image caption Barbara Switzer worries about the loss of Scottish Labour MPs' votes

"David Cameron is trying to bounce Labour into things at the moment. He is making political capital out of it.

"We have got to ensure there is a wider debate which looks at these regional issues."

But didn't voters in the North-East kill off the idea of regional assemblies in their 2004 referendum?

"The impact of the current Tory government has moved the argument on. People are so angry, really, about what's happening, the growing divide, that people want something to happen. There is a strong feeling for it."

'Silly timetable'

Labour activists also know a Conservative trap when they see one - and they are determined not to be bounced into making a quick decision on an issue that could profoundly affect their party's fortunes.

Barbara Switzer, of Watford Labour Party, said she did not think the current voting system at Westminster was particularly fair, but she added: "What worries me mostly is all those Labour MPs in Scotland, if they are not going to vote on English matters, how big is our vote going to be in England against the Tories and the Liberals?

Image caption Thomas Butler also wants more power for the regions

"It's got to have a lot of thought, it's not just something we can fix overnight."

Some - including Labour MPs like Graham Allen - suggested Ed Miliband's pledge to set up a constitutional convention was a bit of fudge to get Labour through the election.

Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, gamely defended Mr Miliband's position, arguing that is the "grown-up" way to do things.

"We have made a pledge to the Scots and that must go ahead and go ahead to the timetable we have promised and that's that.

"A more profound look at the entire constitution for the whole of the UK is something that I think we should do. But I don't think it's something we can do on Cameron's silly timetable."

But she also betrays a sense of frustration that this issue is getting so much airtime, when there are more important issues, like jobs and the future of the NHS, to debate.

Image caption Max Shanly wants to abolish the House of Lords

"We Westminster geeks love this stuff. We all talk about it. I will talk about the constitution until the cows come home. People out there, actually, are interested in economic change.

"First and foremost we really should be thinking about that but it is our duty, nonetheless, to protect the constitution, to develop the constitution and for it to develop in a modern way."

For those on the left of the party, Mr Miliband's constitutional convention would be a chance to get issues like House of Lords reform back on the agenda.

Thomas Butler, a Unite trade union delegate from Liverpool Walton, said: "The House of Lords can vote on stuff and they are unelected. So this thing about English votes for English MPs, that's not real devolution, that's centralisation.

"Real devolution is giving it to the North, giving it to the regions, giving it to Liverpool, having real localism where we can run our own budgets, we can borrow, we can innovate."

Others are suspicious of anything that smacks of cross-party cooperation.

Max Shanly, a Unite delegate from the South-East of England, says: "I think that going into a constitutional convention with Tories and Liberal Democrats is pointless.

"Because this is the future of our country it should be party political in some ways, I believe."

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