Like every other member of the Labour party, and indeed the Better Together coalition, I breathed a huge sigh of relief this morning on finding out Scotland had voted to stay with us.
The prospect of losing Scotland was not just frightening for those of us who believe we are stronger as a family of nations, but for all the reasons we have heard over recent weeks, on the economy, jobs and foreign policy challenges.
Now the matter is settled, hopefully for a political generation or longer. But another challenge arises. This morning the prime minister pledged to settle the West Lothian question. He seems set to rule out an English parliament – a good decision as this would be a costly additional layer of bureaucracy the English people seem neither to want nor need – but he has stated a fresh approach to English votes for English laws.
Following yesterday’s referendum this issue can no longer be ignored. But it raises huge questions for Labour: we must ensure a majority of Labour members of parliament in England if a future Labour government is to be able to pass domestic legislation. What is our strategy for ensuring a decent Labour majority in May 2015, which does not just rely on Scottish MPs and a potential coalition with the Liberal Democrats? Ministers for ‘home’ departments such as the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice may now only be able to be led by English ministers. How will this impact on our pool of talent able to govern in Whitehall?
One of the challenges of having an unwritten constitution is that kneejerk legislation in this area can often arise. Care must now be taken to establish cross-party agreement on a way forward that leads to a lasting settlement that is agreeable to all people in the UK, serving our democracy well and fulfilling the wishes and expectations of all British voters on a lasting basis.
Labour needs a new message too, for those voters in the south of England who float between the two main parties at general elections. In the campaign I saw a lot of references by activists to the people of Glasgow having more in common with the people of Liverpool than the people of Liverpool do with those living in the south of England. All this may be true, but in order to win convincingly in England we must have something to say to those voters across the country, not excluding those who some party members seem to think do not count because they live in ‘leafier’ southern suburbs. Moreover, we must avoid appearing to resist a stronger English voice within parliament – this is something the English now want and expect, and it risks being seen as a cynical defence of numbers that rely on our Celtic cousins.
New powers are planned for Scotland and a new settlement for the rest of the UK is in the offing. Whatever Labour thinks of David Cameron’s plans for this settlement, the expectation of the English will certainly be set: no more Scottish votes on English legislation. Labour must decide how it intends to react to this challenge and what it will do for England.
Helen Gibson is a member of Lewisham Deptford constituency Labour party. She tweets @HelenGibson86
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