‘English Votes for English Laws’ has always been seen within Labour ranks as a cynical, partisan Tory ploy. In origin it was, of course: one part of a gerrymanderer’s charter that includes boundary changes, individual electoral registration and extending the overseas franchise.
But here’s the thing. EVEL no longer really offers the Conservatives an advantage over Labour. Its partisan purpose has evaporated, as the ironic by-product of Labour’s collapse in Scotland. EVEL is far less evil than we thought.
That is good news for a better politics, because it means that in the debate on English devolution Labour can largely ignore party interest. Our goal should be to reflect the national interest of all four nations and find new ways of securing our precious constitutional balance. Labour’s resistance to EVEL does not need to be about its own path to power.
This is because, remarkably, Labour is now stronger in England than in the United Kingdom as a whole. The Fabians’ report The Mountain to Climb found that this is true in terms of share of seats (39 per cent of English constituencies) and share of votes (32 per cent). In the report we estimated that Labour would enter the 2020 election defending a notional 195 out of 544 English seats (after the boundary review, but assuming 650 seats). To win a majority of one would therefore require Labour to gain 78 seats in England. This could be achieved on a swing of 8.9 percentage points in the relevant marginal constituencies, compared to the 9.5 point swing needed to secure a UK majority.
But the picture gets a lot more complicated when it comes to possible permutations in a hung parliament. It will be far easier in 2020 to deprive the Conservatives of a majority at UK level than in England alone, because of the Scottish National party. After the boundary changes, we estimated that the Tories would need to lose 26 seats to be stripped of their UK majority. But to win a majority in England any bloc of anti-Conservative parties would need to gain 71 seats.
This means there is a very real possibility that an anti-Conservative bloc of parties could secure a UK majority but not an English one. It is even conceivable that neither large party will be able to build an alliance which could secure a majority for both England and the UK.
This, not partisan advantage, is the reason that Labour must challenge EVEL today. The Conservatives’ proposals are a constitutional crisis in the making, set to explode as soon as there is a prospect of a UK executive and an English legislature which are run by different parties. Looking at the electoral maths, that nightmare scenario is a totally plausible outcome at the 2020 election.
Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He tweets @andrew_harrop
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