Governing England: The Future of the Political Parties

10 Oct 2016

At the Labour conference in Liverpool the British Academy was represented by Professor Rt Hon John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, who appeared on a panel alongside Emma Lewell-Buck MP and Alison McGovern MP. The session was chaired by Ed Cox of IPPR North. At the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, James Wharton MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for International Development, former Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, Rt Hon John Redwood MP and Professor Mike Kenny from Queen Mary, University of London, who represented the British Academy, covered the future of the Conservative Party in England post-devolution. The expertise of both panels ensured two excellent events with informative discussions.

Both events covered the issue of identity and how best to devolve more power to and within England. Panellists at both events agreed that the perceived remoteness of decision-making was a factor behind the vote to leave the European Union in June. Each discussion also agreed that issues of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) and the Barnett Formula are seen by many voters as issues of unfairness which must be addressed. Panellists at both events agreed with the principal of bespoke devolution deals and that no simple answers exist to the questions under discussion.

At the Labour event, the need for an English parliament was a key point of consideration. Debate covered the desire to devolve greater powers to local levels rather than focusing on an English parliament, while the panellists explored issues around MPs with different voting rights and voters with unequal electoral power depending on where they lived.

The powers of councils have declined in recent decades, which may have indirectly contributed to the feeling of remoteness from power. This feeling of remoteness, many agreed, had been a significant factor in the vote to leave the European Union. Acknowledging the reasons behind the Brexit vote has presented an opportunity to move power closer to people, an opportunity all agreed must not be missed. John Denham went the furthest of the panellists and called for the devolution of legislative power.

Issues around identity were also covered in this event, and from a number of different angles, which relate to other aspects of the Governing England programme. The role of identity in relation to engagement with political parties was discussed, covering, for example, the decline of the institutions which traditionally drove people’s engagement with the Labour party, such as heavy industry and trade unions. This change was perceived as a threat to the future of the Labour party. There are also implications for regional governance such as powerful regional identities and the need to resolve area-specific issues, such as poverty. The panel felt that the Labour party needs to engage with issues around identity as it is now, in order to remain relevant in the future and to engage with how people identify themselves, rather than in ways that others may wish them to identify.

At the Conservative event the details of Labour’s post-1997 devolution deals were discussed and debated alongside those of the post-2010 Coalition and Conservative administrations. The unequal devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not England, was discussed alongside concerns about nation-focused devolution undermining the union of the United Kingdom. There are some advantages of utilising the UK parliament to also host an English parliament in order to avoid contests as to which parliament holds greater power. However, the danger of significant imbalances caused by England’s greater population was put forward as a counter point.

No easy answers exist to questions of devolution; no perfect solutions are available to satisfy every concern. There are prevailing questions of fairness around the West Lothian question and EVEL, and around the Barnett formula and how best to apportion funding according to need across all of the United Kingdom.

There are merits to devolution within England in allowing greater flexibility, moving decision making away from central London and thus closer to people, as well as the potential for devolution to impact on political parties. The role of identity in party affiliation is significant, as one speaker noted, that some voters whose political ideas inclined towards conservativism would instead vote for the Labour Party as part of their traditional identity. Devolution deals were seen as having the potential to enhance the prospects of political parties in parts of the country where they are currently unpopular.

There were a number of conclusions from these sessions. Both panels agreed power must be brought closer to people, while the issue of decisions being taken closer to people was identified as not being purely a geographical issue. It is clear that many attendees felt that the role of identity is crucial to the future of the parties. Finally, given the importance of identity, and the changing nature of identity politics, devolution presents an opportunity for both parties to grow and develop in new ways and in new areas.

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