EVEL – a constitutional minefield

A letter to the Swindon Advertiser

Rob Buckland says that ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) is a simple matter of ‘fairness’ and that the linking of that issue with greater powers for the Scottish Assembly is the right thing to do. In fact this was an opportunist attempt by Cameron to put Labour on the spot and to outmanoeuvre UKIP by presenting the Tory Party as the one which ‘stands up for the English’. As an Observer editorial commented: “What started out looking like a plan to save the union ended up looking like a device to entrench the Tory Party in power…” 

The implications of ‘new constitutional arrangements’ are profound and far-reaching. It opens up a constitutional minefield. Changes cannot be rushed through in the interests of the Tory Party and a Prime Minister desperate to hang onto office. Any serious consideration of EVEL shows that it’s not such a simple issue. Were Cameron proposing an English Assembly that would be one thing. But he’s not proposing a federal system. The biggest problem is that EVEL could create a situation in which a government is elected with a mandate from the UK electorate and is unable to carry out its programme because it doesn’t have a majority amongst English MP’s. The Economist has described this as “a Washington style perma-deadlock”. To this you can add a probable constant battle over exactly what constitutes ‘England only laws’. Even the Telegraph has written:

“Sounds simple enough. Any snags? One very big one: how do you decide which laws affect England only. Even decisions that appear to affect England only can have indirect effects on Scotland. Shouldn’t the Scots have a say?”

If the Tories are suggesting a form of ‘devolution’ to Westminster English based MPs then they have conveniently forgotten one significant accompaniment to devolution: the operation of a form of proportional representation. Perhaps they think that they can maintain a majority in England by this constitutional trick. However, what sense would it make to have proportionality in elections in every country except England? This certainly wouldn’t be ‘fair’.

There is no justification for the continuation of ‘first past the post’ (FTP) from any democratic standpoint. It is simply a means of preserving the domination of the major parties by maintaining a system which prevents big sections of the electorate from having representation of their views in Westminster. It was in large part the introduction of proportionality in the electoral system which blew open the political system in Scotland and Wales. It meant that Labour, pretty much the Establishment party in both countries, was challenged on its left by Parties that took on a social democratic colouration as in the case of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. That’s why the worst excesses of Blairism were not introduced there. We now need an end to FTP to help open up the political system in the UK overall.

One simple means of devolving power from Westminster would be to give local authorities full control of their council tax and business rates. The block grant system is a means of Westminster exercising control over local authorities. Before Thatcher local authorities raised 75% of their income themselves and received 25% from Westminster. She reversed those proportions. Swindon Council leader David Renard recently wrote that the debate following the Scottish referendum gave “a unique opportunity to investigate what Councils should do and how much we can prise from the distant hand of Whitehall”. Giving councils control of this income raised locally would fit the bill.

A precedent has been set for giving local authorities control of all the money they raise. Under the new Housing Revenue system (for Council housing) Councils can now keep all the rent they collect. Why should they not do the same with council tax and business rates? A central ‘top up’ could then be apportioned according to an estimate of local population, age, levels of wealth and poverty, etc, so that there was an equalisation of services.

Martin Wicks

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