The recent ructions at the National Policy Forum – a body that most Labour members are dimly aware of at best – may have stimulated some interest in its role. According to one report, a range of issues were discussed from pensions to policing to the NHS. What is interesting is that some of these policy issues are determined at a UK level (pensions – though technically devolved to Northern Ireland), policing (devolved to Scotland but not to Wales) and the NHS (fully devolved across the UK, but NHS England is run by the UK government). Other key policy issues, like the National Education Service, are for England only.
In practice, of course, the National Policy Forum does not make policy on devolved matters for Wales and Scotland: policy there is made by Welsh and Scottish Labour and their members and set out in separate manifestos for national and UK elections. So, Labour’s own decision-making shares the same unsatisfactory position as the UK constitution. Devolution has allowed voters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to determine national domestic policy on many issues but denies the same right to voters in England. Within the Labour party, Welsh and Scottish members have rights and an influence that is denied to English members.
The absence of any clearly defined mechanism for consulting English members on English policy is being raised by the English Labour Network as part of our response to Labour’s democracy review. While some people say it doesn’t matter because England is so big and always gets its own way, that’s far from always the case. On key issues, like the introduction of NHS trusts and increased tuition fees, Labour MPs from Scotland and Wales were used by the last Labour government to overrule the concerns of English Labour MPs. It’s no coincidence that, despite Labour’s wideranging constitutional reforms, no serious devolution of power took place in England (outside of London).
Politically, Labour should be preparing to publish an English manifesto for the next election. The English Labour Network’s campaign for an English manifesto has been supported by leading figures from across the party, in parliament, by local government and by CLP activists. It would be one way of connecting with the crucial groups of English identifying voters who don’t think the party truly represents England. To publish an English manifesto would be a political decision for the leadership, but, if we did have a manifesto the question that immediately follows is: ”Who would write it?” Surely it should be Labour members in England if we are really committed to party democracy.
True, it’s not quite that simple. English decisions have bigger financial implications for the devolved administrations than vice versa. (On the other hand, devolved policies for free HE tuition, free hospital parking and free prescriptions are unpopular and resented by English voters and can cause Labour difficulties here.) England and the smaller nations are tied together financially: superficially because of the Barnett formula but more basically because tax revenues from London and the south east subsidise the whole of the UK. Some coordination of policy is desirable. But the bottom line is that we should have a clear mechanism for consulting English members on English decisions.