The full list of Labour’s front bench is published today (and is available here). It’s quite interesting in how it handles territorial representation. The big ‘territorial’ story in this was the replacement of Ann McKechin by Margaret Curran as shadow Scottish Secretary (see coverage from the Scotsman here and BBC News here). McKechin is now on the back benches. Curran is of course a former MSP and Minister in the Scottish Executive, though only an MP since 2010. The interesting question will be whether she takes a different approach to McKechin when it comes to the constitutional debates.
Statistically, the front bench has 100 MPs on it (plus 29 peers), out of a total of 258 Labour MPs. Forty-one of Labour’s MPs (16 per cent) sit for Scottish seats, and 26 (10 per cent) for Welsh ones. Of the shadow portfolios given to MPs, 9 have gone to Welsh members and 11 to Scottish ones. Add the whips in, and 12 of the 26 Welsh Labour MPs are on the front bench, and 12 of the Scottish ones too. That amounts to 12 per cent of the front bench in each case – somewhat less than proportionate representation for the Scottish MPs, and rather more than the proportionate share one might expect for Wales.
As important as the proportionate shares are the portfolios those front-bench spokespeople are shadowing. Unsurprisingly, both front-bench spokespeople for Wales sit for Welsh seats (Peter Hain and Nia Griffith), and both Scottish ones for Scottish seats (Margaret Curran and William Bain). Of the rest, there are both Scottish and Welsh MPs shadowing Foreign Office, Treasury, and DEFRA. There are Welsh but not Scottish shadows at Justice, Home Office, and Education, and Scottish but not Welsh shadows at Defence, Business, Innovation & Skills, Work & Pensions and Energy & Climate Change.
On the whole, this is quite well thought through, as with only a few exceptions it avoids the problem of having someone handle a portfolio for which the UK Government is not responsible where they are elected. This version of the West Lothian problem became most obvious when John Reid became Health Secretary in 2003 and so his main responsibility was for health services in England. Foreign Office, Treasury, Defence, BIS and Work & Pensions have UK-wide roles, of course. As the main responsibilities of the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are the courts, prisons, policing and criminal justice in England and Wales, and immigration across the UK, there are strong Welsh as well as English interests in those departments. Scottish and Welsh MPs have been kept away from the most obviously ‘English’ departments, Health and Communities & Local Government.
The shadow portfolios where issues arise are those which combine a wide range of functions for England with much narrower ones across the UK as a whole. In these cases, the question concerns which of the department’s activities are being shadowed by the Scottish or Welsh MPs involved, and we won’t know that for a little while. However, in this sense, there are three shadow ministers for whom the ‘West Lothian’ question might apply: Kevin Brennan at Education, Tom Greatrex at DECC and Fiona O’Donnell at DEFRA. Brennan was a long-serving middle-ranking minister who previously had ministerial roles for children and further education, so his appointment brings experience even if it means he’s dealing with policy issues that don’t affect his constituents. Greatrex and O’Donnell who were both only elected in 2010, though Greatrex has already been on the front bench as junior spokesman on Scottish affairs. However, while DECC has a mix of devolved and non-devolved functions (only about 20 per cent of its spending triggers consequentials for the devolved administrations, so 80 per cent of its spending relates to UK-wide functions), the same can’t be said for DEFRA. Over 93 per cent of its spending in England relates to functions which are devolved in Scotland (and 92 per cent in Wales and 99 per cent in Northern Ireland). O’Donnell – ironically, MP for East Lothian – is therefore pretty directly embodying the ‘John Reid’ problem on Labour’s new front bench. Perhaps, in her honour, we should dub this manifestation of the issue the ‘East Lothian question’.
The extent to which there actually is an ‘East’ or ‘West Lothian’ problem with these portfolios is something we’ll only know when it becomes clear who is doing what. But Ed Miliband in practice has been more cautious and thoughtful than some Labour figures seem to be (Owen Smith being a name that comes to mind). Labour seem at least to be thinking about the problems the anomaly causes for government, if not with complete success.