Devolution, territorial politics and the general election

This post also appears on the Constitution Unit’s blog, here. Constitution-unit.com has a number of other election-related posts which are well worth reading.

It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.

The pro-UK parties

The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.

There is also similarity when it comes to Northern Ireland: endorsement of the peace process and commitments to support it, along with the economic rebalancing package agreed as part of December’s Stormont House Agreement. For Conservatives and Lib Dems, this includes support for sustainable public finances, welfare reform and corporation tax devolution subject to adequate progress being made on financial matters. Labour’s commitments appear to embrace similar policies, but are confusingly worded. They say they will:

engage proactively with the Northern Ireland Executive to support continued political progress, and deliver on it’s (sic) vision of a shared future. We will ensure the economic pact between the UK Government and Northern Ireland Executive is focused on stimulating jobs and growth which contribute to reducing unemployment and poverty in Northern Ireland. (p. 66)

Things get murkier when it comes to Wales and the proposals for further devolution made through the St David’s Day process. The Conservatives simply commit to that; the Liberal Democrats to both St David’s Day and the Silk Commission recommendations, a number of which were dropped through the St David’s Day process. This means that the Lib Dems have committed themselves to devolution of policing, prisons and probation while the Conservatives have not. Labour revisit, yet again, the Silk/St David’s Day recommendations and support a ‘Barnett floor’ for fair funding and devolution of elections, transport and energy, but not policing and offender management. Instead, they propose an all-Wales policing plan (though how this would work is hard to say, as policing plans are a matter for elected Police and Crime Commissioners – are these to be abolished or superseded?). Labour also say nothing about holding a referendum on income tax devolution as required by the Wales Act 2014, though this was recommended by the Silk and Holtham Commissions.

All three parties are in favour of sub-national devolution in different ways but the greatest variation relates to England, and ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). For the Conservatives at least, the ground is now well-trodden and builds on the McKay Commission proposals: votes on measures affecting England at Westminster would be limited to MPs from English constituencies at Committee and Report stages, with a ‘legislative consent motion’ afterward, before 3rd reading. The Lib Dems say they are in favour of EVEL, but only in the context of proportional representation. Both these positions were set out in the December 2014 Command paper on The Implications of Devolution for England. Labour emphasise devolution within England, to include an English regional cabinet committee, and propose a ‘people-led’ constitutional convention to consider EVEL issues (in which the McKay proposals would only be an option) and an elected ‘senate of the nations and regions’ to replace the Lords.

The nationalist parties

The nationalist parties’ manifestos are more clear-cut. While the Scottish National Party endorse the Smith Commission recommendations and call for them to be implemented ‘in full’ (a further dig at the Scotland in the United Kingdom Command paper), they say these are insufficient and call for extensive further devolution. These demands include what they now call ‘full fiscal responsibility’ (itself to be delivered in stages), regulation of pay-day lenders, the minimum wage, and specifically ‘business taxes’ (the term corporation tax is never used).

Plaid Cymru call for funding on the Scottish level – in other words, a ‘Barnett bonus’ like Scotland’s – but also a ‘fair funding settlement’ with a ‘funding floor’. They call for ‘the same tax powers as Scotland’ but also devolution of corporation tax, and a higher (but not devolved) minimum wage. They also say

In principle, we support English Votes for English Laws. However, Welsh MPs must be able to vote upon any issue which affects the people of Wales or the Welsh Government’s finances.

It may be slightly odd to describe the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland as a nationalist party, but in their focus on a particular part of the UK and its specific interests, they function rather like one. They emphasise various forms of privileged treatment for Northern Ireland including favourable financial treatment, both through the block grant and through arrangements for corporation tax devolution, and a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. At the same time, they want equal status for Northern Ireland, whether that be through support for inward investment, the renaming of the Olympic ‘Team GB’ or UK departments carrying out operations there.

Considering the manifestos

There is one coherent and consistent theme to be found in all these manifestos: a lack of coherence and consistency. For the SNP, this is chiefly in attempts to have their cake and eat it; to have Smith but demand more, and to have full fiscal responsibility (itself a dubious proposition, since it would involve serious cuts of 15-20 per cent in Scottish public spending or tax increases to cover the higher levels of spending there) but ‘in stages’ and while preserving the Barnett bonus. Plaid Cymru have now abandoned ‘fair funding’, but seem both to want what Scotland has, and more. The three pro-UK parties all demonstrate a similar fault as well; they fail to take an overarching view of the implications of their proposals for each part of the UK on the others. Perhaps the Lib Dems come closest to a coherent view of a decentralised, sort-of federal UK, but it remains an incomplete picture assembled of different proposals for each part of the UK.

Of the pro-UK parties, Labour’s proposals are both the most distinctive but also the most unclear. We know they wish to unpick both the Scotland in the United Kingdom paper and the St David’s Day proposals for Wales, as well as have a different approach for Northern Ireland – but have no clear idea what these policies are or what they would mean if implemented, let alone how high a priority they are. Moreover, we do not know how they will interact with the proposed ‘people-led constitutional convention’. The working of other proposals is doubtful in practical terms, such as the idea of an elected senate of the nations and regions. The Conservatives’ advocacy of English votes for English laws introduces a sequence of practical problems and problems that arise from a disproportionate electoral system that advantages winners (but, ironically, may protect the Lib Dems themselves from as large a loss of seats compared to their loss of votes).

Of course, the manifestos all need to be read against the backdrop of possible coalition-building. The Conservatives in particular are fearful of a Labour-SNP alliance, and given the degree of similarity in their manifestos have reason to be. A cynical view would be that the SNP have carefully framed their manifesto both to appeal to traditionally Labour voters and to create scope for – indeed, put pressure on – Labour to come to some arrangement if the parliamentary arithmetic so dictates. There has been some confusion about the price of such support (further devolution ‘concessions’? No Trident replacement? A reversal of ‘austerity economics’?) Equally, Labour have been under a good deal of pressure from the Conservatives about the supposed illegitimacy as well as instability of such an arrangement. But the SNP have weakened their hand by their adamant refusal to support the Conservatives under any circumstances, meaning they only have one choice of potential governing party to support. Conversely, the Conservatives’ attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the SNP as a player at Westminster sits strangely with both the party’s unionism and indeed much that was said during 2014’s Scottish referendum campaign. If Scots and particularly Scottish nationalists want ‘in’, experience overseas suggests it is prudent to ensure they are.

Plaid’s overall left-of-centre profile would seem to rule out any support for a Conservative-led administration, but the lack of clarity about their requirements and impossibility of their likely demands, as well as the limited clout Plaid are likely to have, may diminish their attractiveness to a Labour-led one too.

By contrast, the DUP have played their cards astutely. By indicating they would do a deal with either Labour or Conservatives and setting out a short list of criteria which would seem to inflict roughly equal pain on each of the parties, they have maximised their scope for influence and for being able to claim to have influenced a government.

Post-election negotiations to form a government are likely to be protracted, even tortuous.  They are also likely to be less heated than much of the campaign rhetoric has been, and that will be no bad thing.  This is a delicate constitutional dance, and cool heads and a willingness to compromise will be at a premium.

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Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Labour, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, UK elections, Wales, Westminster

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