Category Archives: Lib Dems

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

Devo More as a plan for a revivified Union

Monday’s Herald had a story based on an interview with me (here), based on something I’ve written as part of the IPPR’s Devo More project.  In this paper, I set out the Devo More strategy as a whole, and explain how it fits with the political traditions of each of the major UK-wide parties.  There are two key arguments: much the same package of devolution serves the interests of all three traditions and the parties that currently embody them pretty well, and that this approach to further devolution will reinforce the Union not weaken it.

I’ve written a comment piece for the Herald which summarises the chapter and its overall argument.  That can be found here, and its text is also below.  The chapter on which all this is based can be found on the IPPR’s website here.

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Filed under Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, Publications and projects, Scotland

Implementing Silk in Wales: an update

The UK Government has now published its proposals for the implementation of the Silk Commission’s Part 1 report, following its announcement at the beginning of November (and so managed to get its response in just before the anniversary of the publication of the Commission’s report).  The Wales Office’s news release is here and the paper itself, Empowerment and responsibility: devolving financial powers to Wales, is here. (Note for government documentation trainspotters: this isn’t a Command paper to be formally laid before Parliament, and certainly not a white paper or even green paper.  This contrasts with both Labour and Coalition responses to Calman, and again suggests either that the UK is not taking Wales as seriously as it did Scotland, or that this is a response framed in some haste.)

Unsurprisingly, the paper largely confirms the key elements of the deal announced by the UK Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, previously discussed HERE: devolution of two small land taxes, devolution of 10 points of income tax, but only after a referendum.  It confirms that, as for Scotland, aggregates levy may be devolved, but only once outstanding EU state aids issues are resolved, and that air passenger duty will not be. Continue reading

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Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Devolution finance, Lib Dems, Referendums, Wales, Westminster, Whitehall

Wales’s new fiscal package: the UK Government response to Silk

Friday’s news had ample coverage of the UK Government’s decision about financing Welsh devolved government, following the Silk Commission’s Part 1 report from last November.  No doubt the looming anniversary of the publication of the Silk report triggered a certain sense of urgency.  Despite promises that the UK Government would produce its response in ‘the spring’ (and strong hints this would be earlier in the spring rather than later), that has been delayed and delayed.  At the end of June, Secretary of State David Jones said it had been postponed until after the summer, and now pretty late in the autumn it has finally materialised.

There has been wide coverage of the UK response.  The Western Mail’s article by David Cameron and Nick Clegg is here, and their news coverage is here, here and here.  BBC News coverage is here, and analysis here.  The Guardian’s story is here.  The official Wales Office press release is here, and the written ministerial statement is here.

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Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Conservatives, Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Labour, Lib Dems, Wales

Devolution literacy and party conference policies

The party conference season always produces a crop of policy announcements that are meant to be eye-catching.  The extent to which these are thought through is often doubtful, though – these are announcements for political purposes, not necessarily to work in the real world. That also means how their devolution implications is addressed is often rather sketchy.   Regular readers of this blog will know that concern about ‘devolution literacy’ is a long-standing one of mine, and one which I find has slowly but materially improved over the courts of the 2000s and 2010s.

Either devolution has bedded itself into party-policy framers’ consciousness, or something has changed.  When he made his announcement about free school meals for 5-7 year olds in England, Nick Clegg was keen to point out that funding would be given to the devolved administrations to decide whether to follow suit.  (The political pressure to do so will be considerable, of course – a lot of parents’ and poverty groups will be asking pointed questions about it.)  And that’s all well and good; the Treasury’s Statement of Funding Policy provides that spending on the schools budget has a 100 per cent comparability percentage for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – so any extra spending on that budget automatically triggers a full population-related comparable payment.

Ed Miliband’s widely-trailed announcement about cancelling a cut in corporation tax and instead making one in business rates (strictly, non-domestic rate or NDR) is more problematic.  The aim is to favour smaller businesses, which may not be incorporated (or have profits), but which necessarily occupy business premises.  Like Clegg, Multiband will apparently announce a change for England, with funding for devolved governments to make a similar cut.  The problem is that this is not what the Statement of Funding Policy says.  NDR is only 100 per cent comparable for Wales, where a complex England and Wales pooling mechanism currently exists.  Even there, there are plans for change following the Morgan Review last year (BBC News summary here, full documentation here).  In Scotland and Northern Ireland, NDR is 0 per cent comparable – because it’s regarded as fully devolved.  So any decision for England would not automatically trigger comparables for Scotland or Northern Ireland.

There are ways to resolve this, of course.  The easiest is probably the messiest – a one-off concession relating to adding a specific block of money to the devolved governments’ budgetary baselines.  (If the comparability percentage were changed, it would lead to further complications in future.)  Even then, though, there is no guarantee whatever that devolved governments will use the extra money in the way UK Government might desire.  (Indeed, the Scottish Government has been imaginative in making use of NDR as an instrument of local economic policy – extra charges for out of town superstores, for example.)  But the point is that Miliband’s attempt to make an impression by reshaping where the burden of business taxation falls has run into the practical realities of how the post-devolution, fiscally decentralised UK functions.  While Miliband deserves 8/10 for effort in thinking about the problem, it’s only 4/10 for success in doing so.

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Filed under Devolution finance, Labour, Lib Dems, Policy issues

The independence referendum deal

The agreement publicly reached between David Cameron and Alex Salmond for the holding of a Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 marks the end of a long, and unduly protracted, process.  (There’s an account of the latter stages of that by Alan Cochrane of the Telegraph here which strikes me as well-informed if incomplete.)  The agreement itself (with the draft section 30 order at the end) is here.  The news story about it from Number 10 is here, and that from the Scottish Government is here.

The deal itself is a good and necessary one, if not particularly surprising in its content given the various leaks and rumours about it over the last few weeks.  It is also one which delivers each government its key requirements, so in that sense it is a good deal for both sides.  And, of course, it confirms that a referendum will indeed happen.

How we got here

It’s worth remembering how we got to this point.  The SNP fought the 2007 election on a manifesto commitment to hold an independence referendum if elected, and to publish a white paper on independence before then.  That commitment meant that a vote for the SNP would not necessarily be a vote for independence as such, which helped boost support for the SNP so it was able narrowly to win a plurality of votes and seats at that poll, because the election turned into one about ‘valence’ and competence not high-level ideology.  In other words, the Continue reading

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Filed under Conservatives, Intergovernmental relations, Lib Dems, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP, Westminster, Whitehall

The UK reshuffle and the territorial offices

The UK Government’s ministerial reshuffle may lead to further tensions within the Westminster Coalition, but it has been one of pretty limited change, as far as the territorial offices are concerned.  Full details of all the new ministers can be found on the No 10 website, here.

There has been no change at the Scotland Office at all, with Michael Moore and David Mundell remaining in place.  Lord Wallace does so too, as Advocate General for Scotland.  The opportunity of putting a more ‘campaigning’ politician in charge has not been taken, even with the independence referendum looming, and although the heavy legislative work of getting what is now the Scotland Act 2012 drafted and onto the statute book is now done.  The only major item of legislative business on the immediate agenda is the section 30 order regarding the referendum (which Severin Carrell suggests here is close to agreement between the two governments).

The Wales Office has seen the departure of Cheryl Gillan as Secretary of State, and the promotion of David Jones, the former junior minister, to replace her.  That follows a determined lobbying campaign from Welsh Conservative MPs for the new Secretary of State to have a Welsh seat, and suggests minimal change in the UK Government’s approach.  Jones has already emphasised his desire for a ‘very good business-like relationship’ with the Welsh Government.  The interesting shifts of role and personnel are at the junior level.  Stephen Crabb has been promoted within the Whip’s office (though he was never the ‘Welsh whip’), and also made parliamentary under-secretary of state.  Baroness (Jenny) Randerson, former AM and Welsh Lib Dem Minister, has also become an (unpaid) parliamentary under-secretary, for which the Lib Dems are said to have fought hard.  Given her company among colleagues who have been regarded as ‘devo-sceptics’ (though they now emphasise their support for devolution), it’s interesting that she emphasises that she is a ‘committed devolutionist’ in the Welsh Lib Dem press notice announcing her appointment.

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Filed under Conservatives, Intergovernmental relations, Legislation, Lib Dems, N Ireland corporation tax devolution, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Whitehall