South-East Cambs candidates’ views on the Power 2010 pledge

I’ve had a couple of replies from my local candidates on the Power 2010 Pledge, which I wrote to them about on St. George’s Day. Their responses are basically in line with their parties’ manifestoes, which I suppose is no surprise.

First, the incumbent Tory MP, Jim Paice:

“My Party is a Unionist party – and so we will not put the Union at risk. However, having said that we are supportive of devolution and have committed in our Manifesto to rebalance the unfairness in the voting system for devolved issues in Parliament (the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’). We have pledged to introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England (or to England and Wales as is also often the case) cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries. The Labour Government has refused to address this situation, and it is not a Manifesto commitment of the Lib Dems.

“You can read the Manifesto here http://www.conservatives.com/Policy/Manifesto.aspx and the relevant section is pages 83-84.”
Firstly, Jim Paice is right about Labour and the Lib Dems on this issue. Indeed, the Lib Dems have indicated elsewhere that they are prepared to tolerate the continuation of the WLQ until more fundamental reforms of the constitution, parliament and voting system are enacted – which is highly convenient if they actually need the votes of Scottish Labour MPs to pass English legislation in the event of a Lab-Lib coalition after the election.
This emphasis on resolving the West Lothian and English Questions within a broader context of constitutional reform – again, consistent with the manifesto – is what emerges from the reply I received from the Lib Dem contender in South East Cambs, Jonathan Chatfield:
“Thank you for writing to me about the English question and wider Power 2010campaign.

“I am delighted to support the campaign for a reforming Parliament and have signed the pledge. Liberal Democrats have been calling for wholesale reform of our Parliamentary system for a long time and I am pleased to say that it is already our policy to:

“Introduce a proportional voting system

“The Liberal Democrats will change politics forever and end safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs, and for the House of Lords. By giving voters the choice between people as well as parties, it means they can stick with a party but punish a bad MP by voting for someone else.

“Scrap ID cards and roll back the database state

“Liberal Democrats would scrap ID cards. Getting rid of this illiberal, expensive and ineffective scheme, will free up money for thousands more police on our streets. We will also get innocent people off the DNA Database and scrap the intrusive ContactPoint database which will hold the details of every child in England.

“Replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber

“Liberal Democrats will replace it with a fully elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House.

“Draw up a written constitution

“Liberal Democrats believe that people should have the power to determine this constitution in a convention made up of members of the public and parliamentarians of all parties, and subject to final approval in a referendum.

“The only part of the pledge with which I do not agree is the call to ‘allow only English MPs to vote on English laws’. We need a wider look at the constitution and our electoral system, rather than creating two types of MPs at Westminster. I believe that the better approach to solve the anomalies in the current constitutional settlement is to address the status of England within a Federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole.

“Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.”

No surprises there, then, and no surprise that the Power 2010 movement itself enjoys the backing and participation of senior Liberal Democrats: the Power 2010 Pledge (apart from English votes on English laws) could almost be taken out of the Lib Dem manifesto!

Of course, from my perspective, it’s highly problematic that the only part of it that Jonathan Chatfield doesn’t agree with is the proposed remedy to the West Lothian Question; and it’s ironic that this is the only bit that the Tory candidate does agree with.

Sort of. Because the Tories’ ‘answer’ to the West Lothian Question is not a real answer. It’s true that they would allow only English MPs to determine effectively the final shape of any England-only legislation, by allowing only English MPs to participate at the report and committee stages of bills. But non-English MPs will still be allowed to vote on those bills at their second and third reading. So if there’s an overall Conservative majority among English MPs (the most likely outcome of the election) but not a Conservative majority across the UK as a whole, there could be stalemate if the other parties and non-English MPs voted down English bills at their second and third reading.

This is another reason why the Conservatives are banging on about being given an overall majority across the UK as a whole (which actually means a substantial majority in England only), because otherwise they would not be able to govern in England if they formed a minority government and still tried to adopt their proposed mitigation of the WLQ. Expect that to be dropped then in such an eventuality.

The Conservatives’ proposal would, however, nicely salve their conscience if there were a hung parliament but they had enough MPs to make a deal with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the UUP to give them an overall majority. They could then defend themselves against accusations that they were, in effect, using the votes of non-English and, in some instances, anti-Union MPs to pass legislation in the Union parliament that affected only England! They would argue that their ‘English pauses for English clauses’ arrangement effectively gave English MPs – i.e. the English Tories – the final say on English bills.

Equally, the Tories’ tweak to the procedures for English bills could be introduced in the event of a Con-Lib coalition, especially as the Lib Dems seem to have no difficulties of conscience in practising West Lothian voting. So in effect, the Tory and Lib Dem positions ironically dovetail on the West Lothian Question: they’re prepared to continue with that anomaly so long as it suits their political interests and they can appear to legitimise the governance of England by the Union parliament for the Union – as opposed to government of the English people by the English people for the English people.

So should I conclude that I should give my vote to neither the Tories or the Lib Dems? Well, my view, as frequently expressed in this blog during the election campaign, is that, without a hung parliament, there’s no chance of driving through the radical constitutional reforms that could lead to constitutional recognition of England as a nation and to an English parliament. The Tories clearly are not interested in addressing the broader English Question, and their proposal doesn’t even amount to English votes on English laws – partly because of the unworkability of that proposal, at least under present parliamentary arrangements.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, do recognise the need to address the English Question, even if they are at best equivocal about what the status of England, if any, would be in their federal blueprint for the UK; and even if electoral reform begs the English Question even more critically than carrying on with West Lothian voting in a non-proportionally elected House of Commons, as I argued in my previous post.

So it’s still the Lib Dems for me, as they’re the only party in South East Cambs that could unseat the Tory MP and help towards a hung parliament. But if they do have a share of power after the election, they’d be very much on probation, as far as I’m concerned. Their credentials with regard to real democratic reform will be dependent on the extent to which, if at all, they allow the English people to determine the way they are governed. And tolerating the WLQ isn’t a good start.

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