Labour and England, 1997-2010.

AuthorDenham, John

New Labour entered government in 1997 with a partly-formed agenda on devolution which sidestepped the West Lothian question; the party subsequently lost many working-class voters who saw themselves as more English than British. If the party is not to repeat the mistakes of the past, we must think about English identity and the expression of England's interests within our constitution now.

One of the curious features of the New Labour administration of 1997-2010 was that its sweeping and unprecedented constitutional reforms made little change to England.

Devolution to Wales and Scotland created an Assembly and Parliament, both of which gained further powers in subsequent years. The Northern Ireland Assembly, also with significant devolved powers, was a key outcome of the peace process. The role of hereditary peers was reduced by House of Lords reform. A new Supreme Court was established, and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act entrenched new rights. Referenda were established as the expected way of taking constitutional decisions.

Yet, with the exception of the Mayor and Assembly in London, England was untouched by this wave of constitutional reform. England is now the only part of the UK which does not have the right to elect representatives with sole power to determine domestic policy on education, health and many other issues. It has no legal presence in government: an omission that is causing new tensions as the UK and the devolved nations consider how powers are to be returned from Brussels. Despite the introduction of English Votes for English Laws by the Conservatives --adamantly opposed by Labour--there is no discernible 'English Voice' in Parliament. England remains a nation that is barely named or acknowledged as such in government policy or public debate.

While many on the left argue that England has no national identity, nor any claim for a political identity, the Brexit vote of 2016 was a largely English affair. The bulk of Leave votes came from England and from those voters who identified most clearly as English. The same voters are, far from being 'greater Britain' unionists, less likely to attach great importance to the union, most likely to want English MPs to make English laws, to support an English Parliament, and be least happy with the Barnett formula. Brexit was driven, in part at least, by a demand to be heard from voters who felt marginalised and ignored by the established forms of political representation.

The lack of any democratic and political identity for England may have fed the resentments that demand we 'take back control', and it certainly contributed to England's continuing economic, social and cultural divisions. England is divided by age, geography, education, income and wealth. There is a growing consensus (for example, in the IPPR report on Economic Justice) that decentralisation is essential for inclusive economic growth. The governance of England will remain a live issue for the foreseeable future. It is important to understand why Labour failed to properly address the English question last time if the next Labour government is not going to fail again.

The standard story is that Labour had attempted to establish elected regional assemblies, but, after much delay and internal debate, a weak proposal was rejected by North East voters in a referendum in 2004 and the whole scheme was dropped. This simplistic account is not only inaccurate (for example, Labour's commitment to elect rather than appoint assemblies was always ambiguous at best): it also tells us little about the underlying politics and statecraft of New Labour.

A more detailed study shows that Labour policy towards devolution in the 1990s and 2000s was shaped by three factors:

* a deep commitment to the unitary imperial...

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