19 Sep 2014

Scotland vote gives Labour a huge constitutional headache

The Conservative party now firmly believes Scots MPs should not vote on English laws – which could make it much harder for Labour to form a future government.

Well might the Tories laugh. I put it to William Hague this morning (see interview below) that he had gone from campaigning side by side with Labour yesterday to screwing them today. “That depends on their position,” he quipped. That’s politics, I guess.

Labour in general – and Gordon Brown in particular – find themselves in the bizarre position of having helped save the union, and with it David Cameron. The prime minister was a few percentage points from having to resign. Instead he has swiftly put one over on Labour ahead of the next election with his call to let millions of English voices now be heard.

The Conservative party now firmly believes Scots MPs should not vote on English laws, and will put it in their manifesto. If they win in 2015, they will make it much harder for Labour, which draws large numbers of MPs from Scotland and Wales, to form a government in future that can change any laws in England.

That won’t just mean education and health. A Labour chancellor might find himself unable to get a budget through parliament without concessions to the Conservatives. It isn’t insurmountable. Tony Blair won a majority in England as well as across the UK, but it makes it a tall order from where Labour is now in England.

The Labour leadership now wants a full constitutional convention. The potential to find endless long grass is obvious. It has said little or nothing in answer, apart from the old line about not wanting two different classes of MP, in answer to the demand for English votes for English laws.

But why we shouldn’t have two classes of MP isn’t exactly clear. The logic of the West Lothian question is starting to penetrate some Labour MPs in England, like John Denham. English Labour MPs, after all, will have to fight off Ukip and Tory claims about England being disadvantaged. Even senior figures like Peter Hain seem to accept something will have to change.

Labour could face new problems in Scotland too. Hundreds of thousands of their usual voters backed the yes campaign. Some of them might now switch to the SNP in their disappointment, especially if the new devolved powers turn out not to be quite as “better, quicker and safer”, as the Labour-led no campaign claimed.

After all, Alex Salmond may be stepping down as First Minister of Scotland but his party holds power, with more powers on the way and 45 per cent support for independence. They may have lost, but they’re also in the strongest position they’ve ever been.

It is no good David Cameron reminding us today of Mr Salmond’s description of the referendum as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Obviously, he only said that to get waverers to vote yes.

It makes no sense for the SNP to say “OK, we’ll give up then until Alex is dead.” The question will return. “One more heave,” another 5 per cent, may not seem so difficult then. We may find that while David Cameron was saved in 2014, the union remains in peril.

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