All for English devolution – but what about English democracy?

Flying high. Jeff Buck/Geograph, CC BY-SA

English devolution has emerged as a prominent feature of the 2015 general election campaign for a number of reasons. One is the ongoing process of devolution that has been taking place across the UK, with the formation of the assemblies for Northern Ireland and Wales, and the Scottish parliament. Another is the aftershock of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Throughout this time, England has also solidified as a distinct national political community.

Research indicates that over the past decade or so we have witnessed the progressive “Anglicisation” of the Westminster-based unionist parties. This means that Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats have all become more focused on England, in their political outlook.

But up until now, these parties have sought to avoid the complications and risks of large-scale internal organisational reform in England. They have lacked the appropriate party structures, leadership or explicit policy agendas to properly engage with the complex set of “English Questions”, which have emerged in a post-devolution UK.

And yet, with the general election looming large, the issues concerning the role and place of England within an increasingly decentralised UK have gained traction among the public. This has further pushed questions of English national and regional political reform into the realms of party politics.

All the main political parties have now overtly embraced the narrative of English devolution – which, for the first time, features prominently in all the electoral manifestos. So what exactly do the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems have planned for England?

What’s on offer

The Conservatives have put the English question at the core of their electoral message. Alongside their main manifesto, they have also launched their first ever English manifesto (although this is lacking substance, and no actual copy is available in print form or online).

In essence, the Conservative approach to English devolution focuses on three themes: a better and more balanced economy; bespoke Growth Deals and decentralisation of powers to (large) cities which choose to have elected mayor; and English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). The main manifesto also refers to “a core Conservative belief: power to the people” which is claimed to be at the base of their devolution strategy.

And yet, it is somewhat difficult to understand how such value squares with an approach to devolution in England which is based on negotiations between elites, and imposed from above without any public consultation.

The Labour Party manifesto places emphasis on the need to “end a century of centralisation” in England, by means of a devolution agenda based on three principles: city and county regions as recipients of decentralised powers; an English Devolution Act to set the terms of the powers and resources to be passed down to city and county regions, and to put in place a system of checks and balances (for example, an English Regional Cabinet Committee); and a New English Deal, aimed at empowering individuals and communities. However, it is not specified how the latter would take place, in practice.

At UK level, the party also proposes to replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and the Regions, so as to represent every part of the UK. But in the absence of directly elected regional assemblies in England, it is unclear how Labour plans to bring together incongruent levels of territorial government: think of Scotland compared to, say, the Leeds City Region.

The Liberal Democrat approach to English concerns is based on five interconnected devolution proposals: EVEL; a constitutional convention; the local level as the main recipient of decentralised powers; more City Deals (like Devo Manc) to prompt economic growth; and “devolution on demand”, to allow councils to take control of the services that matter most to them.

A constitutional convention

Both the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos include calls for a constitutional convention, albeit in slightly different forms. Labour put forward proposals for a people-led UK constitutional convention, to consider issues such as the role of English MPs in scrutinising legislation that affects only England. This would seem to suggest that the public should be actively involved in the discussion concerning the constitutional settlement of the UK.

The Lib Dems would also seek to establish a constitutional convention, but theirs would take input from political parties, academic and civil society groups, as well as the British public, and aim to draw up a full constitution for a federal UK.

But in practice, both of these proposals fail to live up to the high-minded rhetoric of democracy in which they are couched. Constitutional conventions like these would merely entail a discussion of the implications of a new constitutional settlement – which, however, would be ultimately devised by party elites, and not by the people.

All of this goes to show that the three manifestos have much in common with regard to the English question. They share a view that devolution in England should be primarily about economic development, and recognise the presence of a North-South divide within England.

But their plans continue to be based on the assumption that Westminster is better placed to decide the most suitable level of devolution, when it comes to resources and powers. On the issue of how to rebalance the role of England in the union, they all more or less overtly favour EVEL. Yet this solution does not equate to any real form of devolution, and does not do much to improve the territorial governance of England. It keeps decision making at the political centre, in Westminster.

Beyond their agreement on the need to give people more powers, the parties’ plans become more blurred, with top-down and elite-led approaches taking precedence, even within the narrative of those parties promoting constitutional conventions. While each party has started to recognise the importance of territorial politics in England, they still struggle to both let go of power, and to come to terms with the democratic aspect of devolution.

Voices of democracy?

The only advocates of the view that devolution in England is not just about reviving economies but also about improving democracy are the regionalist parties based precisely in the areas that the mainstream parties are trying to “put back on track” with their devolution proposals.

Yorkshire First, the North East Party, the Campaign for the North and Mebyon Kernow offer an alternative programme of decentralisation, which is intrinsically bottom up, and based on the establishment of directly elected regional assemblies, with powers equal to those of the Scottish parliament. This is understood as a key means to reinvigorate democracy, improve local government and, as a result, boost the economy. But it remains to be seen whether these political forces will gain enough momentum, either in the election or in the post-May 7 scenario, to make their democratic devolution claims resonate in the corridors of Westminster.