When Ed Miliband rises to address the Labour conference for the last time before the 2015 General Election, he will have to deliver the speech of his life. Amid persistent doubts about his ability to lead the country, he needs to set out a vision that can rally majority support and mobilise an electorate that feels increasingly alienated by the Westminster establishment. Despite these pressures though, the fallout from the Scottish referendum provides the ideal opportunity for Miliband to position the Labour Party as the UK’s true unionist force.
Following the resounding Scottish No, David Cameron tried to set a trap for Labour by announcing English votes for English laws. MPs from constituencies in Scotland will be barred from voting on English matters, just as MPs from south of the border will no longer be able to vote on all the powers that are soon to be devolved to Scotland. Tory HQ clearly thinks that Cameron and the Conservatives now appear to be on England’s side while Labour continues to neglect the concerns of English voters.
In reality, this merely confirms the Conservative Party’s retreat from unionism. Back-benchers are clamouring for the UK to leave Europe if the Tories are returned to government next year and now the UK is set to become even more divided. In his attempt to produce a little England policy that can compete with the rabid nationalism of UKIP, Cameron is threatening the union.
In response, Miliband must propose harmony. Labour now has a historic chance to claim the mantle of political patriotism for the whole of the UK. To do it, Miliband needs to reclaim Labour’s most radical traditions, starting with the prophets of English patriotism such as John Ruskin and William Morris.
Many Labour voters feel betrayed by a strongly metropolitan, secular liberal bias within the party. They are being driven into the arms of UKIP the more they disagree with the direction being taken by mainstream politicians. An alternative, romantic vision could win them back. And crucially, the ideas inherent in English patriotism are shared by many Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish figures, as well as inspiring Labour’s most significant party leaders – from James Keir Hardie via Ramsey MacDonald and George Lansbury to Clement Attlee.
All are characterised by a profound sense of mutual obligation and a desire for reciprocal recognition that gave rise to the tradition of solidarity and co-operation. After all, Labour grew out of popular movements of self-help and self-improvement. The idea was always to give the voiceless a voice in the governance of the realm.
Today this founding vision offers the best platform to make Labour the majority movement in British politics. It enables the party to reject, once and for all, the utilitarian moralism and liberal economics that have characterised both the left and the right for so long and to renew the vision of a “moral economy” that promotes virtue and mutual flourishing even in an age of austerity.
In it together
If there is one overarching lesson to be learned from the Scottish referendum, it is that people across these isles have a deep sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. Imposing “English votes for English laws” by cabinet committee – as the Tories propose – will not cut it. Another Westminster-imposed settlement will only serve to further alienate voters.
Most matters debated in the House of Commons are British in their nature and scope. There is foreign and defence policy, immigration, climate change and relations with EU, to name just a few. There is also financial services, takeover rules, company law, competition policy, public borrowing and taxes. All affect the devolved powers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland when their respective parliaments make decisions on health, transport and education. Therefore MPs from outside England have a legitimate right to represent the interests of people who are on the receiving end of “English votes for English laws”.
Those who argue that this puts England at a disadvantage forget that no Union can survive without a single, overarching government. Creating a two-class system of MPs, or even an English parliament, would turn Britain into a confederacy and quite possibly unleash centrifugal forces that will end up balkanising the country. That is a recipe for disaster, as it will reopen the question of Scottish independence.
Ed Miliband should follow the recommendations of the McKay Commission by giving England’s MPs a chance to assert specific English interests at the report stage of those few bills where English matters are disproportionately affected. Crucially, those interests are best served by a radical devolution of powers to England’s town, cities and regions where individuals, communities and associations can exercise more power over their own lives.
After a bruising referendum campaign that has left Scotland and the rest of the Union divided, the UK now faces constitutional chaos. If he can claim the patriotic mantle and outline a new vision that works for ordinary people across the land, Ed Miliband could yet become the Labour leader who defied the odds to win the next election and save the union.