Greetings from the Manchester Labour conference! I’ll post a couple of times this week as things develop. For starters:
- Proposed minimum wage increase
The minimum wage was introduced under the last Labour government amid widespread predictions of disaster – hundreds of thousands of workers would be sacked, unemployment would soar, and so on. None of that happened, since people paying pathetic wages of £2-3/hour mostly found they could still make money paying the minimum wage. However, it’s been falling in real terms and one in five British workers find themselves struggling on low pay, often relying on benefits or tax credits to top up their wage so they can simply afford the essentials, even when they work long hours. The economic recovery hasn’t benefited this group at all.
The first of Labour’s commitments is to raise it. The proposal is to increase it to £8 by 2020, which will put an extra £3,000 a year in the pockets of Britain’s lowest paid workers. This is an important move that will end the scandal of five million Brits struggling to make ends meet because they are on low pay. But Labour understands that businesses need time to plan for this change. That’s why we will it will be phased in over the five years of the next Parliament so businesses will have enough time to adjust their models to support higher wages. The measure indirectly contributes to deficit reduction as well, since it reduces the need for tax credit at the bottom of the ladder. The main British employers have said in response that “This is the highest that can be afforded”, which seems the level we ought to be at.
This is part of a wider effort by Labour to propose to broaden the benefits of economic recovery – with more to come.
- English votes for English laws?
Mr Cameron has proposed, and then dropped, an idea making the promised Scottish devolution conditional on a change in Parliamentary rules, preventing Scottish MPs from voting on laws which relate only to England. He’s still in favour, but has conceded that he promised the Scots devolution without strings so can’t really add strings now.
There is clearly an issue that needs to be debated here, but it’s actually much more complex than a mere change of Parliamentary rules, and in some variants it would completely change how we were governed. Here are the options:
(a) Status quo.
At present, regions which want lots of devolution (Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales and Northern Ireland) get it, and everyone else is governed only by the national Parliament. Because regions with devolution only form a small part of the population, it doesn’t actually make a difference most of the time – even if Scotland had declared independence and all Scottish MPs had disappeared, no election in the last 40 years would have produced a different government. However, it’s clearly a fudge, one of several that makes our system of government quite illogical.
This is Mr Cameron’s idea. Parliament would be entirely unchanged except that Scottish MPs couldn’t vote on laws which someone (the Speaker?) decided were purely English (under his proposals, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would be unaffected even though they’re partly devolved too).
Contrary to what some papers have suggested, this wouldn’t make it harder for Labour to win, since all MPs would decide the Government, and in any case although Labour scores about 2% higher in Scotland, in practice we either win in both or lose in both. What it would occasionally do is produce a deadlock, with a Labour Government but a blocking majority of Conservative English MPs (this would last have happened in 1974). As in the USA when Mr Obama faces a Republican Congress, the result is that little gets done. Since the Conservative MPs couldn’t effectively introduce legislation themselves, because Parliament only enables the Government to introduce most laws, the effect would be purely negative.
(c) An English Parliament and Government
To solve that problem, one could have a separate English Parliament and Government. The English Government would be able to make its own laws. Thus, in 1974 we’d have had a British Labour Government and an English Conservative Government. That would be similar to the Scottish situation, with a powerful “national” government. A drawback is that it would double the number of Minister and politicians, and the two governments would have 90% identical electorates, so they’d be certainly constantly battling for power on the rare occasions when they had different party majorities. I think this would only work if the British Government and Parliament were scaled right back to deal with a limited number of national issues.
(d) Full regionalism
Alternatively, we could go the German route, and devolve most power to regional assemblies, leaving a Federal British Government just looking after truly national things like defence. It works quite well in Germany, where most people do feel a strong attachment to their Federal state. That doesn’t always seem the case in England – for instance, I’m not sure that most people in Broxtowe would necessarily want an East Midlands Government based in, say, Leicester, making most decisions for us. Do we have a sufficiently strong sense that the East Midlands are distinctive and need a separate government and Parliament for it?
The reason the issue has languished with the current fudge is that it rarely makes a difference and all these solutions risk creating new problems. I don’t think it’s being unfair to say that Mr Cameron’s overinght embrace of EV4EL was mainly looking for a way to deflect party criticism over the concessions to Scotland. Both EV4EL and a separate English Government are fudges too unless power is genuinely devolved.
I do think that many voters in England are restless at the current situation, though, and I think that if we’re going to change, we probably do need to lead towards more regional government, perhaps linked with more local referendums as in Switzerland, so that people really get a chance to engage with decisions made in the vicinity. But I’m glad it’s not being instantly decided as an appendix to Scottish devolution. If we’re going to change how we are governed that radically, we need to get it right – and fix the equally anomalous House of Lords as part of the solution.
Feedback welcome – I’m still thinking this through myself and it’d be interesting to know if any of these ideas (or others) has widespread support.
- Plan approved
The Council’s development plans were agreed this week, bringing to a close a long battle focused on the building on Green Belt at Field Farm and Toton. The decision was driven by Government guidelines and effectively made certain by when the Government Inspector from the Department of Communities and Local government ruled in favour.
The MP comments in her blog “You would expect me to be able to go to Government and ask them to intervene and protect our Green Belt. I have tried and without success which makes me as frustrated as you.” I don’t doubt that she did exactly that, but there is a difficulty here in the way British Government works under all parties. If you are seeking promotion up the scale of Government, you always have to accept everything that your party does, and that makes you ineffective when you protest, since Ministers know you will always go along with it in the end. As I found with open-casting, you only really get listened to when you threaten to go nuclear and challenge your own government in court if necessary.
The current decision will also be challenged in court, but with both Government and Council ranged against the appellants, I’m not sure there is a realistic chance. My own preference remains more the unfashionable “Continental” solution of more focus on flats in central urban areas. If we don’t build upwards in urban areas, we will sprawl out into rural areas. It’s sadly just a physical fact.