24 October 2015

Stitching up our democracy

You may have missed it, but the Tory's just broke democracy for England, and stuck two fingers up to the idea that the devolved nations can play a real part in deciding the future of the UK union they belong to.

The West Lothian problem, the situation where legislation that affects only England can be voted on in parliament by Scottish, Welsh and N.Irish MP's (whose constituencies are unaffected by such decisions due to having devolved parliaments), is a rather unsightly crack in our democratic framework.

This has come about because we have created national legislative bodies (parliaments,assemblies, etc) in the celtic nations and devolved certain responsibilities and powers to them and their associated executives (the group who decide policy and put it in front of parliament to be voted on), whilst Westminster has remained the legislature for both the UK as a state, and for England, with the government as executive of both.

For the devolved nations this means that their MP's, who are sent to the United Kingdom Parliament to decide matters of state, spend a lot of time discussing issues which don't really affect them (at least directly), and it means that the UK State Parliament they are a part of is inextricably bound up with the governance of England. This fact means that it is much harder for representatives of the devolved nations to become a part of the UK government as they will face enormous opposition because they will also become the government and ministers in charge of England. If they do, through UK wide political parties, then they must spend much of their efforts and attention on thinking about making decisions for England only... in effect being subsumed in to the body of English MP's.

For the English this means they don't get to vote on a distinct legislature for England and have to share this function with the UK government, its parliament and all of the MP's from across the UK which are a part of that institution. It also means that the executive of the English legislature is also the same as that of the UK, i.e. the government, and it is decided by the whole of the UK for us.

Whilst this isn't ideal, and is a rather unflattering aspect of our democracy, it hasn't caused complete chaos. However, with more powers and responsibilities being devolved to Scotland (and no doubt to other devovled parliaments following this) it does mean that more and more of Westminster's time is going to be spent discussing and voting on policy which only affects England, exaggerating the complaints of both the English and the devolved nations.

Instead of taking time to carefully repair this crack, the have Tory's decided to drop it on the floor to see which way it will break.

The Tory solution which has just been passed by parliament is English Votes for English Laws, or EVEL, a fitting name. Under EVEL policy which is deemed to only affect England (chosen on an ad-hoc, case-by-case, basis) will only be passed if it is also voted for by a subset of just English MP's, who in effect will have a veto on these issues. This is flawed in so many ways, we can only wait and see which one breaks the UK first.

One of the main complaints of the Celtic nations is that Westminster and the government is focussed more on running England than it is in running the UK, that it behaves as the English legislature, and that government acts as the executive of England rather than the UK, doing what is best for England. EVEL can only serve to magnify this view. By excluding non-English MP's from a proportion of the business of Westminster, reducing their involvement in Westminster and making them underemployed compared to their English counterparts this is only going to exaggerate such feeling leading to more dissatisfaction with Westminster and the Union.

Despite this being pitched as a way to bring more control over English matters to the people of England it actually makes things worse for them. 

Tory Minister Chris Grayling claimed that through EVEL  "England will have its own piece of our devolution settlement". This is fundamentally misleading, all EVEL does is further muddy the relationship between the governance of the UK and the governance of England and its various regions.

Under EVEL the UK government puts forward a proposal, the UK parliament decides if it is an English matter (and no doubt will argue about and challenge these decisions based on their own interests), once decided such an issue is then subject to the approval of the whole UK parliament and a subset of English only MP's. There is no separate executive for England to put forward policy which benefits England, and by sharing the same executive as the UK, England may well have ministers in charge of English decision making who were not sent to parliament by English voters. There is no way for English MP's to vote FOR a policy which affects only England, but is rejected by the UK parliament. EVEL's sole objective is to provide a mechanism by which English MP's can reject certain bits of government policy if the UK government does not hold a majority in England as well as the UK. That is not giving more power to English representatives to decide matters for England, it is a further constraint on passing England-only legislation.

Under EVEL the people of England are now in the situation where their executive is not only selected for it by the whole of the UK, but is now subject to two different legislatures, which could well have very different views. This breaks a fundamental principle of all our parliamentary systems, whereby the executive is formed by a group or groups who can command a majority support of the whole legislature. England's de-facto executive (the UK government) may well find that it cannot pass any legislation for England, because it is at odds with the subset of English only MP's. In fact, England may well find that its executive may be proposing policy for England that is subject to a vote that those proposing it cannot take part in. Just think back to when Gordon Brown was PM, he would effectively be in charge of a government which was proposing legislation for England that was subject to a vote he wasn't allowed to take part in!

This has dangerous ramifications not just for England, but for the whole UK union. The legitimacy of a UK government which contains members from devolved areas may well be challenged on the above basis and its effectiveness will certainly be reduced compared to one which doesn't. How well do we think that will wash with Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland? 

EVEL drives a further wedge between England and the devolved nations that can only help but weaken the union.

Worse still, whilst the devolved parliaments are elected on a proportional basis, much more fairly representing the views of their citizens, England is stuck with being represented entirely by a group of politicians elected under FPTP, a system which can grossly distort the election of MP's to parliament compared to the support their party receives from the public. 

The Conservatives, having got 37% of the public vote, have 51% of Westminster MP's, 14% more than they should be entitled to. The smaller the group the greater such distortion can become... just look at Scotland's MP's, where the SNP gained 50% of Scottish votes, yet have 95% of Scotland's MP's. The Tory's are well aware that this distortion nearly nearly always works in their favour when it comes to English MP's. In the last election the Conservatives gained 41% of English votes, yet have 60% of English MP's, a greater distortion of their support than there is across the whole UK. Even when they suffered from this bias in the Blair years across the UK, they have benefited from it within England.

In other words EVEL is an insurance policy against the Tory's losing overall control of the UK government.

Can we imagine if Scotland, instead having a devolved parliament, was given the 'opportunity' for Scottish MP's to veto an unspecified selection of government policy? Would they go for it? Of course not, they would recognise that it gives them very little opportunity to direct their own future. Why should the English be fobbed off with such a 'deal'?

Worst of all this has all been done without any real debate in parliament, without any consultation with us, or consideration of the alternatives. The Conservatives have claimed this is simply a procedural matter; in reality it has been rushed through by a triumphant Conservative government, put in power through the perversions of our broken electoral system and abusing their position to further fix our future decision making processes in their favour.

How can England's relationship with its legislature and executive, as well as the devolved parliaments relationship with the state government, be passed off as simply a 'procedural matter'?

The UK's democratic framework is a threadbare mess of disparate bodies and agreements, all pulling in different directions and unsure of what part they play in the overall picture, suspicious of the part the others play. The UK needs a proper, considered proposal to bring together these various parts, to share power equitably throughout the whole State and between its constituent parts.

The United Kingdom's democratic institutions need to be stitched together, not stitched up.