Last week Robert Hazell set out some of the options for a possible UK constitutional convention. Here Meg Russell proposes some more specific answers to the questions that he posed: for example on what a constitutional convention should be tasked to do, timescale, and membership. She suggests that a more limited convention than Labour proposes, to a faster timetable, could offer a compromise to the benefit of all main parties.
Last week on this blog Robert Hazell set out the alternate options for a UK constitutional convention. Such a body has been proposed by various democracy groups (such as the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy) since before the Scottish referendum. Immediately afterwards Labour leader Ed Miliband threw his weight behind these calls, proposing that a convention should meet in autumn 2015. The idea also has the support of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP. In the Commons debate on devolution earlier this week William Hague indicated that the government was prepared to consider the proposal (col. 179).
Yet behind this apparent consensus there are huge splits between the parties, and the debate was otherwise highly polarised along party lines. Immediately after the Scots had voted Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issue of so-called ‘English votes on English laws’ at Westminster (a long-standing Conservative commitment), on which Hague is now chairing a Cabinet Committee and promising action by late November. Labour alleges that this is amounts to sorting out the constitution in haste ‘on the back of a fag packet‘, while Conservatives view Miliband’s convention plan as ‘the long grass‘. Labour clearly has the most to lose from ‘English votes on English laws’, given its relative strength in Scotland – and is thus reluctant to engage with the Cabinet committee process. The Liberal Democrats are at best ambivalent, making it doubtful that any proposals will get through. It is tempting for the Conservatives to make political capital out of this. But party political game-playing on both sides carries major risks. First, allegations and counter-allegations followed by failure of the Westminster parties to agree may simply fuel grievances and boost the UKIP vote. Second, inaction could leave the UK in a very difficult position after the May 2015 general election. Should Labour win the greatest number of Commons seats without being the largest party in England, immediate cries of ‘crisis’ could ensue.
What role for a constitutional convention?
These are politically intractable issues. The ‘West Lothian question’ has long been recognised (indeed, in the guise of the ‘in and out question’, it emerged during Irish home rule debates more than a century ago). It has come to the fore now for two reasons. One is new: the additional Scottish powers promised in the ‘vow’ by Westminster leaders during the referendum campaign. But the other potential trigger always existed: the prospect of a coming election which Labour could narrowly win. While the question has simmered since Scottish devolution in 1999, and ‘English votes on English laws’ been Conservative Party policy since 2001, it had limited salience because UK governments enjoyed comfortable majorities among English MPs. That could be about to change in 2015. Consequently it is recognised – including by many in Labour – that Derry Irvine’s oft-quoted quip that the best answer to the West Lothian question was to ‘stop asking it‘ will no longer suffice.
But who can answer the West Lothian question? The main political parties have clear vested interests in opposing solutions. For the Conservatives ‘English votes on English laws’ have clear partisan attractions, as this would weaken Labour’s voice in the Commons. This idea – as considered at length by the McKay Commission – entails technical difficulties, in terms of disentangling English and non-English bills. More fundamentally, it opens up the prospect of an English Parliament (and an associated English government) in all but name. The Conservatives will struggle to get it through, and will face Labour accusations of gerrymandering. Labour and the Liberal Democrats prefer other solutions – regional assemblies, city regions or stronger local government. These focus on devolution within England rather than to England as a whole, and thus answer a different version of the English question altogether.
As Robert argued last week, a key advantage of a constitutional convention involving the wider public is the ability to draw in other voices, beyond the established political elite. Members may arrive without preconceived ideas about the correct outcome, allowing more rational and less polarised debate. Surveys consistently show little support for either English regional assemblies or an English Parliament, and higher support for ‘English votes on English laws’. Since all three options are now on the table – and the most popular ironically leads to one of the others with less support – this seems to be a conversation that the public itself needs to have. As I have previously suggested, a convention with a broad membership would at least expose citizens to the intractability of the issues. A convention directly involving citizens would lessen the risk that decisions are seen as a political ‘stitch up’, and its conclusions – whatever they are – would be more likely to command broad political support.
Scope and terms of reference for a convention
There are many territorial questions facing the UK – concerning the degree of devolved powers to Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as Scotland – not to mention other unsolved conundrums such as House of Lords reform. Both Labour and the democracy campaigners favour a broad-ranging constitutional convention to consider all of these. But as the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC), which reported in spring 2013 on the options for a convention, judged: ‘a UK-wide constitutional convention with an open remit could struggle to reach clear conclusions’ (para. 81). Its deliberations would take so long that they would also feed allegations of the ‘long grass’.
The looming question in terms of next year’s general election, and the one that most exercises the Conservatives (partly for fear of UKIP), is the governance of England. Even before the referendum this was identified as the most urgent issue by the PCRC. They concluded that discussions about England might sit within a wider convention for the UK on a longer timetable, but should be tackled first. A convention tasked with considering devolution for, or within, England would not be wholly excluded from discussing other issues – participants might for example propose Lords reform as part of a broader territorial settlement. But to be manageable, and crucially to win cross-party support for its establishment, the convention’s core question should be narrow.
A fundamental conflict between the parties concerns the timing of decisions for England. William Hague (col. 180) said this week that he wants to ‘test to the full whether there is any cross-party agreement’ by late November. Labour foresees a far longer timetable – but of course has no freedom to act on its own until at least May 2015. Thoughtful Conservatives such as Dominic Grieve have emphasised that the question deserves proper consideration, with an implied timetable longer than the government’s. But delaying the start of a process to beyond the general election is risky (particularly for Labour) given the potential calls of ‘crisis’ in the event of a narrow win.
Early establishment of a convention could thus help demonstrate that serious progress is being made, while deflecting both ‘back of a fag packet’ and ‘long grass’ allegations. The pre-election period does create something of a hothouse atmosphere; but it also has the advantage that the parties (and their supporters) are effectively standing behind a ‘veil of ignorance‘: not knowing whether they will be in or out of power post-2015. Rational argument about the merits of different outcomes may thus be more possible – at least among non-politicians – in the next few months. Hence both principle and pragmatism suggest that a convention should start work soon. As Robert pointed out, setting up a serious convention takes time. But his claim that it would be ‘almost impossible’ for work to begin before May 2015 seems overly pessimistic – at least if the political will is there. Reporting before May 2015 may indeed be impossible, but having a process in place by then would nonetheless be beneficial.
Membership models for a convention
Various membership models exist for a convention, which have been well summarised elsewhere by Alan Renwick. His preferred model, and that of many reformers, includes randomly-selected citizens – perhaps alongside politicians as did the recent Irish Constitutional Convention. As an expert witness to that convention I can testify that it was not perfect but the involvement of both citizens and politicians clearly worked well, and succeeded in engaging the wider public. A mixed membership has the advantage of gaining political ‘buy-in’, and helping keep recommendations politically realistic. But given how entrenched political positions are on the English question, at least some sessions should probably involve citizens alone. As Robert outlines, they need good quality professional support, and careful unbiased briefing materials.
A final tricky question concerns territorial representation. The English question(s) primarily demand attention from the citizens of England, but there are connected territorial questions, including about how the different political institutions within the UK should interact. Should this hence be an English-only convention, or one with a wider territorial membership? There are arguments for both. A compromise could be to start with English members, feeding into a wider convention later on. Given Labour’s commitment to a convention it could surely not oppose this, while a narrower membership and question would appeal to Conservatives.
In the present climate there are dangers that the call for a constitutional convention becomes party politicised. This would be a shame. Given the complexity of the constitutional issues now facing the UK, and the vested interests of the main political parties, a convention involving citizens could help to avoid deadlock, and even to curb calls of ‘constitutional crisis’ over the English question post-2015. But to be workable, and achievable, some compromise is needed on all sides: from campaigners who want an unrealistically wide-ranging convention, from Labour politicians who want a long timetable, and from a government (or at least a Conservative Party) looking for quick solutions.
About the Author
Meg Russell is deputy director of the Constitution Unit, School of Public Policy, University College London.