Party conferences and the constitution

­­­Artemis Photiadou offers an overview of what the three main parties had to say on current constitutional debates at their party conferences last month.

Few party conferences have been held against a more intense constitutional backdrop than this year’s, with the Scottish independence referendum result announced on 19 September, Labour’s conference commencing only two days later, followed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences (and UKIP’s conference from 26 – 27 September).

On devolution and the West Lothian question

With the joint pledge for further devolution made by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to Scottish voters at the eleventh hour serving as the point of departure, the conferences were an opportunity for each party to outline their constitutional direction amid the relief of an unaltered Union.

David Cameron, as well as the other two party leaders, used his speech to confirm that the joint pledge will be honoured. At the same time, however, he also argued that only English MPs should vote on laws that only affect England – the Conservative party’s response to the age-old ‘West Lothian question’. References to the question, and commitments to this solution, have found their way to all three Conservative manifestos since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 so it was perhaps unsurprising. But it was nonetheless presented with renewed purpose: the decision to bring up the matter alongside further devolution served to appease Conservative backbenchers who were not consulted over the joint pledge, and which many found unbalanced, but also as a defence against UKIP.

Unlike the Prime Minister, Labour leader Ed Miliband did not take a stance on this question during his conference speech, not least because there is much more at stake for his party which relies on 40 Scottish MPs, compared to the Conservatives which have only one. Miliband refrained from promising specific solutions to constitutional questions and instead proposed to set up a constitutional convention, made up of citizens from across the UK, to look at how the constitution needs to be changed as a whole – not only with regards to Scottish devolution. It would be for the convention to make specific recommendations.

Labour was nevertheless forced into the ‘English votes for English laws’ debate by the media during its conference, with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls telling the Huffington Post that Cameron’s proposals would lead to two parliaments or two ranks of MPs, making the break up of the recently-rescued Union inevitable. Similarly, Ed Miliband told Andrew Marr that he was in favour of greater scrutiny of English-only laws but stopped short of expressing set proposals; instead he reiterated that proposals would be put forward by the Constitutional Convention.

Perhaps more clearly, Nick Clegg’s speech addressed both devolution and the West Lothian question with proposals that combined the above: further devolution, as per the joint pledge; a Grand Committee at Westminster to deal with England-only laws, more in line with Miliband’s comments on greater scrutiny than with Cameron’s pledge; decentralisation from Westminster, again more aligned with Labour’s constitutional outlook. Finally, the Deputy PM spoke in favour of a constitutional convention led by citizens, in support of Miliband’s approach which he had previously welcomed.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage also called for a Constitutional Convention immediately after the referendum. His response to the West Lothian question was to ask Scottish MPs to commit not to vote on English matters, an attempt which subsequently took the form of an online campaign raising thousands of signatures.

On human rights

A further UKIP pledge concerned the repeal of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights, as well as commitments to opt-out from the European Arrest Warrant and European Investigation Orders.

David Cameron subsequently made a similar commitment during his conference speech, where he promised to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, making the European Court of Human Rights subordinate to the UK Supreme Court. The announcement was met with criticism from across the political spectrum: former Attorney General Dominic Grieve called the proposal ‘puerile’; Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron suggested that even Churchill would have left the Tories over it, while legal opinion sought by Labour concluded that the proposals were ‘wholly unworkable, legally contradictory and inherently inconsistent’.

Yet the promise was not inconsistent with previous Conservative proposals under Cameron’s leadership: in June 2006, six months into his role as leader of the Opposition, Cameron spoke of shaking up human rights laws through replacing the HRA with a British Bill of Rights; the pledge was included in the party’s 2010 manifesto and a Commission on the Bill of Rights was set up in 2011 (although it failed to reach a consensus).

Regardless of the above, reviving the proposal during this year’s conference has been seen as another response to the UKIP threat. Cameron supported the renewed proposal by referring to Strasburg’s view on UK prisoners’ voting rights, while UKIP had also announced they would not give prisoners the vote. Yet, given the Conservative party’s history on the matter, the pledge for a Bill of Rights was less of a knee jerk reaction and more in line with long-standing Conservative views on how human rights should operate domestically. If that remains in line with UKIP’s view, it simply allows the Conservatives to kill two birds with one stone.

A Conservative party policy paper on this matter has since been published, but it remains unclear what a Bill of Rights will or will not include. The paper also makes the possibility of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights real if a Bill of Rights is not recognised by the Council of Europe; an exit that could in turn jeopardise Britain’s EU membership.

On House of Lords reform and voting age

Other constitutional matters were mainly voiced during Ed Miliband’s speech and included a pledge to lower the voting age to 16, reiterating a promise he made in last year’s conference, as well as to finish the ‘unfinished’ business of House of Lords reform.

That devolution would be the primary constitutional issue to dominate this year’s conferences was to be expected. The timing was an apt opportunity for parties to clarify their points of divergence or of joint action in light of the no vote: Nick Clegg was more aligned with Labour on constitutional change, while Cameron distanced himself from Clegg. Conservative rhetoric on human rights has meanwhile long been viewed as a threat to the coalition. What is still questionable, however, is whether any fundamental constitutional change can be achieved along the lines proposed. A British Bill of Rights is a plan the Conservatives have long repeated but whether it is deliverable remains unclear, while agreeing on ‘English votes for English laws’ would only answer part of the question of devolved governance. A Constitutional Convention, on the other hand, is by nature a major undertaking in terms of formation and trajectory, and could well fail to resolve any of the above.

Artemis Photiadou is a Parliament research intern at the Constitution Unit.

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