Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

David Cameron declares war on Scotland

The independence referendum may have been lost, but the SNP continues to slowly advance towards its ultimate goal. David Cameron's partisan selfishness is slowly driving Britain apart.

That the SNP's spectacular goading is behind the Conservatives' openly self-centred manoeuvring should not be in doubt. When yesterday's draft bill on Scottish devolution was published, first minister Nicola Sturgeon made clear her party was prepared to break its longstanding principle that it steers clear of any English-only matters. It was a brilliant move that has flushed the Tories' plottings into the open.

"If there was a vote in the House of Commons to repeal the privatisation of the health service that has been seen in England, we would vote for that because that would help to protect Scotland's budget," she told the BBC. This shift matters because, while the SNP only have six MPs right now, they are very likely to have at least 20 more after 2015.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have reason to be worried. At the weekend a Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times put the SNP on 41%, down four points, with Labour up three points to 31%. That represented a narrowing of the gap for Ed Miliband's Scottish MPs, who are moping and moaning around Westminster that they are all doomed. Even those with majorities of over 14,000 find themselves deeply pessimistic about their prospects. And the latest poll won't have helped: an Ipsos Mori poll for STV, the latest to come out, puts Labour behind by 28 points, suggesting the SNP could take 55 of Scotland's 59 seats.

Turning this promise into reality requires Sturgeon to nullify the main warning now being hurled at wavering voters: that if they back the SNP in May they'll end up with a Tory government. Hence her promise to intervene in English-only affairs to protect the kinds of things, like the NHS, that Labour MPs would be voting on anyway. It was politically necessary, but also very deftly done because it represents a new threat to the PM's ability to continue in Downing Street after May 7th. No wonder he responded so robustly – and in doing so flushed the Tories' own machinations into the open.

Sturgeon's plan, Cameron has declared, would be "wrong".

"It's only fair as a Westminster member of parliament I don't have the ability to vote on Scottish health or education or housing," he said.

"I don't see why in future SNP members or indeed Labour, Liberal or Conservatives members or Alex Salmond himself should be able to come to Westminster and have the decisive say on English or Welsh education, health service or other issues."

Complaining of 'unfairness' in this context is meaningless because every possible arrangement will be unfair to someone. Britain is an asymmetric place which already has unbalanced power arrangements: in London, in Wales, in Scotland, in England, in built-up areas now agreeing city deals, the breadth and depth of devolution are all different, but their MPs have the same say in Westminster. When Cameron talks of what is 'fair', he means 'fair' for the Conservative party's interests only.

This would not matter much if he hadn't then taken a step further than he ought to have done - by bringing the SNP's voting rights on English matters into play.

"It wouldn't be appropriate for English constituents to have a rate of tax essentially imposed on them by Scottish members of parliament," he added.

Where on earth had this come from?

Only three days have passed since George Osborne told MPs Scottish MPs would still be permitted to vote on the Budget.

And under the Conservatives' three proposals published in the government's command paper on options for English votes for English laws, there is nothing at all which suggests the SNP would be restricted from having a say on these issues.

The approach being pursued by William Hague is one of ensuring a double-veto. English MPs would be given the opportunity of voting down anything they don't like being imposed by a Labour government propped up, say, by MPs in Scotland. But the bill would ultimately have to be passed by a majority of British MPs for it to become law. That would apply to Budgets as well as everything else.

It's almost as if the Tory strategizing has been solely focused on ensuring a Conservative opposition can block Labour bills, and not at all on the possibility of a Conservative government's proposals being scuppered by Scottish opposition.

Cameron's intervention has come from nowhere. That makes it brazenly partisan. There is no regard here for what is best for the long-term stability of the UK. Instead we have a naked, grim struggle for power in which principles are harnessed for political ends, rather than being pursued in their own right.

The Conservatives have been goaded by circumstance into embarking on a constitutional struggle that is not of their making. It is the SNP that takes the credit for this. It is the SNP which will be gaining in power and influence after 2015. Sturgeon and the man who will lead the SNP in parliament after May, Alex Salmond, may have lost a battle last September. But it is entirely possible they could yet win the war.

There's a gaping hole in Ed Miliband's voter registration speech

There's a gigantic hole in Ed Miliband's speech on voter registration - and much of the media coverage surrounding the "scandal" of the coalition's reforms.

Let's be clear - this really is a scandal. Politics.co.uk has already reported on the problems caused by the transition to individual electoral registration, which is threatening to benefit the Conservatives' hopes of winning the general election.

The problem is, it's not the 2015 election which is at stake. As next to no-one has mentioned in the reporting on Miliband's speech, it's the 2020 election which is actually going to be affected.

That's because the government saw this attack coming and has already acted to try and negate it as much as possible.

It's doing so via a very simple step. Anyone who disappears from the register since the last canvass under the old system will be automatically carried over to the new register for 2015. Those million voters who have vanished, many of which are students, will all still be registered to vote.

It's in 2016, when there are nevertheless vital elections taking place, that the carry-over period finishes. That's when the sudden drop in the size of the actual register will take place.

It will have a massive impact on the redrawing of constituency boundaries, which are reshuffled according to the data held on the electoral register. Areas full of mobile populations - ie, big towns and cities - will have their representation in parliament cut, while the rural counties mostly held by Conservative MPs will benefit proportionately.

Yes, this is a scandal - but it's not quite as relevant to the 2015 election as everyone is suggesting.

When the government announced its decision to do the carry-over for 2015 - a hard-won concession and a small victory for the Commons' political and constitutional reform committee - everyone in Westminster concerned with the issue assumed the coalition's move would prevent it being embarrassing for ministers in the coming campaign.

But today's speech from Miliband, which comes after weeks of hard work from staff at Labour HQ collating the figures from local authorities, has somehow managed to avoid the fact this issue won't change anything in 2015 at all.

Actually, Miliband goes further than just ignoring this basic reality by omission. He directly seeks to politicise it by pursuing a voter registration push:

"Labour will now lead a national mission to stop young people being denied a voice at in this election. And today I urge universities, local councils, and young people themselves to play their part. Let's work together to register young people to vote and make sure they don't lose their voice."

They won't lose their voice at all, because if they were registered last year they will be again this time around.

And as ministers have pointed out, many of those who will still be on the electoral register would previously have been registered twice - at their homes and in their university's constituency.

These nuances are being lost in the debate, which is far removed from the realities of what is actually a very complex situation.

Yes, the Lib Dems have secured £10 million of funding to help boost electoral registration rates.

But, as the Electoral Reform Society has pointed out, that works out as just £3 per unregistered voter. The Lib Dems appears set on pushing through the changes too rapidly, risking the creation of a distorted electoral map for the 2020 election.

You can't blame a leader of the opposition for pointing out the flawed nature of the government's approach to electoral registration, especially when the reforms will directly damage his own party's prospects.

But it should at least be pointed out that it's not the students of 2015 who will lose their voice - it's those currently doing their GCSEs who are actually in the firing line.

UPDATE: Labour responds

Labour insist the 'missing million' figure is based on actual electoral registers - they say it's already taken into account any negating effect that the carrying-over of voters will have had. This is a good point.

So too is the claim that any voters who forgot to respond to the last full household canvas in the winter of 2013/14 won't be carried over at all.

When it comes to students, they point out many will have moved since they were registered last year. They won't get poll cards as a result, which will mean they have no idea they are registered.

And first-year students, of course, won't be helped by any of this.

These are all valid points, and they do serve to increase the nature of the problem for the 2015 election.

But they don't change the fact the really significant jolt to the system won't come this year but in 2020, when these reforms will really come home to hit Labour hardest of all.

MPs shatter David Cameron's EVEL promise

Bitterly partisan and failing to display any signs of agreement, MPs' failure to rise to the occasion on English votes for English laws shows they are beyond redemption.

What makes the response to William Hague's statement on English devolution so depressing is that the Commons just carried on with business as usual.

The frontbenchers exchanged barbs over the relative failures in government of the coalition and of New Labour. The backbenchers heckled about the irrelevant Barnett formula and a dozen of their own half-developed ideas. They cancelled each other out, leaving an absence of anything meaningful.

They have also combined together to collectively break a big pledge from the prime minister.

Speaking in the early morning of September 19th, soon after the 'No' result was confirmed, David Cameron promised to English voters that his government would pursue an answer to the West Lothian Question "in tandem" with the Scottish devolution timetable. It was a pledge every bit as important as the infamous 'vow' to Scotland. Perhaps it emerged from the relieved euphoria which followed the result. Whatever the cause, it was a promise Westminster was destined to ensure could not be kept.

Hague, the leader of the House in what is set to be his last big job in politics, tried hard to at least maintain the impression of concurrent progress. But today he effectively admitted he has failed. Questioned by SNP MP Pete Wishart, Hague confirmed: "There is nothing conditional about any of these proposals... we can express the wish that [Scottish and English devolution] are concurrent, but they are not conditional and we are not tied to them."

It is the final death of the 'in tandem' promise. And it means all the urgency has gone out of the debate: the union is saved, allowing everything else to be downgraded in importance. There is a lot of anger about Scottish devolution, but no real answer about how to mirror it in England. Instead there is only division.

Division within the Tory party

Hague had been hoping to unite the Tory party behind a single proposal by the end of November. That didn't work out so well, and now there are few signs of Conservative unity this side of the election. John Redwood, whose preferred hardline option excluding non-English MPs from any English-only matter, led the charge. "England expects!" he thundered. It doesn't look like he can ever be placated.

Division within the government

The statement, revealing the differing views of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, led to the bizarre spectacle of Hague outlining Lib Dem views. He could barely keep himself from laughing as he worked his way through text about the single transferable vote. "There is no cross-party consensus," he observed drily, pulling himself together. The handful of Lib Dem MPs who bothered to show up - a very poor show from a party that supposedly cares passionately about constitutional reform - shifted in their seats uncomfortably as Labour and Tory MPs joined together in mocking laughter.

Division between the two main parties

Labour's shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, who has boycotted Hague's working group on the issue, baffled the Commons by insisting this was a "debate we are seeking to lead". His criticisms of the Tories' selfishness were undermined by hypocrisy, because Labour's positioning is just as preoccupied by partisan advantage. Hague responded by accusing Labour of "the remarkable feat of being out-of-touch with themselves" on English devolution. The stench of the looming general election filled the air.

Division between Westminster and the rest of us

"There are times when I have been very proud of this House rising to the great occasion, but today I feel ashamed of the House," Barry Sheerman shouted angrily. Graham Allen talked of "moving around the green benches on the Titanic". Hague hoped for a deal, but Allen just yelled back: "Get out of the bubble." John Denham lamented "the tragedy" of being "so close to a lasting agreement". So close, and yet so far. These voices were the ones identifying the real failure of Westminster in the wake of the Scottish referendum.

What the politicians want are dividing lines to help them win power in next year's general election.

I've written before about how this failure to reach agreement isn't such bad news for Hague, who in overseeing the process has at least put his party in a position where it can win votes. That is clever of him and serves his party's interest, but it does not serve that of ordinary people. The English, who Cameron had allowed to hope they might get more powers, deserve to feel very sorely disappointed at this rabble. Instead of real change they're getting more of the same, and nothing looks like changing it.

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