True to the Law of Unintended Consequences, one of the most profound legacies of the SNP campaign to win independence for Scotland has been a sudden up tick in political self awareness for the English. Considering seven out of every eight citizens of the UK reside in England, how this manifests itself will have profound implications not just for England but for the rest of the UK, and Europe beyond.
A myriad of options and alternatives are doing the rounds on newspaper editorials and personal blogs, ranging from a full English Parliament right down to devolved cities, and when one considered that Manchester alone has an economy larger than Wales there is certainly some merit to many of the claims. The challenge for politicians now is to manage this English sentiment and channel it astutely, lest it fall into the hands of the likes of the English Democrats or the BNP. Both the Tories and UKIP have been quick off the mark in associating themselves as being ‘on the side of the English’ despite few concrete proposals from Farage and only a commitment to more committees from Cameron. But in politics perception is reality and the perception is that the Conservatives and UKIP are sympathetic to England’s plight.
Of course the Tories and UKIP have little choice other than to be the party of the English, given their negligible presence in Scotland Parliament or Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. Rather it is Labour who’ll find themselves struggling to resolve the English Question, as evidenced by the fact that Ed Miliband has yet to state his position on the subject.
On the face of it, Labour should have an easy time of it, enjoying healthy majorities throughout their historic powerbases in the northern industrial towns. These areas are predominately working class and are more openly patriotic than their counterparts in the global city of London, which in the eyes of many in my home of Bolton might as well be a foreign country. The problem for Labour is that they can no longer count on the urban north as theirs by right; an electoral boon they’ve enjoyed for fifty years. During the early 1990’s Labour’s NEC make the calculation that, given the urban north would never vote Tory, Labour could begin to target the socially liberal, metropolitan middle class in London and its suburbs. The cynical computation was that Labour’s traditional supports would still vote Labour because they had nowhere else to go; the Tories being a by-word for the Devil, and the Lib Dems being a hobby for the suburban Middle Class. And it worked, for three consecutive elections.
Labour has spend nearly twenty years pursuing polices on welfare, crime, Europe, energy taxes, private sector involvement in the public services, and most saliently immigration, that are wildly out of sync with the views of the their traditional supporters. In Scotland they’ve seen support drain away to the SNP. In northern England, the biggest beneficiaries of this have been UKIP. The party of Nigel Farage still attract disgruntled Tories (including a sitting MP no less), but from a parliamentary election point of view UKIP fare best in traditional Labour heartlands, not Tory ones. If UKIP are going to pick up seats in 2015, it’ll be in the urban north, not the rural south.
Like the SNP in Scotland, UKIP in England filled the gap left by Labour when they started to target the cosmopolitan middle class. UKIP appeal to the northern working class through a heady mixture of social conservatism and economic protectionism. The ubiquitous ‘LibLabCon’ mantra may make me and you roll our eyes, but to many it’s an all too accurate assessment of a cosy political class that at best no longer represent them, and at worst actively despise them. Even UKIP’s approach is endearing. What Westminster and politicos see as ‘amateurism’ and ‘gaffs’, many voters see ‘genuine’ and ‘straight talking’, both traits the professional political class are seen as severely lacking. The UKIP threat will only increase once it’s received a valid shot in the arm with a victory for Douglas Carswell in Clacton.
With the Tory stranglehold on English rural areas as strong as ever, and UKIP insurgency in northern English towns , it’s little wonder Labour are twitchy over any moves to put England on a constitutional par with the rest of the UK.