Gaming out devolution

What’s the central fact of the debate about how to renegotiate the union after #indyref? Here it comes: there is a hard deadline in May 2015, when there must be a general election.

This is important because it changes all the actors’ bargaining positions.

The situation

Usually, in British parliamentary politics, a majority can do pretty much anything, but the minority can stall for time up to about a year, when the Parliament Act kicks in. But this changes when an election is coming; everything that was left on the agenda automatically falls when Parliament is prorogued.

It’s possible to pass leftover legislation through the so-called washup. Basically this means that if all parties agree on a text, it can be passed. That’s another way of saying that when there is less than a year left to ago before an election, the minority’s power to delay is effectively upgraded to a power to spike. If everyone has to agree to something, everyone has a veto.

If you have a very big majority you can hurry things up, although the House of Lords can still cause trouble. If you have time, you can force it. But at the moment, nobody has a big majority, and the election is in May.

The model

All parties have committed to passing a Scotland bill, implementing more devolution. The Tories want a biscuit in exchange for this, something like “English votes for English laws”. Labour, for their part, would like regional devolution. And there is a deadline. Because of the deadline, the Tory-led government can’t just pass what it wants.

First of all, there may not be a majority in the Commons for EVEL, as I think I will call it, although there may be for evil. Labour hates it; the Scots, Welsh, and Irish hate it; several Lib Dem ministers, notably Danny Alexander, would have to resign immediately if it passed because they couldn’t vote or speak on their own ministerial business. The Tories are in favour but I’m not sure if they are unanimous about it. That doesn’t give you a majority.

Even if you somehow got one, though, there isn’t enough majority to pass it quickly, before the deadline. That needs either a big and stable majority, or the opposition agreeing to co-operate. So, pretty much everyone involved has a veto on passing anything substantial.

That means the question is “Deal, or no deal?”, or in political science jargon, “is this better than the Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement, BATNA?” The alternative for all parties is “go to the country with our proposal on the manifesto”.

The parameters

The Tory proposal is either EVEL or some sort of “English parliament”. If, like all other devolved administrations, it was elected on proportional representation, I can see this turning out quite shitty for the Tories, with Labour, Liberals, left-of-Labour, Greens, and ‘kippers all over the place. It might also ruin the game for Tory county councils, aka Tory MPs at an earlier stage in their careers. And it would be very difficult to defend something that parallels Westminster 90% of the time as a sensible use of public money. So I think they would go for EVEL rather than EP.

The Labour one looks like some sort of regional devolution, whether city regions or even a Northern entity. This would obviously be just great for Labour (and possibly also both left-of-Labour and ‘kippers). I don’t know about you but “a powerful voice for more regen and infrastructure money in your community” beats “we solved the West Lothian question” as a slogan in my opinion.

The Tories also have the problem of trying to appeal to pro-Union sentiment – which turns out to be a thing! – by taking Scots’ and Welshmen’s votes away.

Even if EVEL polls reasonably well, it may be rather like Euroscepticism in being an issue a lot of people agree with, vaguely, but don’t care about much. Tories seem to have a fatal attraction to those. I tentatively think EVEL would help in Tory-UKIP fights, although the ‘kippers might pick up EP as a counter-offer. They are a protest party and it’s a more strident protest, and if it happened they would probably have better chances of actual influence in it. On the other hand, regdev would help Labour mobilise pretty much everywhere there are substantial numbers of Labour voters.

The output

Well, that would suggest Labour’s BATNA is better than the Tories’, so the Tories would be advised to make a deal that gets something passed before the 2015 GE, rather than see them walk. Of course, there is a potential rogue actor in that some of the Tories might rebel. From a Labour point of view, that would just be gravy. Question the parameters if you like, but this does seem to be what Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband are doing.

See here, and here.

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