Why was an English Parliament referendum not on the POWER2010 shortlist?

OurKingom publishes an exchange between Anthony Barnett, Guy Aitchison and Gareth Young on the question of why a referendum on an English Parliament did not make it in to the POWER2010 shortlist of democratic reform proposals.
ourKingdom editors
19 January 2010

Here OurKingom publishes an exchange between Anthony Barnett, Guy Aitchison and Gareth Young on the question of why a referendum on an English Parliament did not make it in to the POWER2010 shortlist of democratic reform proposals (for background on the POWER2010 campaign see here).

From: Anthony Barnett

Hi Gareth, 

Just to let you know that the results of the Power2010 deliberative poll are published.

They provide interesting and surprising results. I had thought - and indeed hoped - that the EU and English Parliament questions would have come through on the final long 'short-list'. 

Best wishes,  Anthony

From: Gareth Young

Hi Anthony,

Yes, it's very disappointing.  When I told the CEP email group that a referendum on an English parliament had missed the cut because it had been relegated following the consultation exercise, it's fair to say that phrases such as 'stitch-up' and 'biased experts' were banded about.

I always thought that the difficulty with this exercise was going to be in convincing the public that they should accept the recommendations of the deliberative group.  If the CEP's reaction is anything to go by then I am right. 

The criticism that Power2010 will get - and this is what I thought as soon as I looked at the results - is that the 29 reforms do not read like the reforms that 'ordinary voters' would prioritise.  It does read as if participants have been led somewhat - reforms popular amongst hardened reformers seem to have become more popular after the consultation.  This may simply be a function of the participants' greater understanding of the issues, but Power2010 should probably ready themselves for a cynical reaction from some quarters.

However, the CEP will take it on the chin and I've advised them not to put out a negative press release (not that I have any say in the matter).  It will be interesting to see whether they encourage members to vote for 'English Votes on English Laws'.  The CEP has always been opposed to that policy, but secretly they'd all love to see Gordon Brown lobbied to sign up to a pledge that included that.  At the very least it will kick off a debate in the Conservative Party about the English Question, which is a debate that they don't want to have until after the election.

I'm disappointed, and slightly sceptical about what was said by the experts, but I'm still excited about the debate that Power2010 might cause.


From: Guy Aitchison

Hi Gareth,

Anthony forwarded me your email.

Although Power2010 has taken precautions to ensure the process is as transparent and democratic as possible, I think that to some degree it's inevitable that a process like this which involves distilling a shortlist of reform proposals from a much longer list, is going to get accused of being a "stitch up". Understandably, campaigners, convinced of the ultimate justice of their cause, will find it hard to accept their proposals didn’t make it in after due deliberation.

Personally, I'd have liked a referendum on an English Parliament to be on the shortlist (alongside several other reforms), because it’s something that needs to be addressed and I sympathise somewhat with the view that debate has been suppressed by the political and media classes in general. I can also see how it's not being on the shortlist looks fairly odd because so many people submitted the idea online (although I imagine the CEP emailing its members accounted for a lot of the submissions).

It’s worth bearing in mind that a referendum on an English Parliament was (perhaps surprisingly) not that popular among participants before the deliberations (it had 54% support). From my observations of the small group discussions, I think a lot of people were concerned about having another layer of politicians with the additional cost and bureaucracy this brings with it. All new units of government, including English regional assemblies, were fairly unpopular and didn’t make the shortlist. This says something about the current unpopularity of politicians I guess; something which the CEP may like to tactically consider. 

Tony Travers, Stuart Wilks Heeg, Tim Bale and Alan Trench were the experts on the devolution session - they answered questions the participants had come up with following their small group discussions. Alan Trench spelt out all the possible solutions to the English Question and then said there were problems with all of them - he emphasised the point that an unbalanced federation would probably spell the end of the Union, mentioning the fact England is twice as big proportionally to Ontario, the only comparable federal unit out there. I think most people in the room were keen on the Union. Trench certainly hadn't been briefed to say that and I think you'd find it difficult to find any academic expert who would not have made the same point on that issue.

There have been some comments (not by you, it should be said) that have implied Power2010 set out to manipulate the outcome by ensuring the expert panel influenced participants in a certain direction. This certainly wasn't the case and I think it does a disfavour to participants who were people of independent judgement, capable of weighing up the balance of arguments for themselves and arriving at their own views. They would have sensed if they were being pushed in a certain direction. On this point, here is an email sent to me by a participant:

One  big criticism that is possible  of an event like this is that it has a partisan agenda, either explicitly or implicitly from the organisers of the event (Labour from Baroness Kennedy or Lib Dems from the JRRT and JRCT?), or from the selection of the participants. The representativeness of the participants has been discussed elsewhere by Professor Fishkin and Guy  Aichison. In terms of how our group approached the discussions, party affiliations were not asked for or offered in our group, although it was often possible to guess. I would strongly state that the discussions in our group were taken very seriously, were discussed rationally and in a non-partisan atmosphere. Of course there were strong differences of opinion but the discussions were always respectful the other person's views.

It is my personal view that the discussion document was very even handed, with no evident partisan bias, and the idea that is was the product of a group with a certain ideology was not expressed by anyone in our group or by other participants I encountered in the breaks.

On the influence of the moderators, I posted this comment on Cif in response to a concern:

I can say that our mediator was meticulous in not letting his personal opinions into the discussion, he was ensuring that all the proposals in each session were discussed, that we were not allowed to go off-track into unrelated areas, to keep the discussion moving along and to allow everyone to voice their opinions. There were also observers walking the room ensuring that the moderators were sticking to these guidelines. In the rare cases where everyone in our group had unanimous opinions. he would read out the opposing opinions to ensure that we had considered the alternate point of view.

He was not allowed to tell us anything of his personal background until after we had completed our final survey. It was only at this stage, when it could have no influence on the outcome, that we learnt that he had a very strong view on one of the proposals for which our group had very little enthusiasm. No hint of this came out in the discussions.'

On that blog someone also commented that the 'strong presence of Prof Fishkin . over the whole set of proceedings and those defending the day's constant reference and deferral to him slightly unsettling.' I cannot comment on his influence on the organizers, but he was a non-existent figure to the participants until his very brief talk at the end of the proceedings.

The only area where opinions were noticeable outside of the participant's discussions was from the experts, which is unavoidable. However I would say that this was minimal for the majority of the panel discussions. There was no noticeable partisan views from the panel and they mainly dealt with facts and clarifications, but occasionally their strong personal opinions came through , e.g. the desire for a Bill of Rights (David Erdos I believe) or the strong localism views of Tony Travers. However these strong views were tempered by a balanced panel.

I do hope that you can persuade the public and also MPs and party leaders of the validity of the whole process, I certainly believe that this stage of the process was carried out with a sound methodology that was very effective in removing partisan or ideological bias.

From: Gareth Young


There's no such thing as impartiality when it comes to issues of identity and nationalism (which is what an English parliament is about more than devolution).  Alan Trench is a Brit who favours a Welsh Parliament but not an English Parliament.  I know full well what he thinks of my politics.  He's a political enemy and I didn't expect an EP to come out well with him in charge.  The only way you could have achieved impartiality was to have an expert who did support an English parliament (Simon Lee perhaps).  Anyway, it's water under the bridge now, what's done is done.

On the question of partisanship, I'm certainly not accusing anyone of putting political allegiances in the way of democratic reform.

For what it's worth I didn't agree with "Owly's" comments on OK.

From: Anthony Barnett

Hi Gareth and Guy,

Just to add, I observed the discussion of the English parliament in one of the smaller groups. What struck me impressionistically was three things:

There was an immediate reaction of, we don't want more politicians, and isn't it 'another layer' of politicians, which was accepted as a negative by one of the group who favoured it. The general cynicism and price of hostility to politics means a price is being paid here. In general, as can be seen from people wanting a stronger parliament, there is an understanding of the need for representatives who can give voice to regular folk against the executive. But as soon as the members of the parliament are described as "politicians" the feeling (encouraged massively by the media, of course) of 'more means worse' comes through.

Second, it seemed to me that it was older participants who wanted an English parliament of some kind, they were articulate and reasoned - but not university educated. Whereas the younger members of the group were less articulate though better educated and uneasy about any kind of national identification. They were pro-european but again in a wishy washy way.

Third, everyone's tone was thoughtful and respectful but it was pretty clear to me that the larger case for an English parliament simply has not got through yet to the public whilst a generalised fear for the Union and Britishness, a sense of vulnerability, has.

Cheers,  Anthony

From: Gareth Young

On the CEP blog I have encouraged CEP members and supporters to vote for EVoEL, and provided reasons why I believe that they should do so.  Further reaction from David Rickard and Chris Vine is available on the CEP's sister site, English Parliament online.


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