Labour faces the UK’s constitutional conundrum

It will doubtless relieve many of you to know that Labour has quietly set up its constitutional commission, touted last year by leader Keir Starmer as the union’s saviour. Early in February Labour’s city mayors and a combined authority met with former prime minister Gordon Brown, beginning the exciting proceedings.

Amid the usual bromides about political disquiet, one comment by Sheffield mayor Dan Jarvis was striking. “People in England need and deserve a better democracy as much as people in any other part of the country,” he said, calling for “the devolution we need to take back control”, presumably with a wink.

The Scottish National Party’s ‘roadmap’ to independence is only the start of the emerging tussle over the United Kingdom’s future. With Scottish parliamentary elections due in May, a political and legal standoff between Westminster and Scotland will dominate headlines in due course.

The irony is that England’s position within the union is far more important than Scotland’s. While it is conceivable that a rump UK could survive the exit or Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, if England leaves it takes 83% of the population with it, as well as most central government infrastructure. As Jarvis says, the need for reform is therefore urgent in England, even if attention is fixed on Scotland.

Joining this debate is also the obscure Scottish Labour Left group, which published its own recommendations for constitutional reform, having been commissioned by former leader Jeremy Corbyn. Given that the introduction to the report was signed in February 2020, one can only guess why it has been released this month.

On the Scottish question, the report advocates devolving more powers, including those related to tax-raising, borrowing, international treaties, drug regulation, and social security. It also calls for a commission to review the Barnett formula for determining devolved budgets, and seeks to restrict Westminster’s ability to interfere in Scottish affairs.

Such changes are however mere tinkering compared to the nationwide recommendations, which include the following highlights:

  • Adopt a federal, codified and legally-entrenched constitution
  • Abolish the royal prerogative, codify the monarch’s remaining powers, and subject the latter to judicial review
  • Abolish the aristocracy and honours system, replacing the latter with a civic award
  • Codify rules for the Home Office, Foreign Office, Treasury, Prime Minister’s Office, territorial offices, cabinet, official opposition, and House of Commons
  • Replace the House of Lords with a senate of the nations and regions, and establish voting by proportional representation in the House of Commons
  • Give devolved national and region bodies permanent constitutional status independent of the UK government
  • Overhaul English votes for English laws and delineate when the UK government is acting for England or the UK
  • Form a council of the union as the “supreme executive body on federal-devolved relations” alongside a committee for relations between parliaments
  • Incorporate the Good Friday Agreement into the constitution
  • Allow the senate to screen judicial appointments, and convert permanent secretaries within the civil service into political appointments
  • Strengthen judicial reviews to check government action against the constitution

The net effect of these proposals is to more rigorously codify the ramshackle British constitution, remove many ancient customs, and decentralise the state into a million committees, in stereotypical socialist style.

People will argue over the practical benefits of much of the above. But some of the passages will also provoke partisan controversy:

The constitution should include a constitutional commitment to socialism through the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange for the UK’s key assets and key industries including the NHS. […] The new constitution should set out an apology for the actions of the British Empire and provide for a Colonial Apology and Reparations Fund to redress the historic wrongs and injustices imposed by the empire on communities around the world.

Such conclusions show the two risks of constitutional reform: that the process will be captured by nerds and that it will bake nakedly-political aims into rules that should focus on establishing a fair pluralistic democracy. Additionally, Brown’s commission must contend with cynics who dismiss such debate as irrelevant to citizens’ lives.

“Voters don’t care about how the D’Hondt system works or about how you’d geographically carve up a regional assembly into different constituencies and what powers it would have,” was the verdict of John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley in the West Midlands. “They want results.”

Spellar is right in that few will have to stomach to consume a 234-page report. But the results that voters want are contingent on the rules of the game, which currently favour the two big parties in Westminster. Changing those rules doesn’t guarantee better government, but it will make it more likely – or less.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact

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