Labour Constitutional Reforms

Yesterday, former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown published his long-awaited and over-hyped paper on how Britain is governed. 155 pages and 40 recommendations of profoundly underwhelming constitutional ‘reforms.’

The paper does convincingly make the case that there is a fundamental relationship between how a country is governed and the content of public policy. Perhaps now we will be spared Labour leaders telling us that constitutional reform is a distraction from the bread-and-butter problems people face every day. Maybe we can all agree that reform is about power. The difference will be who wields it.

Front and centre of Labour’s plan for constitutional reform is a commitment to abolish the archaic House of Lords and replace it with a “new, reformed upper chamber.” Sound familiar? That’s because you’ve heard it all before. Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of times Labour manifestoes have promised reform to the unelected upper house. It’s another desperate attempt to get a hint of radicalism into their prospectus.

Even such an obvious democratic reform will face internal opposition within Labour. Lord Mandelson, whilst full of praise for Starmer as the new Blair, was quick to caution him against taking on their Lordships. The report is silent on the exact composition, method or election and powers of the proposed new upper house, meaning it’ll be some time yet before we even see a proper proposal. 

Rest assured, when push comes to shove, you can always rely on Labour to defend the status quo and the British establishment.

Now, the elephant in the room. It is quite astonishing that in the entire report there is no mention of the electoral system. The unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of Westminster could be tackled with a fair voting system which created parliaments reflecting the balance of opinions amongst the electorate – with or without Scotland.

Yet, Brown’s report shied away from the biggest constitutional issue throughout the UK, with no reform to the antiquated first-past-the-post voting system. Despite Labour’s annual conference voting in favour of proportional representation for Westminster elections, the Party leadership appear content to continue a corrupt and anti-democratic system where majority governments can be formed with a minority of votes. This will be depressing for most Labour members who have been pressing for fair votes. It is not even on the agenda.

For Scotland, this paper offers absolutely nothing new of substance. This was Labour’s opportunity to assert the Claim of Right for Scotland, confirming that the people who live here have the right to choose how they are governed. But once again, Labour bottled it. 

You have to get to the bottom of page 51 to find reference to the UK as a voluntary union of nations. Even then, there is no suggestion that this might mean that the consent of the people is required for the union’s continuance.

This is astonishing for a party that once championed home rule. There is an unquestioned assumption that the union is the best – indeed only – structure which allows for the governance of Britain. The idea that Scotland might be politically independent and set the terms for a new relationship with England is simply ignored, even though the proposition is supported by a majority of the Scottish electorate. This paper claims Labour have listened to Scotland. Sadly, they haven’t heard.

There is some welcome, if obvious, suggestions about resisting the attacks of the devolution settlement, such as strengthening the Sewel convention and putting intergovernmental relations on a statutory footing. Hardly earth-shattering.

Labour mistakenly conflates Scotland’s government with devolution to provincial English cities. Utterly failing to grasp that there is a world of difference between the devolution of legislative authority to a nation within a political union, and the decentralisation of administration within the largest country of that political union. This will leave many Scots dismayed and disillusioned.

All this exemplifies their gaping credibility problem. Labour is simply refusing to engage in the argument that dominates Scottish political life – whether we should have the right to choose our own future. The question won’t go away, and Labour are wrong to think that they can just ignore it. 

People across Scotland will see through this week’s announcements, realising that under Labour, not much will change. It is increasingly clear that independence is the only way to secure real change. If we win our political independence, we will have the power to change every aspect of how our lives are governed. To create our own institutions based on democracy, transparency, and accountability.  That will be our challenge in the early years of our new country. 

Meanwhile progressive activists in England have their own fight, to push Labour to deliver on century old promises like Lords reform, and to adopt new democratic systems with electoral reform which they shy away from. Scotland becoming independent and using that agency to create a new democratic constitution can inspire not hinder them in that endeavour.

Comments (2)

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  1. Alec Oattes says:

    No mention of a written Constitution either, so are we still to be Governed by Convention?

    1. Alistair Kewish says:

      The long and curious affair over the Constitution is that it exists in a written format. The content, wording and implications could be transmitted onwards from one generation to the next unless a written version exist.

      While a music student in London, I espied a written version of said Constitution in a book shop. And if no firm version existed, how could we quote from it? By making it up as we see fit? I think not. I don’t think anyone has that good a memory.

      This is perhaps not the right time nor the right place to comment on Scotland wishing to * go it alone*. But to be bound to the wording of the Act of Union does not take into account the changing history of the entire British Isles. How could it predict the future? I will close by saying I actively support Scotland wishing to become a self -governing nation. The ironic part is that the rest of the Union would in fact have nothing to lose. Being dictated to under any regime is immoral and is doomed to failure.

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