The report has finally been launched after a few weeks of to-ing and fro-ing in the media raising questions about one of its more eye-catching proposals: would the House of Lords be abolished and would it would be a first term commitment or be delayed to sometime in the future? On the same day different news outlets were claiming that Keir Starmer had committed himself to a first term change and others saying that he had not given that commitment. Starmer did state clearly at the launch that it would be consulted on in advance of the next General Election so that it could be in Labour’s manifesto and its recommendations could be ready to be implemented in the first term.
The central flaw in the document is the failure to recognise that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between those who have power, wealth and privilege and those who don’t. So when the report aspires to a new Britain that should “be grounded in shared values and aspirations that unite people across our country and make it possible to build new constitutional foundations” it is starting from a false premise.
It is hard just to set aside such a significant difference, but beyond that there are some interesting ideas, some of it covering the same ground dealt with by Sean Griffin in his 2020 ‘Remaking the British State for the Many Not the Few’*
Many of the recommendations made in the Brown paper could form the basis for a serious discussion about how four nations and disparate regions can share power without being dominated by the over centralisation of Westminster and the City of London. It makes the case for decisions to be taken as close as possible to the people they affect but also wants to put in statute based constitutional protection of social rights through basic minimum standards. The potential conflict between local decision making and universal rights is long standing, but ensuring minimum standards allow local decisions to improve but not fall below these basic rights.
The report gives a role for English representatives in Councils of the Nations and Regions. There is no reference to regional assemblies but ‘local leaders’ would have a role.
The component parts of the UK would have a legal obligation to co-operate with different levels of government through a ‘solidarity clause’. The devolved administrations would have a role in international trade and public bodies would be required to include national and regional representatives.
The report condemns the competition-based approach used to give resources to local authorities and instead proposes to encourage cooperation. It identifies a link between centralisation and the competitive approach to sleaze which leads on to the proposals to ‘clean up government’ include banning MPs having second jobs. However when it goes on to describe its New Economy for a New Britain it requires a leap of faith.
The argument is that the UK will be “awash with a new economic dynamism, released from the dead hand of over-centralised decision making. Instead, our cities, towns and regions will be empowered to encourage the innovative research, the high level of skills and the supportive infrastructure that will create new power houses of industrial growth”. We are left to ponder how this will happen while so much of our industry and commerce is owned by hedge funds and multinational companies.
It does, however, rightly state that the strength of our democracy and vitality of our economy are intertwined. But it misses the need for democratic control of our economy as well as our political structures.
The report acknowledges that the case for the House of Lords is indefensible. Clearly the continued places reserved for hereditary peers is ridiculous and so is its size, which tends to expand each time we have a new prime minister. It is made up of a mixed bag of the so called ‘great and the good’ bringing expertise and experience, ex MPs and those appointed as a reward for favours rendered.
Some of the members do perform an important function in scrutinising legislation often far more effectively than in the House of Commons, but that does not make up for its elitism, its London bias or its lack of representation of people with a different type of expertise and life experience that is underrepresented in all parts of government.
The report does not advocate a federal structure for the UK and continues to defend the primacy of the House of Commons. So, in order to give the new second chamber a clear function it becomes the Assembly of the Nations and Regions of the UK. It will lose some of its ability to delay legislation but will be given a clear role in safeguarding the statutes that are constitutional. These statutes are described as ‘analogous to a written constitution’.
How the chamber will be elected is open to consultation but should be representative of the nations and regions. A reformed second chamber has been promised since 1911 but on every occasion when it could have happened it has seemed too big a job. It will always be hard to achieve a consensus that includes the second chamber voting itself out of existence, but it must happen. A clear statement in a General Election manifesto should be the basis for pushing such change through. The worry is that the confusion over whether Starmer is firmly committed to this policy or not, suggests that there is pressure within his own team, including perhaps from sitting Peers, not to do anything, or at most very little.
The report does make the new second chamber central to its proposals as it would, to some extent, act as a balance to the centralised nature of Westminster. It would bring the interests of the nations and regions to the centre of power. Instead of the regions being separate spokes in a big wheel, they would have the chance find common interests and form more powerful alliances.
Brown says in the report that the second chamber is a “signature aspect of our proposal”. This suggests that it is the essential part and would have to be in place for the other parts to be effective.
Scotland and Wales
The purposes of The Commission was to look at the UK as a whole: it is notable that there are no elected members from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. There are Councillors from Durham, Oldham and Birmingham, the elected Mayor of Bristol, former First Minister of Wales, a former Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland who is now a Peer in addition to two trade union officials and some academics.
It is understandable why the Commission would be reluctant to say too much about Northern Ireland as its Constitutional position is shaped by the Good Friday Agreement. The fact that Wales has a Labour First Minister gives Mark Drakeford a more powerful voice than Anas Sarwar in Scotland. The report notes that the Welsh government has established a Commission to examine various constitutional issues. It has been left to develop these separately and it expects “a Labour Government to engage constructively with its recommendations.”
That leaves Scotland, which unfortunately, has not sought to establish a Scottish constitutional commission, even though Scottish Labour agreed that it would in a motion passed unanimously at its Conference in Spring 2022.
Instead, it has to deal with these proposals which have been put forward without direct consultation with the Party members or the wider coalition of trade unions, civic society and political parties called for in the motion. This has not gone down well; it appears to be another ‘solution’ for Scotland coming from on high.
The lack of this voice is clear when the proposals are examined. Coming as the support for independence is surging, it will do nothing to make the Labour Party’s offer to the electorate any more attractive than it has been in all the elections since 2014.
It is unlikely that electors will be convinced that giving the Scottish Government a voice in international affairs and a limited right to join international bodies such as UNESCO, the Nordic Council and the Erasmus scheme will find much resonance.
It’s weak offer on the devolution of job centres will not create more high skilled, well paid jobs which would actually require more taxation and borrowing powers. Greater powers over immigration would allow Scotland to be able to rebalance its workforce and reinvigorate many of its towns and cities.
It takes a step backwards on the devolution of employment rights which had previously been Labour’s position. The lack of concern over drugs policy is a big mistake.
The proposals continue to let the Scottish Government off the hook by allowing them to blame Westminster for their lack of radical solutions to chronic problems.
The report fails to grasp the key question in Scotland: how can we move on from being stuck in a debate over whether Scotland has the right to have a referendum? Labour supposedly supports the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs but fails to explain what the legal route is to bring this about. If we believe we have a better offer than either independence or the status quo we should start the dialogue with the STUC and others to build a third option now before the only choice brought to the Scottish people is two varieties of neo-liberalism.
This article originally appeared in the Morning Star on Monday 12th December: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/new-britain-renewing-our-democracy-and-rebuilding-our-economy