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Patrick Diamond

David Richards

January 11th, 2023

Can Labour’s plans for constitutional reform deliver a “new politics”?

0 comments | 32 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Patrick Diamond

David Richards

January 11th, 2023

Can Labour’s plans for constitutional reform deliver a “new politics”?

0 comments | 32 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Amid the upheaval surrounding the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and increasingly heated debates on devolution, the Labour Party has set out its vision for the future of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Aiming to capitalise on voters’ frustrations with the status quo, the party hopes its promises can bring an end to its prolonged spell in opposition. Yet delivering on them once in power, argue Patrick Diamond and David Richards, will present many dilemmas.

The recent publication of the Labour Party’s “Commission on the UK’s Future” – A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding Our Economy – chaired by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has launched a renewed debate about the UK Constitution and the state of contemporary British politics in the wake of Brexit. The report, published on 5 December 2022, makes familiar criticisms of the British political system, which is identified as being among the most centralised in Europe, rooted in the top-down approach to politics enshrined in the dominant Westminster model.

The report argues that citizens feel disenfranchised and poorly represented by the existing constitutional settlement, a situation that the Brexit referendum has so far done little to resolve. Indeed, Brexit has arguably compounded the problem of disconnection, raising expectations that citizens can “take back control”, while in practice centralising decision-making in Whitehall and Westminster.

An economic vision for reform

Previously we charted the response by Westminster’s political class to the issue of growing disengagement from traditional forms of arena politics over the last thirty years, often associated with the rise of “anti-politics”. What then followed were vocal demands for a “new politics”, often articulated by parties in opposition, requiring greater “participatory, pluralistic, devolved and deliberative approaches” to governance and the constitution. Our study of party manifestos and subsequent reform programmes revealed “… a failure by governments to deliver on their earlier rhetoric’ of political renewal.”

Political reform and economic reform are viewed as symbiotic and deeply interwoven.

What makes the report of Labour’s Commission distinctive as a contribution to the ongoing debate is that the case for political reform is focused as much on economic as constitutional grounds. Political reform and economic reform are viewed as symbiotic and deeply interwoven. The report’s introduction observes: “When we should be unleashing the potential for growth and opportunity in every part of our country, the continuing over-concentration of power in Westminster and Whitehall is undermining our ability to deliver growth and prosperity for the whole country”. The Commission make the case for devolving power downwards and “more equally across the country” to revive “… people’s faith that we can all benefit from a responsive and accountable system of government.”

As such, the report is organised around five central themes:

  • a new vision for Britain based on constitutional guarantees of greater equality of treatment across all areas of the UK;
  • democratic reinvigoration centred on a more bottom-up approach to power and participation;
  • reform of central government;
  • greater empowerment of towns, cities and regions in England to reinvigorate local government and address the pressing issue of geographic inequality;
  • further devolution to the devolved territories with an emphasis on enhanced joint-decision-making.

The themes are supported by over 40 policy recommendations, a useful summary of which can be found here.

Beyond the House of Lords reform hype

Much of the political-media commentary in response to Labour’s report has focused on the proposals to abolish the House of Lords. This commentary has encouraged a disappointingly arid discussion reflecting two separate lines of argument: firstly, why would a Labour Government wish to divert so much political capital to a low salience venture, when there are much more pressing issues at play, not least the current cost-of-living crisis? And secondly, while the principles underpinning an unelected second chamber may appear less then appropriate for a modern, twenty-first century democracy, in practice the understated breadth of wisdom, balance and scrutiny the Lords brings to the legislative process is a precious commodity that once lost, will never be rediscovered.

Previous approaches to reform have essentially been an exercise in grafting change onto the existing Westminster model.

At the launch of the report, Labour leader Keir Starmer emphasised that House of Lords reform was only one necessary component of Labour’s wider constitutional reform package to address the numerous shortcomings in the operation of UK politics. On this point, he was, of course, correct. Previous approaches to reform have essentially been an exercise in grafting change onto the existing Westminster model. The cumulative effect has been to further distort the very pathologies underpinning the overly centralised state that each incremental reform sought to address. As we have argued elsewhere, instead a system-wide approach to a new governance framework is required whereby “… decision-making and policy implementation properly accommodate de-centred forms of network governance [requiring] the meaningful transfer of power from the centre, as part of a wider growth strategy to address the UK’s regional imbalances and associated geography of discontent.” 

Power may prove decisive for ambivalent policies on devolution

If the UK is to tackle the fundamental issues of weak productivity, anaemic growth and long-standing regional economic disparities highlighted by Brown and Starmer, it will have to address the structures of decision-making and governance that are shaped by the existing constitutional settlement. This linkage between political and economic reform is explicitly acknowledged by the Brown Commission. To make substantive progress, a future Labour administration will need to consider whether the current ad hoc devolution settlement is likely to prove effective, particularly given the historical reluctance of the “Imperial Treasury” to cede control over fiscal powers.

The Commission proposes greater devolution of responsibility over important policy competencies such as post-16 skills and welfare-to-work programmes. Nonetheless, it is essential that city-region and county combined authorities have the power to borrow and raise revenue in order to leverage capital investment in productive infrastructure, rather than depending – as they have for decades – on Whitehall’s largesse. Labour’s plans address this point but may need to go further.

The greatest challenge for Starmer’s party is to maintain the momentum for reform as it seeks to make the transition from opposition to power. A future Labour administration would confront major obstacles to its constitutional reform agenda, even if it were to win a decisive majority in the House of Commons at a subsequent general election. Attempts to alter the composition and function of the House of Lords would be strongly opposed by vested interests (many of which are located inside the Labour Party), as the Blair government found after 1997, despite its landslide victory. There is also considerable disagreement within the party about the future of devolution, given that some Labour politicians regard granting increased (and in some cases differential) powers to localities within England, as well as further devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as a threat to the universal rights underpinning the national welfare state.

The greatest challenge for Labour is to maintain the momentum for reform as it seeks to make the transition from opposition to power.

At present, Labour can articulate a compelling reform narrative because it regards itself as the outsider bringing change to an outdated, anachronistic and some would say increasingly corrupt political system. Upon entering government, the Labour Party would immediately become an insider with a stake in the existing constitutional settlement, no doubt discerning that there are distinctive advantages to largely untrammelled executive power. In parallel, the party’s mindset would inevitably shift from that of an insurgent to an incumbent, and like Labour parties of the past, it may well find itself increasingly content to work within the parameters of the existing UK Constitution and state.

 


 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Photo by Dominika Gregušová on pexels.com

About the author

Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond is Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and Director of the Mile End Institute. He is the author of The End of Whitehall?

David Richards

David Richards

David Richards is Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester. His main research interests are in British politics, democracy and anti-politics, public policy, governance, and political biography.

Posted In: Electoral and constitutional reform | Government
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.