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Labour Party Conference 2023 No full-blooded constitutional change on offer

Labour peer PAULINE BRYAN examines a report from the national policy forum, which falls short on progressive federalism, but which does commit to the abolition of the House of Lords

LAST December Gordon Brown, Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar fronted a launch of the report from the Commission on the UK’s Future.

Starmer stated at the launch that after consultation the proposed constitutional changes could be in Labour’s manifesto and its recommendations could be ready to be implemented during the first term of a Labour government.

After all, Starmer had included such a proposal in his 10 pledges for his 2020 leadership election.

Number eight said: “Radical devolution of power, wealth and opportunity. A federal system of devolved powers — including through regional investment banks and control over regional industrial strategy. Abolition of the House of Lords — replace it with an elected chamber of the regions and nations.”

But as he has since dropped most of the others there is a great big question mark against the few remaining pledges.

After the December launch everything went quiet. There was certainly no consultation among the party membership or, from what I could see, anywhere else. So it was a surprise to open the party’s national policy forum report to find constitutional change had been included.

It is not the full-blooded commitment to progressive federalism that we might have hoped for and certainly no first-term promise but there is a reiteration of the commitment to abolish the House of Lords which has been in the manifesto consistently since 2015.

It states: “Labour is committed to abolishing the House of Lords. In its place, we will establish a second chamber that is smaller, offers the taxpayer better value for money, and is reflective of the regions and nations with elected representatives rather than political appointees.

“This chamber will remain a revising chamber with the House of Commons retaining its exclusive powers over the formation of government and the approval of government spending.

“The second chamber will have a role in protecting the constitution and devolution settlement.”

This is a reasonable summary of Gordon Brown’s report including the lack of detail as to how it will be elected and unfortunately no indication that it will be a priority.

Other UK-wide proposals on constitutional issues are to review and respond to evidence of the impact of photo ID in elections and to introduce votes for 16- and 17-year-olds.

These commitments may be there to appease members for the lack of action on the much-supported demand for proportional representation.

The report states: “The flaws in the current voting system are contributing to the distrust and alienation we see in politics, but there is no consensus for a new system.

“Any proposed change to our voting system must be carefully thought through — it cannot be dictated by political leaders or forced upon the country from the top down.” 

Who is to do the careful thinking isn’t divulged. 

The policy forum document uses high-flown language to dress up very little.

It says: “Labour is offering change for the whole United Kingdom, and we will deliver a new status and louder, prouder voices for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and ensure that the regions of England have the right powers and resources to drive growth and champion their areas, in a reformed and modern United Kingdom.”

The only clear first-term commitment is directed at English voters.

“By the end of our first term, a Labour government will have overseen a significant expansion of economic devolution in England, with local leaders using a range of powers to drive growth and prosperity in communities across the country.”

The Commission on the UK’s Future appears to have influenced the policy forum in its approach to Wales.

It is more inclined to accept that Wales will make  its own constitutional proposals.

The commission states: “We are mindful that the Welsh government has set up an independent commission to make recommendations on constitutional issues.

“We know that we can rely on the Welsh Labour government to publish its Plan for Wales that employs to the full the powers of the Senedd and, at the same time, maximises the benefits from co-operation across the United Kingdom.”

There was not the same hands-off approach to Scotland. The policy forum reiterates Labour’s continued opposition to an independence referendum in Scotland and fails to clarify if there can ever be a route to a referendum.

Even the Secretary of State for Scotland, Conservative Alister Jack, has accepted that a referendum could be held when sufficient support was demonstrated with 60 per cent polling in favour. 

Instead the Labour leadership believes that it can make the need for a referendum disappear.

But its offer to Scotland is extremely limited and nowhere near bold enough. It proposes Scottish representation on national bodies and agencies and that the Scottish Parliament should be able to enter into agreements with international bodies on devolved matters.

This would not go so far as to give Scotland a seat at the table during trade negotiations but would permit Scotland to have separate arrangements to enter into agreements with other countries on devolved matters. 

A third proposal is to grant members of the Scottish Parliament the same privileges and protections as MPs.

This would mean that parliamentary privilege would apply if an MSP said something in the Scottish Parliament that could be slanderous if said anywhere else.

This may be a small change, but one that perhaps could have been used at various times in the past few years.

What is missing from possible new powers is one that has been called for by both the TUC and the STUC and was included in Labour’s manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021, it is the devolution of employment law.

The demand is for a minimum floor of employment rights that can be enhanced by the Scottish Parliament but not reduced.

The proposals on the economy are extremely limited, as would be expected from the Labour leadership which clings to a neoliberal financial perspective and would not want to see a more radical Scotland showing that other routes to economic growth are possible.

Again, it ignores the Scottish Labour Party’s demand for more borrowing powers for Scotland.

Brown has been tenacious in his bid to have his report included in the Labour manifesto for the general election.

Unfortunately in the months since its launch it hasn’t entered the mainstream of Labour Party members’ discussions.

The majority of members are probably hardly aware of it, and it is likely to pass through conference with little discussion.

That is a pity, as without addressing important constitutional change it will be hard to achieve significant political change.

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