Labour and the Constitutional Crisis

By Luke Stronach, Aberdeen Central CLP

We are unquestionably in the midst of the greatest constitutional crisis in a century. It is obvious that the symptoms of our fragile constitution have come to the surface courtesy of a Tory government recklessly pursuing the agenda of a hard Brexit, seeking to sever ties with the wider world whilst retreating to the shelter of nationalism that often provides refuge for the demagogue in times of national disunity and strife. It is stupefying to see that in the age of Brexit, with old wounds opening over Scottish independence, panic reemerging on the Irish border and an ever-widening economic disconnect growing between the regions of England that the Tories remain adamant on entrenching their stiff opposition to meaningful reform. And when the Conservatives do make moves towards revising the constitutional settlement, it is always done in the name of putting the party first, as can be seen in the disastrous introduction of EVEL. It’s perhaps appropriate that given our antiquated constitution, the Tories have decided to fix the problem with all the grace of a barber-surgeon, applying bloody cuts which exacerbate the problem rather than resolve it.

And it is because of the chaos wrought by the Tories that Labour must seize the mantle of providing sweeping constitutional reform, making space for an alternative to the tsunami of nationalist commentary of separation on the one hand, and acquiescence at ‘the way it always has been’ on the other. Our responsibility to provide a stable and progressive constitution for the UK will provide the basis for lasting change, enrich democracy in every corner of the UK and bring a sense of control to millions of citizens. At Annual Conference, Scottish Leader Richard Leonard correctly identified that “with ownership comes power”; and what greater ownership can society have than of its own government?

As dynamic as our 2017 manifesto was, it still failed to take full advantage of the opportunity for constitutional reform that a Corbyn-led government should provide. The proposed constitutional convention provided no tangible plan other than saying it will exist, and the (welcome) pledge to drag the House of Lords into the 21st century offered no detail on how this will come to be, other than ensuring it will be “democratic”. These can be explained as part of Labour’s unconscious ‘constitutional conservatism’, which was excellently elaborated on by Professor Peter Dorey back in 2009.

This is not to say the reforms proposed in the manifesto were without merit. But the sheer scale of the problem demands bold answers. To this end, Labour should begin with a few elementary steps:

The opportunity to reboot democracy must begin by introducing a codified constitution, written by the people. A British constitution will become the gold standard for political reform in the 21st century. Imagine a progressive constitution that will, at the very least, allow for each citizen to have the inalienable right to a decent wage, a roof under their head and a health service free at the point of need, to ensure that the most profound reforms of a Labour government formally become part of the constitutional sinew of the state itself.

The core of a progressive constitutional settlement should be focused on the nations and regions of the UK, ensuring that the government acknowledges the nations and regions are co-equal, despite their differences. A Senate of Nations and Regions, providing an equal representation of Senators to each nation and region based off the US model, would both abolish the House of Lords and cement the constitutional solidarity between all parts of the UK, demonstrating no area of the UK is above another in importance.

The constitutional black hole of England must be remedied by introducing regional assemblies, in the ‘strategic-executive’ model (the current moniker admittedly leaves much to desire), ensuring that rising English disconnect with the constitutional status quo is resolved.

Labour must also bring balance to the electoral system to prevent the distortion FPTP provides, with its most infamous example of glaring disparity being in its generous addition of 56 SNP MP’s in 2015, despite half of all Scots refusing to vote for the party. Labour should commit to introducing AMS- a system complementing PR and the constituency link- into Westminster elections.

But perhaps most crucially, we must learn from this decade of referenda, banishing the seemingly inevitable confusion that occurs after a plebiscite. An answer to this would be to introduce the New Zealand model on referenda, ensuring that there is a ‘double-lock’ on changes to the constitution. A change to the constitution, with its generational impact, should be comprehensive and assertive. To use an example, a revised Brexit vote would have asked both the original question and also asked for an additional affirming vote on what form of exit should be implemented, much as when New Zealand held a vote on changing the electoral system with an affirming vote on the change chosen, rather than throwing the question of what to do next into the air (or in Cameron’s case, to your colleagues).

Labour has a proud record of establishing permanent, radical and comprehensive constitutional reform. The first term of Tony Blair’s Labour government is widely regarded as probably the most constitutionally transformative administration since H.H Asquith, arguably leading to the formation of the modern UK as we know it today. It was during 1997 to 2001 that Labour’s radical reform at long last introduced the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Irish Assembly and London Assembly to millions of citizens. The House of Lords Reform Act also drastically reduced the bloated numbers of a burgeoning House of Lords and dramatically reduced the powers of the archaic and class-entrenched hereditary peers. Although the Jenkins Commission was abruptly swept under the rug, it was Labour that introduced the first spurts of the proportional electoral system in the UK, beginning with AMS in Scotland, Wales and London, as well as STV in Northern Ireland.

It is not just because of our past success that Labour can provide an alternative to the current constitutional arrangement, but because Labour must provide one. The alternative need only be seen on the governing benches of the House of Commons.