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Opinion

Has UK Labour given up on meaningful constitutional reform before it’s been elected?

03 Feb 2024 8 minute read
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, image by Stefan Rousseau, PA Images

Martin Shipton

For those in Wales who harboured the notion that an incoming Labour government would allow major constitutional reform to take place on its watch, Shadow Welsh Secretary Jo Stevens’ dismissive words of a couple of weeks ago must have been devastating.

Days after the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales called in its report for policing and criminal justice powers to be devolved, starting with the police, probation and youth justice, Ms Stevens said on BBC One’s Politics Wales programme: “We have said that we will explore the devolution of youth justice and probation. But we will not be looking at devolution of policing and justice.

“We will be focussing in the next election on the things that matter to people in Wales – growing the economy, creating new jobs, getting cheaper bills, building an NHS fit for the future and breaking down barriers for opportunities for children and young people across the country.”

This was a damning put-down to those who have spent decades attending conferences and writing books and academic papers about how our constitution could be improved. Of course there are the ultras who believe any talk of reforming the UK constitution is a futile exercise, as the only desirable change is to an independent Wales. But more pragmatic nationalists see that a step-by-step accrual of more powers for the Senedd is the most practical way forward.

Power grabs

While David Cameron was not averse to ceding more powers to Wales, Brexit has seen the devolution project put into reverse, with a series of spiteful power grabs by the Westminster government showing that the Tories aren’t interested in positive constitutional reform.

Much hope has therefore been invested in the return to power of Labour as a party that would take a serious look at the UK constitution and press ahead with progressive reforms. I’ve even heard it argued that at a time when money is tight and the economic outlook not great, constitutional reform might be a higher priority than expected for an incoming Starmer-led government.

But in three sentences, Ms Stevens has snuffed out the candle of hope. Even the crumbs she offers do not amount to a pledge. Note her choice of words: “We have said that we will explore the devolution of youth justice and devolution.” There are plenty of academics and practitioners who have been exploring such notions for a very long time, but exploration doesn’t necessarily lead to anything tangible, as European explorers seeking the mythical city of gold El Dorado in the jungles of South America learned at the cost of their lives several centuries ago.

Ms Stevens goes on to imply that tinkering with the constitution is something that doesn’t matter to “people in Wales”, as she put it.

Constitutional change

It’s strange that the UK Labour Party, which owes its very existence to constitutional change, should denigrate the process that brought it into being. Without constitutional change that occurred less than 200 years ago for most men and less than 100 years ago for some women, the vast majority of people would have no vote.

It’s a habit of those who hold power to resist change and to take away existing rights they see as an impediment. Right wing Tories who want the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights have a broader agenda than stopping “small boats” cross the Channel. It would open up the possibility of diminishing employment and other rights we take for granted or want to improve on.

There’s another element of our constitution in the widest sense that has a direct bearing on how much money comes to Wales: the Barnett formula. Originally an ad hoc arrangement devised more than 45 years ago to decide how much money should be allocated by the Treasury to the three Celtic nations, it’s become a totemic relic of a system that needs to be replaced by one based on need.

And much as they may sneer at the obsession of others with constitutional reform, the Tories aren’t against introducing a disruptive kind of reform themselves when it suits them. Hence the Barnett-busting bribes amounting to billions of pounds given to Northern Ireland, firstly to get the DUP to prop up Theresa May’s minority government in 2017 and now to lure it back to the Stormont Parliament.

Brexit

Another reason why it’s rich for the Conservatives and Labour to play down the significance of constitutional change is their respective roles in the debacle that led to Brexit and its aftermath – the most damaging constitutional change that any of us have seen in our lifetimes, but which mesmerised the majority of UK voters into believing it was good for them. So please, Jo Stevens, don’t pretend that ordinary people aren’t interested in, and won’t be affected by, constitutional reform.

All of us know that there is much that is dysfunctional in the way the UK operates. Putting it right involves changing existing systems for something better. Sometimes that necessitates constitutional change.

In late 2022 Rob Jones and Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre published a book called The Welsh Criminal Justice System: On The Jagged Edge which demonstrated how despite being a policy area supposedly reserved to Westminster, responsibilities were actually split between Westminster and the Senedd, creating friction and inefficiency.

Following on from a widely praised report published three years before by the Commission on Justice in Wales, chaired by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the book argued that devolving the justice system made sense from a practical point of view. But the future Welsh Secretary Ms Stevens says No, and once again the work of experts is filed on an (electronic) shelf.

Reformers

Yet despite the setbacks, there is an undaunted crew of would-be constitutional reformers pressing on with their work, which is aimed at improving the way things work. Not all of them are academics working in universities.

Glyndwr Jones is the chief executive of a body that provides representation and advocacy in the performing arts sector. He devotes much of his spare time to writing papers describing his vision of a confederal UK in which the four countries would be self-governing but come together voluntarily and pool some elements of their sovereignty.

Here is an extract from one of his most recent essays: “Confederalism, or its more collaborative manifestation, confederal-federalism advocates four sovereign nations of radically different population sizes, pooling some sovereign authority to central bodies in areas of agreed common interest.

“A Council of the Isles, whose members are typically elected for a five-year period, would be responsible for enacting power on aspects involving defence, diplomacy, internal trade, currency, and macro-economics, with a Committee of Member Nations, convening regularly to discuss other issues which may demand some collaboration and harmonisation of laws.

“The National Parliament of each nation would then assume every power not delegated to joint institutions. The scheme further affords the opportunity to introduce devolved assemblies across the English regions, if desired.

“If we acknowledge that the UK is a genuine union of four nations, each of which has the potential of sovereignty, is there a way of charting a smooth transition from the status quo towards that proposed above? For example, we may wish to transform:

*A future elected House of Lords, comprising representatives from the nations’ regions as recommended by Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future, into the Council of the Isles with its associated structures, or to use a different term, a Senate’

* The House of Commons at Westminster into the National Parliament of England once enhanced parliamentary arrangements are in place for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

* The Joint Ministerial Committee for intergovernmental relations into the Committee of Member Nations.

“The changes could be initiated in an evolutionary way, balancing change with continuity, and promoting diversity and unity simultaneously. This should be achieved by assigning sovereignty to the nations who, in turn, pool some sovereign authority to central bodies in areas of common interest through a confederal-federal arrangement.

“Even while national and regional leaderships may champion different decisions and innovations, we would still elevate isles-wide solidarity and equality through central strategies.”

Constitutional convention

Jones is an advocate for a constitutional convention to look at the future governance of the UK.

One of the questions such a convention could examine is how feasible it would be to devise arrangements that didn’t result in England dictating terms to the other three members of the confederation.

It would be an interesting exercise and could provide a blueprint for reform that would result in positive outcomes for all.

But given the current Shadow Cabinet’s lack of enthusiasm for major and meaningful constitutional reform, it seems a given that we’ll all just muddle on as usual.


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Karl
Karl
5 months ago

Labour are un-votrable as much as Tories. They take remain vote for granted and us in Cymru especially. Meanwhile they care more about brexit voters and far right loons who will give us another war. Labour have no socialism anymore.

Jeff
Jeff
5 months ago

They have one major plus. they are not the tories.

and the tories will have this thought that labour are tory v1.5 in their sights to put people off. I vote to remove the tory party, in my area that means voting labour.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff

You can’t fit a cigarette paper in gap between labour and the tories.

It certainly is NOT a major plus when all labour have is “we might not be much but at least we aren’t the tories!”

Here in Cymru only Plaid deserve our vote. The populations of yr Alban should vote SNP and lloegr should vote Green. That is the only way to achieve positive change!

Jeff
Jeff
5 months ago
Reply to  Richard Davies

13 years of ruin inflicted on the nation and playing the plaid card where they stand no chance is offering the Cons a way back in (remember Labour left the UK is a decent state and have not done this damage), really is the only game in town this election. Where Plaid stand no chance you offer the Conservative Party a chance to continue to do what they are doing and it is getting worse, they are already meddling in elections, funding and electoral control. What is happening in the US is happening here and the Conservative are on a… Read more »

Rob
Rob
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff

I agree with Jeff. Unfortunately the nature of first past the post forces some of us to chose between the lesser of two evils. I want Plaid to do well, and will vote for them even though I live in a solid Labour constituency. But if I lived in a seat thats between Labour and Conservative, or Conservative and Lib Dem, then I will hold my nose and vote against the Conservative.
If Thatcher and Reagan were alive today, even they would be horrified at what their respective parties have turned into.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

I see Thompsons Solicitors are a fast track into Labour politics in Cymru…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

The gene pool in Cardiff for Labour politicians does seem a little small and shallow, certainly not Olympic, when one thinks about it it sounds rather like a tin of sardines…Stevens, Gething and Mick Antoniw just to name a few…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

If you look up Jo you see who were her co-workers and voila…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Leo Abse & Cohen have a very good reputation…

Glen
Glen
5 months ago

Labour are as much a unionist party as the Tories, which makes the Plaid/Lab love in totally perplexing.

Annibendod
Annibendod
5 months ago
Reply to  Glen

Building our capacity for self-government in the short term, building a consensus for our Statehood in the long. And we got many of our progressive policies into government. That’s not a “love in”. That’s getting the job done.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
5 months ago

While Devo max may seem a worthy goal it is just delaying the inevitable – independence. Westminster is likely to drip feed more power to the Senedd over years, thus preventing full self determination for decades. We can’t afford this, it’s also unfair on our children and grandchildren, who’ll grow up with children of their own in poverty too. Enough delay, we need to start preparing, looking seriously at how we can run a government and country completely on our own.

Rich J
Rich J
5 months ago

You could shorten that headline. They’ve given up on the idea of any meaningful change. Such a massive disappointment. I’m not entirely sure what they think I’m going to vote for. It seems like they think my vote is automatic. It’s not.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
5 months ago

The devolution deficit will continue under UK Labour it seems . They really do think of Wales as an appendage of England don’t they and not a nation in our own right. Gaining control over our Policing , Criminal & Youth Justice systems merely brings us in-line with the rest of the home nations and is no threat to the United Kingdom. What do they fear? Perhaps Wales passing a law to prohibit resource rape or Whitehall flooding another Welsh valley for English water consumption. What is Welsh Labour’s opinion on the matter seeing over the years their manifesto has… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
5 months ago

The UK is not a functional democracy. From a Welsh perspective it is very much an elected dictatorship. Martin Shipton marks a vital constitutional change, one that the chartists famously marched for. And since Welsh working men were first given the vote and through to the votes for Women won by the suffragettes, Wales has not once, not once in the history of the UK’s so-called democracy, returned a majority of Tory MP’s. And yet the UK imposes hostile Tory Governments on us. Most lately, they have torn up the Sewell convention and unilaterally anulled our laws. That is not… Read more »

Last edited 5 months ago by Annibendod
Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

Dafydd Wigley warns of great danger from Labour’s closed lists. So why are Labour so keen on the idea?

A whole gang of solicitor/politicians are forcing Cymru into closed list…do not trust any of them…

Last edited 5 months ago by Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

This will hang around the neck of Mark Drakeford like the proverbial albatross…

Some legacy…add it to his great reluctance for a Covid enquiry…

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
5 months ago

One hardly needs to be an ultra to believe that the UK is beyond redemption, or constitutional reform. It’s a nice idea, one that has been mooted for a very long time, but whichever party is in power in Westminster just ain’t interested. More and more devolution is certainly a step in the right direction, and if we don’t get it, maybe it’s time to make Wales a little ungovernable? Ms Stevens might want to deny Welsh people devolution the full whack of justice and policing. Fine, we should make our feelings known, loudly, and on multiple occasions – if… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

The photo of Lee Waters riding across the new Dyfi bridge with a group of young cyclists is interesting because Mr Waters is on a small wheeled ‘French’ bike (the original was the Moulton), a bike no self-respecting youth would be seen dead on. My father bought one in 1962 and suggested we could share it ! It put me off push-bikes to this day. The photo is on BBC Wales and is less than complementary and it is not easy to spot the adult…the clue is the tiny wheels…why do they surround themselves with children!

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

Powys Tory warns kids to learn to swim before they close the pool in the autumn. Where in Powys would a parent allow their child to swim in a river…the irony follows them like flies follow cattle…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

Someone should tell Clark Kent that this image has strong links to other less savory regimes of the past…

Jen
Jen
5 months ago

The undemocratic closed system for elections and the go it alone approach to self ID ignoring the Equality Act signal Wales is shooting itself in the foot re further devolved powers.

Neilyn
Neilyn
5 months ago

It’s time to take the gloves off.

Dewi Jones
Dewi Jones
5 months ago

I have no faith in Jo Stevens – just as bad as the Tories on devolution. Her anglophile distain for our Senedd disgusts me. Particularly laid bare when she dismissed the dire need for devolving broadcasting in Wales to people who actually care about it. She really needs to find a nice seat in England so she doesn’t have to worry about those pesky Welshies.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
4 months ago

The UK is now an elected dictatorship, given the ideology of the two main parties is so similar. A vote for tory or labour is just a vote for the continuation of the failed monetarist system it seems. Welsh MPs, apart from a few, are not working for the betterment of the people of Wales its more about themselves, their party and England. Stevens is a typical example. No mention from her, or her cohorts, on how Westminster is ripping off Wales and what should be done about it. Labour under Starmer and in government will be a missed opportunity… Read more »

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