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Opinion

Is constitutional reform coming undone already?

24 Dec 2023 7 minute read
Westminster. Picture by Maurice (CC BY 2.0) The Senedd building. Holyrrod by Kim Traynor (CC BY-SA 3.0). Stormont by Robert Paul Young (CC BY 2.0).

Martin Shipton

It seems that the dream of UK constitutional reform under a Labour government may have had the stuffing knocked out of it before Keir Starmer has even won a general election.

I’ve had a few conversations with Labour stalwarts over the last year or so, when the consensus has been that the party will glide to victory with ease unless something wholly unexpected and unpredictable takes place.

This has led to excitement among those for whom redesigning the UK is the most important endeavour of our time. For some, constitutional reform is a means to an end, with the eventual destination being an independent Wales.

For others, it holds out the prospect of a confederal Britain, where Wales would have an equal place at the table with England and Scotland when strategic, Britain-wide decisions are taken. (Northern Ireland often gets excluded from such speculative scenarios, on the presumptuous belief that a united Ireland is inevitable in the short term, which it isn’t).

Fantasy

Some have nurtured the fantasy that England will happily relinquish the dominance it currently holds in the union because of its relative size, and agree to an equal number of seats with Scotland and Wales in a new second chamber that will replace the House of Lords. It seems to me that this is a clear example of over-reach brought on by wishful thinking.

There are also those who get lost in the minutiae of potential reform to the point where the reshaping of the constitution becomes an end in itself – something to be savoured like the 19th century concept of “art for art’s sake”. I’ve met such people and watched them salivate. Others genuinely see constitutional change as a necessary precursor to implementing progressive policies that will reverse the seemingly relentless trend towards greater inequality in Britain.

Knowing that the current Tory government at Westminster has no appetite whatsoever for devolving more powers to Wales and Scotland or for scrapping the House of Lords – we know because they’ve said so – constitutional enthusiasts have been looking forward to an incoming Labour government doing the business.

The Gordon Brown report – a piece of work undertaken for the Labour Party by the former Prime Minister that recommended a number of reforms – was seen by such enthusiasts as going part of the way towards what was required. He may have backed off from recommending devolution of the police and the entire justice system to Wales, but he did suggest devolving the probation service and youth justice.

Counsel General Mick Antoniw, for one, found this extremely positive and a first step towards devolution of the justice system as a whole.

Brown also recommended replacing the House of Lords with a second chamber elected to represent the nations and regions of the UK. Again, this was hailed at the time of the report’s publication in December 2022 as a long-awaited and major step forward.

But things are rarely as simple, and before Brown’s proposals have had the chance to be transformed into manifesto commitments, it seems that they’re being drastically scaled back.

Caution

According to an article in The Times written by its political columnist Patrick Maguire, the Brown reform package has not found favour with Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet. Maguire writes: “The very point of Brown’s work and his recommendations on replacing the Lords with an Assembly of the Nations and Regions, which stayed in the report at Starmer’s insistence, was to prove that a Labour government could offer something more than ‘the status quo but nicer’. Since then, however, these proposals appear to have buckled under the weight of the former Prime Minister’s ambitions and the future Prime Minister’s caution.

“Those present for discussions of the Brown review last year recall ‘almost universal disbelief’ in the Shadow Cabinet that reforms of such intricacy and consequence — abolishing the Lords, sweeping new powers for devolved parliaments and mayors, dramatic decentralisation — could ever be delivered in full. Lisa Nandy, then Shadow Levelling-up Secretary, was a leading sceptic, as was Labour’s leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon.

“Among those responsible for implementing Brown’s vision, realpolitik rules the day. I am told that [former senior civil servant, now Starmer’s chief of staff] Sue Gray, schooled in Whitehall’s existing power structures, looks askance at much of this stuff. No wonder talk quickly turned to dozens of new Labour peers, so that a Starmer government might pass some legislation in its straitened early days, rather than banishing them entirely. At first glance, then, we see a familiar narrative of Starmerism: the bold promise followed by backsliding.”

Maguire goes on to suggest that Nick Thomas-Symonds, the MP for Torfaen and a Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, has been tasked with devising what is described as “a more incremental set of reforms”. In other words, he’s been told to water them down.

What we may be left with is a relatively modest reduction in the size of the Lords, possibly by expelling the remaining hereditary peers. A retirement age would be imposed – possibly when members reach 80 – as well as statutory powers for the House of Lords Appointments Commission, allowing it to overrule a Prime Minister who wants to award peerages to undeserving cronies. And that’s it. No elections to a second chamber. No seats designated for representatives from the nations and regions. And certainly no “equal footing” for Wales and Scotland.

HS2

If the minimalist approach outlined by Maguire is correct – and it seems eminently plausible – what chance is there that a Labour UK government will right the wrong of HS2 and give Wales the billions of pounds it has been robbed of by the irrational decision to designate the high speed rail route as an “England and Wales” project, even though not a centimetre of it lies in Wales?

Just as Wales has been let down by the Tories, it looks as if we may be on course to be screwed by Labour. It’s worth making this point now, ahead of the general election. While Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet are saying nothing on these matters for the time being, the general election campaign when it comes will provide ample opportunity for the relevant questions to be put. If the answers aren’t forthcoming then, we can all draw the obvious conclusions.

Meanwhile, of course, we have a Welsh Labour leadership election coming up. The two candidates must submit themselves to questioning on these points and let everybody – not just party members – know where they stand.

The election of Welsh Labour’s new leader may be an internal party matter, but the winner will also become the new First Minister, so we’re all affected by the choice. How far will the new First Minister stand up for Wales, and to what extent will he be a poodle of Westminster? That’s something that should be at the forefront of our minds when the campaign gets underway in earnest.


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Gareth
Gareth
2 months ago

We all know that the 3 Celtic nations are not going to be given anything. We will only get what we can take. Apart from the English establishment not wanting to lose the position of dominance they now hold, the hit to that ego alone, makes it impossible for them to concede more, even the small amount of powers we have, they are desperate to reverse. Dream on you federalist in Labour, our only hope is for us to grasp independence for ourselves.

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
2 months ago

So more big promises from Labour that they never intended to keep? I voted for Labour for several years. I will not again!

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
2 months ago
Reply to  Mr Williams

Good for you.
Tell your friends and all come and join us at Plaid Cymru for a new free, liberal and democratic future for Cymru Wales.

Only a Plaid Cymru government here at Cardiff Bay will be satisfactory for Wales.

Meanwhile, more Plaid Cymru MPs at Westminster may make them think about the way they, in Labour have ignored the interests of Wales for their own future.

Do not put our country of Wales in forces outside Wales.
Only we can design our own future.
Please always bear that in mind.

Dai Ponty
Dai Ponty
2 months ago

Labour and Tory are UNIONIST PARTIES the latter Party worst of the two

Nia James
Nia James
2 months ago
Reply to  Dai Ponty

You can’t put a cigarette paper between them but the Tories are at least honest Unionists in contrast with Labour’s smoke and mirrors approach. It is incredible, that at the end of 2023, we are still tied in bondage to London.

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
2 months ago
Reply to  Nia James

That is because Welsh people still vote for parties tied to Westminster.

Welsh Labour’s only plan is to put our future in England’s hands.

Annibendod
Annibendod
2 months ago

This much has been apparent for some time. I didn’t hold out much hope for Brown’s constitutional review but it turns out he went further than I expected. It has been by all accounts, toned down from a solid proposal for a Federal UK to a disjointed and confused hotchpotch of various devolutions and governmental bodies. And now even that’s been ditched. How predictable. So Lab4IndyWales … where to now? Your party will not produce what you hope for (as predicted). Do you have the numbers to turn Welsh Labour from a brand to a bona fide Welsh political party?… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
2 months ago
Reply to  Annibendod

Plaid Cymru, like Labour, isn’t a socialist party, but a party with socialists in it, to paraphrase the late Tony Benn. And most of those ‘socialists’ struggle to be social democrats, which isn’t a problem, but let’s just be honest about these things, eh? As a socialist, who believes in an independent Wales, I’ll take some solidly progressive social democracy over the neoliberalism that’s been offered, (and implemented) by both Tories and Labour for the best part of the last 50 years. Sadly, Starmer isn’t it, and only independence can offer us any hope of us getting the kind of… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
2 months ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

It’s in our constitution Padi. I’m under no illusions – Plaid ain’t perfect and not all our members are progressive but it’s done and doing a lot of good. What we need is more good members and activists. We’ve got a lot of hard work to do.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
2 months ago
Reply to  Annibendod

I usually vote Plaid, though it has to be said more in a sense of desperation than anything else – the party has been so lack lustre in anything it’s said for decades,and is certainly not the opposition that Labour needs in Cardiff Bay. For 2017 and 2019 elections I voted Labour because of the policies being offered by Corbyn and McDonell, which I felt trumped anything to do with furthering Welsh sovereignty as I felt that Labour was offering the necessary respite from decades of neoliberal policies that still disproportionately affect too much of Wales – there are many… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
2 months ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

I had a lot of time for Corbyn. Plaid Cymru would make good political allies to a properly socialist English Labour. Wales will finally move forward when Wales’ Left act as one.

Maesglas
Maesglas
2 months ago

There won’t be any constitutional change with Starmer. I suspect a Starmer government will be more of the same as the Tories for most issues. Even on the economy, there is very little difference. Starmer has flip-flopped on all the policies he claimed he once wanted. Even the £28 billion a year pledge on renewable climate change investment has been jettisoned. We have the bizarre situation unfolding of voters wanting to dump the Tories but, because of our dysfunctional voting system, having an alternative which offers the same.

aw savill
aw savill
2 months ago

Thought provoking as usual

Ap Kenneth
2 months ago

“Screwed by Labour” has quite a familiar ring to it and often Welsh labour MPs are at the forefront.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
2 months ago

Thatcherite Keir Starmer and Blue Labour are ejecting election policies & pledges faster than the Conservatives are ministers due to corruption & sexual scandal. Look, UK Labour only cares about regaining Westminster power and making fiscally obese England even fatter. And what will Keir Starmer offer Wales if he becomes Prime Minister? Answer, absolutely nothing. It’s as you were Wales. No voice. No HS2 consequential. And no more devolution. So why then does Wales continually vote Labour when all we receive is Whitehall dregs. In reality all we’ve had is scant reward for our loyality. I find UK Labour’s only… Read more »

Steve Woods
Steve Woods
2 months ago

Don’t forget that the Labour Party has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, so expect any forthcoming constitutional changes to be very minor indeed and just tinker at the edges.

Rob
Rob
2 months ago

I remember the One Wales Agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru in 2007 being bitterly opposed by Labour MPs. At the time they were worried about Welsh representation being reduced in Westminster and their voting rights being restricted on England only which the Tories were proposing. Only when the Tories came back to power in 2010 did they come around to supporting it. Plaid did have bargaining power with the threat of a rainbow coalition confining Labour to opposition. Today things are different. Wales MPs are being cut regardless of what Welsh people think and the Tories have already scrapped… Read more »

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