Is constitutional reform coming undone already?
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).
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.
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.
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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