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Labour’s New Plan for Constitutional Reform

Ollie Riley

9th November 2022

The Labour Party's commission on constitutional reform is due to report soon. From what we know so far recommendations are likely to be radical and will be a prominent feature of the Labour Party’s next general election manifesto.

A Commission Gets Ready to Report

In December 2020, Sir Keir Starmer announced that Labour had launched a commission led by former PM Gordon Brown, tasked with developing a new plan to reinvigorate the UK constitution. At the Labour Party Conference in September 2022, Labour’s Shadow Scotland Secretary Ian Murray declared that the final report from the commission will be released “in the coming months.”

From what we know so far, the commission’s recommendations are likely to be radical and will be a prominent feature of the Labour Party’s next general election manifesto.

Of course, Labour has a history with constitutional reform. The most major changes to the UK constitution over the last four decades took place between 1997-2010 as New Labour attempted to fulfil its promise to modernise Britain and close the country’s democratic deficit.

Rights and Social Guarantees

In 1998, Parliament passed the Human Rights Act, giving British citizens codified protection of their basic rights and liberties. Gordon Brown’s commission is likely to advocate an extension of such constitutional guarantees, with a particular emphasis on social and economic rights.

Devolution

Devolution formed a major part of New Labour’s constitutional reform project. The establishment of new assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and the creation of Scottish Parliament marked the biggest de-centralisation of the British state in centuries. The Conservatives initially opposed devolution but would eventually embrace it. Under David Cameron, powers devolved to the nations of the UK were extended and new regional and city mayors were created. Further devolution looks set to form part of Labour’s new plans for constitutional reform. In particular, we can expect an emphasis on people having more power over the allocation of resources within their communities.

Standards in Public Office

For some, the “Party-gate” scandal which eventually helped bring down the Boris Johnson administration exemplified a pressing need for stricter constitutional checks on the behaviour of those working in Whitehall. At the Labour Party Conference in September, Shadow Scotland Secretary, Ian Murray, declared that Labour’s constitutional reform would be aimed at “clearing up and clearing out the centre” – a nod to both devolution and measures to ensure politicians conduct themselves with greater integrity. Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission is expected to advocate a new ministerial code that will raise standards in public office and promote stronger accountability for those that fail to live up to those standards.

House of Lords Reform

For advocates of major constitutional reform, New Labour’s attempts to modernise the House of Lords fell way short of expectations. There were some notable changes, however:

  • The House of Lords Act (1999) drastically reduced the number of hereditary peers sitting in the Lords to 92.
  • The Constitutional Reform Act (2005) established the Supreme Court, thereby ending the judicial functions exercised by the Law Lords and establishing a proper separation of powers between the legislature and judiciary.

If they win office, there are murmurs that Starmer’s Labour Party may reach for the nuclear option and abolish the House of Lords all together. It is not yet clear what Labour will propose to replace the House of Lords with, although some reports suggest that a new body comprising representatives of the nations and regions of the UK will be established. In a speech delivered to the Fabian Society in July 2022, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar publicly declared his support for the abolition of the Lords and its replacement by an elected ‘senate of nations and regions’. Sarwar seemed certain that such a proposal would be part of Labour’s next election manifesto, though Sir Keir Starmer has not been so categorical thus far.

New Labour’s constitutional reform has had a significant impact on the last 25 years of British politics. However, it left advocates of a constitutional revolution wanting more. In a time when the public are increasingly disillusioned with the politics of Westminster and when calls for Scottish independence grow louder, Sir Keir Starmer may see radical constitutional reform as both an opportunity and a necessity. A new constitutional reform project offers Labour a chance to present itself once again as the party of political modernisation. It may also be the only way of fulfilling Labour’s commitment to the maintenance of the Union.

Ollie Riley

Ollie is currently studying for his Masters in International Relations at Durham University.

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