December 6, 2022 - 10:50am

For most of its history, the Labour Party’s theory of British politics was a simple one. It would run on a Labour manifesto in a general election, try to obtain a majority in the House of Commons, and use that majority to implement a radical Labour agenda.

This might seem like an entirely frivolous description, but at a time when the Party’s revolutionary brethren elsewhere frequently chose the ammunition box over the ballot box, Labour’s trust in the traditional constitution of this country, a quietly radical act, fundamentally changed both the course of British history and the structure of British society.

Labour’s leaders then understood the revolutionary potential of majority government, based on the gold standard of a majority in the Commons. Conversely, they often felt, as Ramsay MacDonald wrote, that:

The Socialist has been so often offered political instead of social changes that he has come to regard political reform as a red herring which designing capitalists draw across the path of the people when the people are about to run to earth some grievance of real importance
- Ramsay MacDonald

Lords reform, proportional representation, republicanism, in other words, were quintessentially middle-class hobbies, irrelevant to the struggle for socialism and economic redistribution. Even when they did engage in constitutional reform, they did so mainly for pragmatic reasons of government. Attlee curbed the Lords’ veto because he worried they would block his far-reaching socialist legislation, not because he thought the destruction of the hereditary house was a first-order issue.

With the release of Gordon Brown’s review of UK governance and constitutional arrangements, that old, ambitious Labour Party, anchored in the best traditions of democratic socialism and constitutional pragmatism, is truly dead and buried. By endorsing this singularly dangerous document, Starmer, having led his party so close to the reins of transformative political power, now proposes to abdicate the levers of British governance before he had a chance to touch them.

As a headliner, the Union is to be strengthened by destroying the power of the House of Commons, its democratic legitimacy parcelled out to an elected upper house whose only ostensible job is to protect the continued existence of Holyrood, a Supreme Court charged with letting the upper house know when it can exercise its one power, and a new quango grandly called the “Council of Nations and Regions”. For good measure, the Scottish government will acquire the right to make international treaties, the ultimate prerogative of sovereign states.

These proposals seem designed to ensure the continued existence of the zombie New Labour devolution settlement which was meant to “kill Nationalism stone dead” but did exactly the opposite. Brown might have saved the Union in 2014; his new proposals will almost certainly kill it stone dead.

The commission then promises to reduce regional economic inequalities, a commendable goal in principle, but it proposes to do so by giving constitutional status to NIMBYs and other agents of British sclerosis through a legal requirement “to require decisions to be taken as close as meaningfully and practicably possible to the people affected by them”, thus abandoning any notion of a shared common good.

Another proposal for “an explicit constitutional requirement to rebalance the UK’s economy so that prosperity and investment can be spread more equally between different parts of the UK” could be a textbook example of the term “perverse incentive”: it is almost certainly bound to be met by bringing London down economically to the levels of the poorer parts of the country, an infinitely easier task than the reverse.

Having created many constitutionally entrenched fiefdoms at all levels, the whole mess is then meant to be brought into harmony by a ludicrously named solidarity clause, “a legal obligation of co-operation between the different levels of Government and institutions across the UK”. In other words, play nice, or… what exactly?

The best that can be said about these proposals is that, as Peter Franklin wrote, “it does give the Labour leader something to say” when he doesn’t have much else by way of policy. But it is a sign of the collapse of the British Left’s self-confidence that it produced such a senseless document; and an even greater indictment of its current intellectual state that it has been adopted by the leadership of the Labour movement. If Labour is to win power only to immediately make the country ungovernable, destroying itself as a transformative political force in the process, why even bother?

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.