by Yuan Yi Zhu
Tuesday, 6
December 2022
Analysis
10:50

Labour’s constitutional plans are dangerous

Gordon Brown's ideas would make the country ungovernable
by Yuan Yi Zhu
The tail wagging the dog. Credit: Getty

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.


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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?

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Mr Bellisarius
Mr Bellisarius
2 months ago

The underlying problem is that Labour is no longer representing the working classes.
Party leaders are far more interested in a ‘progressive rule-based world order’. It’s one of those utopian ideals that rely on everybody else understanding that their rules are the only possible correct ones…
But as that kind of reasoning doesn’t go far in Barnsley, they need to find some other cause to rally round. And what better than to talk about abolishing the house of Lords and levelling up…

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
2 months ago
Reply to  Mr Bellisarius

Yes, Labour has gradually become more disproportionally middle-class in terms of membership – and who votes for it. And it was founded with a working-class base…Despite recent opinion polls, I’m not sure that issue has been resolved…

Last edited 2 months ago by Graeme Kemp
Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
2 months ago

The genius of Gordon Brown comes up with something worse than we’ve already got.
I’d like to know who actually runs the country under this system? Who do we blame when things go wrong?
There should be a referendum before any of this is implemented. The general election should not be taken as a mandate.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Prescott set up a referendum to try to persuade the inhabitants of the North East that they would be better off if they had an extra layer of politicians in a North East Regional Assembly. The referendum was decisively lost despite the Labour Party’s best endeavours to bamboozle the voters. This seems to be a revival of this failed project without giving people the chance to vote down the lunacy while the Tory Party is deeply unpopular through their incompetence.

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
2 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Part of the problem with the regions dreamt up by politicians is that their so-called ‘regions’ don’t always relate to a real or cultural identity – they are zones. I would say the ‘real’ regions of England are: the North, the Midlands, East Anglia, Wessex, Cornwall, South-East and London !!

Last edited 2 months ago by Graeme Kemp
Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Bigotry drives such policy proposals.

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Yes, we need to abolish the House of Lords and make sure the House of Commons (and government) is where the buck stops…

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
2 months ago

What not simply abolish the House of Lords and create a unicameral system of UK government? The problem with any elected second chamber is that it would inevitably be more powerful than the existing House of Lords.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
2 months ago
Reply to  Graeme Kemp

If it was actually to be a cause for the good then it would go back to traditional Peers of the land, and Bishops. People who do not hate the Nation, or look at it only as something to steal from, as the majority now seem to be.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
2 months ago

Power devolved to local and regional authorities will functionally remove all existing limits on Progressive vandalism of a working society by scattering them into too many tiny fragments to be monitored or reported on by the press or by conservatives. Britain already has innumerable local authorities captured by the Left, as locals are often too busy with their lives to pay much attention to low-intensity local campaigns that only seem to avoid the larger questions of political philosophy that get aired on a national level. America has the exact same problem with local school boards, where inattention to supposedly “non-partisan” races has left many in the hands of committed activists who understand that the basic conservatism of their communities requires stealthy and cloaked tactics of agenda pushing. Been going on for decades. Now we have drag-queen events, Critical Race Theory-inspired race hate, and gender-fluidity in elementary school classrooms.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
2 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

Exactly, Daniel. These races attract the power-hungry, like flies to meat.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Meat …!?

Mr Bellisarius
Mr Bellisarius
2 months ago

Personally, I’m in favour of smaller democracies. I think 3->35 million people is the ideal size.
As such I would welcome the idea of decentralisation; there is just as much reason to devolve the UK’s regions, like Yorkshire, as there is to give devolution to Scotland.
But this proposal is a mess.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
2 months ago
Reply to  Mr Bellisarius

Statehood – this is an excellent system, as seen in USA. Although if I had my way I would have South England, North England and Whales, Scotland and Ireland become the United States of America and the North Atlantic’s 51, 52, 53,54, and 55th States. Naturally then buy Greenland, and offer it and Iceland with Norway the position of 56th State…… I would say leave Canada, too radical Left/Liberal and is harmless just sitting there.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

Which Whales? Blue, Sperm or Killer?

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
2 months ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

America won’t take them. We’ve got enough troubles this side of the pond, we REALLY don’t need the crazies on the other side of the pond adding to our misery.

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
2 months ago
Reply to  Mr Bellisarius

3-35 million is probably too big, TBH. The Swiss cantons are probably a better size, so in the thousands or low millions.

Samuel Turner
Samuel Turner
2 months ago

I understand this argument from a Labour-strategist perspective, but personally I don’t want to see a large Labour majority. Additionally, there’s nothing to stop Labour winning a majority with proportional representation if they properly earn it, though of course it would require a landslide victory.
Although I want to see democratic reform, these proposals do appear to undermine British parliamentary sovereignty. Why not scrap the Lords together and have a unicameral parliament? That alone would be enough to satisfy radical democrats like myself. Proportional representation has it’s costs and benefits, but if it can open the way to smaller, more interesting parties then that would be a great thing. Choosing between Labour and Conservatives is like choosing between Pepsi and Coca-Cola. They’re just different varieties of the same thing.
In 2015 UKIP won 14% of the vote, but only 1 seat. In what world is that democratic? The Lib Dems managed to win more seats win fewer votes. Establishment politicians need to stop taking our votes for granted. What better antidote could there be to this than PR?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Turner

The real argument for first past the post systems such as the UK’s present arrangement is that the coalitions occur at long term party level rather than short term governmental level, and that makes for much more stable governance.

It also enables the voters to keep out the parties they most dislike, and thus the incompetents and extremists, by not voting for the groups not much wanted by anybody – LibDems, Greens, Communists, UKIP, rather than allowing them undue influence in Westminster coalitions. Look at Cameron’s LibDem pact in 2010 which gave far too much voice to a very minority party. Though luckily they turned out to be incompetent.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Having lived under both FPTP and PR systems, they certainly both have their faults. As you say PR can give more influence to the minor parties than their vote share deserves, and can lead to MPs not directly answerable to the electorate, however to me it’s still a preferable system to FPTP, in which millions of votes are essentially thrown out, especially those in safe seats. The whole make up of parliament is decided by a handful of voters in swing seats

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
2 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

I used to be of the same opinion, but recently I’ve become more sympathetic to PR. The current parties don’t do a very good job of translating certain voter preferences (on topic like crime and immigration) into actual laws or policies, meaning that, on several important topics, it’s pretty much impossible for the people to get their wishes enacted. This is both a potentially dangerous situation and, in a democracy, arguably a morally wrong one. PR would make it easier for dissatisfied voters to switch to parties that can credibly promise to push their views, thus making it harder for the party duopoly to stonewall their constituents.

Alex Swift
Alex Swift
2 months ago

The problem is the last time Labour in government tinkered with the constitutional set-up of the UK they bungled it. I recall Donald Dewar pompously declaring that the formation of the devolved Scottish parliament would stifle nationalism for good. At the election 2 years later they were wiped out by the SNP landslide. So that went well, didn’t it……….?

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
2 months ago

oops – looks like I am under moderation again….. just a post to see..

edited – maybe not – but I am very familiar with the orange letters saying:

‘Awaiting for Moderation’

appearing over my posts…haha my average lifespan on political sites is usually measured in months….

Last edited 2 months ago by Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
2 months ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

and that awaiting post I referenced above has vanished although it was just a light hearted bit of observation and utterly without controversy.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
2 months ago

Democracy does not protect the people from stupid leaders. It merely makes them less likely and less lengthy in their duration in power. By spreading decision-making over a large populace, it hopes to remove pressure points of genius and stupidity both. The lows become higher, and the highs lower. But stupid people elect stupid leaders, so when the entire populace becomes dumb, the leaders do likewise.For example, when it rains, one goes under a tree. But when all the trees are dripping wet, there is no longer any shelter.

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
2 months ago

The ‘Spiked!’ website has an interesting article on the House of Lords as well: ‘The House of Lords Should be scrapped, not Replaced’ at https://www.spiked-online.com/2022/12/06/the-house-of-lords-should-be-scrapped-not-replaced/

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
1 month ago

At last we see the full extent of Gordon Brown’s incompetence as this is the most absurd document ever produced at this level. Simultaneously Starmer’s incompetence in backing it is also revealed. It’s actually quite extraordinary that he can see this as assisting his move into number 10. British people aren’t stupid and will easily see how this would wreck the union, so it may actually prove to be the single biggest obstacle to his getting there. Brown is a nicompoop.

Andy White
Andy White
2 months ago

Weird anti-constitutional reform rant. I hope the author got something out of writing it, because I certainly didn’t get anything out of reading it!

Adrienne Collier
Adrienne Collier
2 months ago

This article is quite puzzling. I do not understand the argument that decentralisation would somehow undermine the common good. Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, and also one with the greatest regional disparities. Far more successful countries such as Germany and Denmark have a high degree of devolution to local governments and communities. At present most funding decisions are taken in London in a piecemeal fashion, often through a competitive bidding process seriously undermining the ability of local councils to have coherent, joined up strategies for local development. The ‘common good’, up to now, has mainly benefitted the south east, not other more deprived areas of the UK. I would be the first to admit that decentralising to local governments or regional authorities would be tricky – expect many problems in the short run particularly with capacity. But it is right for Labour to grasp this issue and try to work towards the aim of devolving power in the longer run.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 months ago

You cannot compare with Denmark. Denmark may have a lot of devolution of practical matters, like traffic and hospitals. But Denmark is tiny (5 million inhabants only), and quite homogenous. Also Denmark has no separatists and no internal ‘nations’, geopgraphically distinct or otherwise, and so nobody aiming to take power over everything just to prove their independence. The very idea that any part of Denmark should get the right to make independent national treaties would be laughed to death, first of all by the people living in the region concerned.

Last edited 2 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Roger Irwin
Roger Irwin
2 months ago

I think the European Union might be a bit more centralised when they’ve finished their plan…

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago

“Far more successful countries…”
I beg to differ! By what criterion do you make such a claim? Current travails, hyper-emphasised by the MSM to make it seem as if the UK is uniquely unsuccessful, may have led you to form such an opinion but if you look at a much wider picture there may be just a small number of areas (such as healthcare, for instance) where we lag behind but which are offset by the inherent constitutional stability evolved over a thousand years which neither of those countries you cite can come close to achieving, and which the Labour plan, if adopted, would be the first step towards its failure.
Reform of the second chamber is required, but not wholesale replacement based upon models that simply bring a host of different problems.