New Times,
New Thinking.

What will Labour do to the British constitution?

Our glaring democratic deficit demands radical reform.

By Michael Kenny

Appearances can be deceptive in politics, but it seems unlikely that Keir Starmer’s new administration will go down in history as a beacon of democratic reform. The state of the constitution and the health of Britain’s democracy hardly figured as themes in the election campaign. And, contrary to apocalyptic fears of a new federalised constitution expressed by some hostile commentators, the Labour leadership has done its best to tiptoe away from some of the main proposals set out in the Commission on the UK’s Future chaired by former leader Gordon Brown. Despite reports of Sue Gray’s interest in the concept of citizens’ assemblies, and despite the UK being a long way behind the curve of most other democratic countries in its lack of familiarity with such deliberative techniques, nothing in the manifesto suggested much interest in the question of how to ensure greater citizen engagement and public participation.

The new government’s main policy priorities undoubtedly lie elsewhere. As we saw from Rachel Reeves’s speech earlier this week, its over-riding focus will be on kick-starting improved economic growth, a broad-ranging objective that encompasses policy commitments like planning reform and accelerating housebuilding. With these goals centre stage, it is may well follow the lead of many of its predecessors in viewing democratic and institutional questions as distractions from its main purpose. Very few senior Labour figures are plugged into these debates compared to their predecessors of 30 years ago, when New Labour developed an extensive programme of constitutional reform.

A broadly utilitarian understanding of the role of Labour in power has long lived in tension with some of the more radical and democratic ideas that others have seen as key features of the party’s mission. New Labour contained both of these tendencies, with some notable reforms to the UK’s system of government emerging from the latter strand, even as other senior figures, including Blair himself, remained wary of the main democratic causes favoured by reformers. In the run-up to 1997, an extended set of conversations about constitutional and democratic change informed the thinking of the new government, and important sources of external influence included the Constitutional Convention in Scotland, the Charter 88 movement and the contributions of think tanks like IPPR. But there is now a much more fragmented set of debates and arguments on this front, and little concerted pressure from outside or within the party on these issues.

The manifesto of 2024 reveals a much less confident and developed vision of the wider system of territorial government in the UK – beyond warm words about the need for more productive relations with the governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Some notable commitments have made their way into its pages, mostly as hangovers from earlier commitments, while also reflecting the views of most party members on questions like Lords reform. None of these will be straightforward to deliver, and all will take up political capital and parliamentary time, and will require champions within the new Cabinet to keep them up the political pecking order.

Unsurprisingly after the Johnson era, the manifesto has strong commitments to ethics and integrity in public office and the new government will likely feel bound to enact reforms in this area. The headline commitment here is to a new Ethics and Integrity Commission, though little detail is given about its scope and operation. On the issue of House of Lords reform, Labour has indicated that it will remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote, and move to introduce a mandatory retirement age (80 years old). The appointments process will also be reformed and a much looser commitment made to improve the national and regional balance of the Lords – a simultaneous nod to, and retreat from, the vision of a Senate of the Nations and Regions advanced by Brown.

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These ideas lie at the unambitious end of the spectrum of measures associated with Lords reform. But the size of the majority that Labour has now won means that some of the political conditions for a more substantive push towards an elected Second Chamber are in place. And Starmer’s government may well find that expectations of what it should be striving for in this area, particularly if elected for a second term, grow considerably. The manifesto also refers to the establishment of a new Council of the Nations and Regions (composed of First Ministers and English Mayors), and the metro mayors met Starmer in Downing Street this week on 9 July in what looks like the first steps towards establishing such a body. But little detail has been supplied about its ultimate role or constitutional position.

The commitment to extend the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds did gain some salience during the campaign. This proposal – presented as a form of gerrymandering by its Tory opponents – is not as radical as it sounds. It has already been put in place for local authority and devolved parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales, and is – both supporters and critics tend to agree – unlikely to do much to reduce age inequalities in voter turnout. In fact, when it comes to voting reform, a more important measure that did not appear in the manifesto, but which the party is said to be considering, is automatic registration. This might well substantially reduce the inequalities of class and age in voting, if not turnout itself.

But there is one aspect of governance reform to which the new government looks likely to commit. Extending the model of Combined Authority devolution in England is viewed within the leadership as one of the ways of delivering a more balanced regional growth model. Without the development of a coherent and effective layer of “meso-level” political and administrative authority, in a context where local councils’ finances have been decimated, the chances of the UK economy flying on more than one or two engines remain limited.

There are challenges on this front too. Embedding new deals with boundaries that align citizens’ sense of local geography with existing administrative borders and what Whitehall mandarins call “functional economic geographies” will not be easy in many places – as its predecessors have found. Newly minted authorities, like that in the north-east, will take time to find their feet and gain profile and credibility among local publics. And, in political terms, Labour have inherited a large pool of mayors who will sometimes find it expedient to blame the centre for local problems.

But the potential prize in this area is considerable. If a new government does stabilise and extend the existing system, it will establish a platform upon which later governments can build, potentially moving in the direction of the devolution of greater public service responsibilities along lines that are familiar in other OECD countries. Finally, on voting reform – the other iconic issue aside from the Lords that galvanises many political reformers and party members – Labour’s manifesto was silent. In 1997 Blair committed to an independent Commission on this issue which duly reported in 1998 but was largely ignored. Starmer has given little indication of interest in this issue, and the scale of the victory he has just won will likely reinforce that instinct.

And yet, the new government may find that this is the constitutional question that comes to life after an election which has laid bare the highly disproportionate outcomes our voting model can produce. Labour has increased its share of seats dramatically, while securing a lower gross vote than Jeremy Corbyn managed in 2017 – or indeed in the heavy defeat of 2019. The Conservatives have been badly hit by the efficient distribution of Labour’s vote in this election. The Lib Dems too have markedly increased their number of seats even though their vote is still far below the 23 per cent they achieved in 2010, and Reform won five seats with a vote share of 14.3%, a result that carries strong echoes of 2015 when UKIP received 3.9 million votes but only returned one seat.

Electoral reform may well now become a preoccupation for parts of the political right in Britain in the wake of this outcome (although it is in the Conservative party that support for the current voting system has historically been strongest). This time around, Labour is the beneficiary of a model that accentuates swings in the electorate’s mood and produces outcomes that can very easily be framed as illegitimate and unfair. And this issue arises at a time when powerful popular headwinds are blowing across the democratic world, stirring a growing appetite for change within the electorate. On electoral reform as with other constitutional questions, Labour will find it hard to remain silent (not least given the support of most party members for this cause). Otherwise, it may find itself in the role of the primary defender of an increasingly discredited status quo.  

[See also: Keir Starmer beyond the wall]

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