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5 December 2022

Labour’s constitutional radicalism is what a broken system needs

Too much of our political class has become timid or borderline corrupt. It’s time to redistribute power and abolish the House of Lords.

By Andrew Marr

So, in Leeds, a pleasant surprise: there was no watering down; no nervous-nellyism. Labour’s radical plans for devolution, the cleaning up of politics and the abolition of the House of Lords have already produced the predictable wails, sniffs and head-shaking.

A dank cloud of unease hangs over the Palace of Fun: conservatism in Britain stretches much more widely than the Conservative Party. I don’t suppose Gordon Brown and Keir Starmer expected a lot of applause for today’s announcements. But, from all progressives, they deserve it. Theirs is a package which would change Westminster for the better – and for ever – and which goes a long way to answering the chronic problem of an over-centralised Britain.

Once upon a time the House of Lords was a democratic disgrace because it admitted aristocratic bloodlines and ancient landed power into what was meant to be a voters’ state. In even vaguely modern times, it never enjoyed a golden age of oratory and wisdom: as Walter Bagehot, that keen-eyed Victorian political writer, put it, perhaps brutally: “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”

In more recent times, of course, the Lords has been a democratic disgrace because successive prime ministers chose to make it one, stuffing its dim crimson corridors with cronies, favoured apparatchiks and donors, so that it became dropsical in size and an emblem of their patronage powers. I don’t deny that there are plenty of wise, experienced and hard-working people there – thoughtful committees, pertinent questions. But the place itself is impossible for an intelligent person to defend. If in doubt, look.

The only intelligent riposte to Brown’s proposal is that an elected senatorial chamber would challenge the primacy of the Commons, particularly if it was chosen in a more representative way and spoke for non-metropolitan Britain. So you would get “constitutional gridlock” and the country would be impossible to govern.

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[See also: How radical will Keir Starmer be on constitutional reform?]

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But this can be answered with a basic constitutional law setting down the chamber’s powers. (Leading us to a “written constitution”? Shock. Horror. Good thing too.) Alternatively, and I know this is an awful prospect, we could start to examine electing the Commons itself in a more representative way. Just saying.

Others argue that the country just doesn’t want more politicians and isn’t interested in electing any. Consider first that the new plan would cut the number of members of the second chamber from more than 800 to 200. Then ask yourself how it feels to be against elections in a modern democracy. And what the basic proposition says about how politicians have handled themselves thus far, in our immaculate democracy.

On Scotland, Labour’s plan seems to go as far as possible to acknowledge difference inside a single United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament gets more powers, including to negotiate with overseas bodies in certain circumstances. It is up to the SNP to demonstrate why the advantages of staying inside the Union and the British single market are outweighed by the economics of independence.

Overall, the package will be hated in Westminster, not least because it bans most second jobs for politicians. I don’t deny that this, and greater devolution across England, won’t cause unexpected difficulties and entangle a new Labour government in complex Westminster arguments and haggling. And yes, it will take time. The final legislative package will be different to what was announced today – there will be second thoughts, tweaks, last-minute adjustments, and rightly so. That is the point of any parliament. Heaven preserve us, however, from another “constitutional convention” to delay everything.

And yes, this will be tough as well. The Lords will fight. But an elected Labour government with a decent majority can manage more than one fight at the same time.

Above all it’s time to take on “the old two systems”: a winner-takes-all parliamentary system, with an incredibly powerful centralised system of Downing Street patronage sitting atop it. This has been, as they say, tried and tested, and how. It hasn’t been good for this country – not in terms of decently-distributed economic prosperity, nor productivity, nor our reputation in the modern world. Too much of our political class has become timid and nostalgic, and some of it is borderline corrupt. The country has been watching, and noticed. It’s time.

[See also: Keir Starmer interview: “Am I aiming to be just a one-term prime minister? No, of course not”]