The radical baroness rethinking British democracy

Labour peer Pauline Bryan is bringing an arcane debate to life.

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Baroness Bryan of Partick is an atypical peer. Shy and soft-spoken, lacking the practised eloquence of most career politicians, she could easily be underestimated. But Bryan has a radical aim: the fundamental reordering of British democracy.

The 69-year old was elevated to the House of Lords last year by Jeremy Corbyn, who was initially reluctant to create new peers. Though Bryan hails from west London and retains a mild southern accent, she has spent most of her life in Glasgow, doing gritty activism on the left of the Labour Party – first as a founder of the Scottish Campaign for Socialism, and then with the Red Paper Collective, a left-wing think tank.

“I feel a bit strange here – having never stood for MP or anything,” she says, seated on a Chesterfield sofa in the Lords’ high-ceilinged tea room (“Darjeeling is the one luxury I've developed here – I can't drink smelly tea like Earl Gray”). 

For Bryan, the House of Lords is a far cry from Glasgow. Walking through plushly-carpeted corridors, she points out the peers’ dining room, where a number of white-haired men are tucking into an early dinner. “You have to sit next to whoever is there – I wouldn’t dream of it,” she whispers. 

To date, Bryan has largely slipped under the radar of Westminster politics – articles about her are rare and she has fewer than 500 followers on Twitter. Constitutional reform is hardly a glamorous subject – “people tend to switch off when you say that word,” Bryan says. Indeed, most of Labour’s intellectual firepower has been concentrated on economic policy. While the party is committed to abolishing the unelected Lords, its 2017 manifesto devoted little space to democratic reform.

That’s where Bryan comes in. A short proposal she published in March, eponymously nicknamed “the Bryan paper”, has been heralded as a breakthrough in Labour’s constitutional thought.

Bryan has been tasked with two jobs over the next year: developing a more attractive offer to Scotland to rival the appeal of independence and transforming the Lords (in which 92 hereditary peers still sit).

She will undertake the hard thinking on both questions, presenting her findings in a report that will form part of the party’s next manifesto. While the UK’s unwritten constitution has developed in an ad-hoc manner, Bryan vision of “progressive federalism” returns to first principles. A new power-sharing agreement between Westminster and the devolved nations would be introduced and the Lords would be replaced with a democratically-elected “senate of the nations and regions”.

This new settlement would be based on a principle of partnership, rather than the current hierarchical model under which limited powers are devolved from the UK’s centralised state and can easily be withdrawn. Bryan aspires to rebalance this relationship and enshrine socialist principles within a new constitutional settlement, including the redistribution of wealth and stronger collective bargaining rights for workers.

Bryan concedes that she hasn’t settled all the details yet. There are some obvious flaws – including the asymmetry between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (the first lacking its own parliament or assembly) and the problem of dividing work between the House of Commons and an elected second chamber with equal democratic legitimacy.

Which body would revise government legislation if the Lords is abolished? “That’s something we need to look at”, Bryan admits.

Bryan has spent a lifetime swimming against the current. Her heroes are Keir Hardie, Tony Benn and Rosa Luxemburg.

And Brexit – should it happen – could yet provide an opening. In the absence of common EU standards, the UK will need to devise its own.

The lack of a formal written constitution has allowed successive governments flexibility. But Brexit has exposed the anachronisms and contradictions of the UK model, a patchwork of rules and arrangements that make it unclear where power lies.

Bryan acknowledges the incongruity of being a baroness who wants to abolish the Lords. Though many peers have expressed sympathy, “there are others who tell me they used to think like me – but now they recognise how much ‘expertise’ there is”. She pauses. “But the expertise that counts in here is an elite expertise – academic, professional, aristocratic – it’s not the expertise of someone who has managed on Universal Credit”.

The economic ideas around Corbynism have often been referred to as the “institutional turn”, a phrase coined by left-wing thinkers to describe Labour’s planned transformation of economic structures. Does Bryan’s plan to radically rethink Britain’s democratic DNA equate to a “constitutional turn”?

“We’ve talked to loads of people,” she says, modestly avoiding the question and keen to rebut the notion that she’s the originator of these ideas.

Nevertheless, Bryan is the woman bringing an arcane debate to life. 

Hettie O'Brien is a New Statesman online editor.