July 24, 2024

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The Legal System

Starmer’s imminent constitutional overhaul, courtesy of Gordon Brown

Starmer’s imminent constitutional overhaul, courtesy of Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown is a longstanding supporter of constitutional reform. When he first entered parliament at the 1983 election, he picked up the cause for Scottish home rule enthusiastically — championing proposals which would eventually bear fruit in the 1998 Scotland Act. Make no mistake about it: the former prime minister is a committed devolutionista.

Brown also made a crucial contribution for “No” in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Making a passionate appeal for wavering Labour voters, he called on his audience “to fight for what is our dream, what is our demand: a world not of a separate state, but a world of social justice people can believe in”.

In pursuing such powerful rhetoric on the constitution, Brown wilfully taps into a long legacy of Labour innovation on the cause of reform. 

Whether it is Clement Attlee’s reforms to the House of Lords, Harold Wilson’s patronage of the “Royal Commission on the Constitution” (1969-1973) or Tony Blair’s introduction of the Supreme Court, robust constitutional reform has been a major part of successive Labour governments.

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So when Sir Keir Starmer charged Brown with overseeing a new constitutional commission as one of the first acts of his leadership in 2020, he sought to draw on the memory of these election-winning forebears.

In fact, Starmer has billed the commission, which is due to report any day now, as preparing proposals “every bit as bold and radical as the programme of devolution that Labour delivered in the 1990s and 2000s”. 

Tackling democratic disparity on one hand and economic injustice on the other, Starmer views constitutional reform as central to the vision the centre-left can offer the country.

The House of Lords 

Brown’s forthcoming constitutional review looks set to take aim at the House of Lords first and foremost.

A section of Gordon Brown’s report was leaked in September of this year, and it revealed that Labour was considering abolishing the Lords and replacing it with an upper house of nations and regions elected directly by the people.  

It is significant that Brown’s constitutional review looks set to link abolishing the House of Lords with calls to increase regional and national power. This politically savvy move squares the instincts of his party on levelling up and constitutional democracy — crucially combining two intersecting tracts of political discourse.

Indeed, Andy Burnham, who is a vocal proponent of both these issues, has notably voiced support for “an elected senate of the nations and regions” in place of the Lords. The policy is also backed by the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar. 

Since the leak, which first appeared in the Observer, Starmer has written to Labour peers, informing them that reform is necessary to restore the trust of the public in government. Keen to adopt a higher moral ground on the issue of restoring trust in politics, Starmer used to the letter to criticise former prime minister Boris Johnson for appointing “lackeys and donors” and riding “roughshod over the appointments system”.

Significant to Starmer’s pitch to “clean up” politics, the proposed reforms would end the ability of prime ministers to appoint people to the second chamber.

It is also notable that abolishing the House of Lords was one of Starmer’s 10 campaign pledges when he ran for party leader in 2020. But while many of these commitments have since been abandoned or watered-down, Starmer now views Lords reform as a conduit through which Labour can “clean up politics” and, simultaneously, “level up” the U.K.

English devolution

As well as the House of Lords, Starmer has identified the balance of power between the centre, nations, regions and localities as ripe for reform.

When Starmer announced the commission in 2020, he said that “Too often the UK government’s approach has been to pit council against council, town against town, city against city, mayor against mayor”.

And the leaked section of the report seen by the Observer, also laid out plans for new tax powers for some devolved governments, including stamp duty.

Brown also wants local mayors to be in control over local training and further education budgets alongside further powers over transport, infrastructure, planning and even the allocation of research-and-development funding in universities.

Crucially, Brown has consulted Labour’s regional Mayors as part of the review process. In a joint statement, Dan Jarvis (Sheffield), Jamie Driscoll (North of Tyne), Steve Rotherham (Liverpool), Sadiq Khan (London), Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) and Susan Hinchcliffe (West Yorkshire Combined Authority), collectively described the constitutional status quo as “broken”

They called on Brown to introduce “stronger devolution within England” as “an integral part of creating a better Britain that brings power closer to the people and helps us all take back control”.

Labour’s commitment to greater regional clout, set to be laid out in Brown’s review, will give the party some much-needed policy ammunition heading into 2024. The party wants to win decisively in the North and the review’s proposals will be central to its appeal. 

Scotland

Gordon Brown was an important voice in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum; and he has since vocally advocated for an enhanced devolutionary settlement for the UK.

Brown’s commission looks set to outline measures to give Scotland enhanced nationhood within the UK, to given Scotland a louder both within and without Westminster.

As part of a broader push to check the appeal of independence, Brown looks set to promote a fresh slate of powers for Holyrood. Under the new proposals, social security and economic policy are areas which could be further devolved to Holyrood under a Labour government. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling that Holyrood does not have the competency to rule on IndyRef2, many view the national question as having become too binary. Brown’s review may offer a lucrative “third way” for Scottish Labour heading into 2024, one between the status quo and the SNP’s vision of independence. 

Starmer knows that if he is to secure a strong majority after 2024, the Labour party needs to take seats off the SNP in Scotland. Broader legislative freedom for Holyrood will be central to Scottish Labour’s pitch.

MP’s second jobs

Building on Starmer’s pitch to “clean up politics”, the Brown review looks set to confirm Labour’s commitment to ban most second jobs for MPs.

Starmer said in November last year: “On consultations and directorships et cetera, we’ve been saying for many, many years that they should go . . . We went a step further in 2019 to say no second jobs, with clear exemptions. No consultants has been a long-standing position in the Labour Party.”

However, second jobs that promote the “public good” will be untouched by Labour’s new proposals. This means that Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, the shadow health minister, will be able to continue practising medicine while an MP. 

Electoral reform 

One area that Brown’s review is looking to stay clear of is electoral reform. 

This has led to an outcry from within Labour circles that any constitutional overhaul will be incomplete without proportional representation (PR). 

The Labour Party conference this year in Liverpool was dominated by calls for electoral reform and the replacement of the current first-past-the-post voting system. A motion was passed by delegates which called on Labour to commit to introducing PR for general elections in the next manifesto, implementing the change in the party’s first term in office.

This was viewed as a triumphant moment by delegates who favour a move to proportional representation. Speaking to Politics.co.uk earlier this month, Labour MP Clive Lewis described the move as “a vote for a different type of politics”.

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has also been a prominent advocate of electoral reform. Writing in the Observer earlier this year, he issued a guarded message to Starmer, calling on the Labour leader to “seize the moment” on proportional representation. 

Where do we go from here? 

The Labour party, Harold Wilson once observed, is “like a stagecoach. If you rattle along at great speed everybody is too exhilarated or seasick to cause any trouble. But if you stop, everybody gets out and argues about where to go next”.

The bind Starmer faces over constitutional reform is hence a familiar problem. 

But the Labour leader plainly believes that Britain is overdue a constitutional overhaul. Indeed, in outsourcing the responsibility of reform to Brown, a trenchant advocate of change, Starmer issued a statement of intent.

The review will ultimately provide a fascinating insight into the state of Starmer’s leadership. Now only one question remains: does the Labour leader have the confidence to follow through?