Labour must push a radical vision of progressive constitutional change
Where has all the debate and speculation about the constitution that was so loud and urgent before the election gone? Have all those keenly discussed constitutional issues disappeared because the Tories gained an unexpected majority?
Pre-election debate about the constitution was dominated by the ability of Labour to form a minority government along with what to do about the question of EVEL (English votes for English laws) if the party failed to get a majority in England.
Some of this may seem pretty academic now, but that does not mean that the once-in-a-lifetime ‘constitutional moment’ described by many academics has gone away.
Take the question of Labour and EVEL. The Tories have pledged to introduce EVEL in this parliament. EVEL is not a minor issue of procedure in the Commons. Its introduction will fundamentally alter the way parliament deals with legislation.
It will remove the powers of some MPs (from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and privilege others (from England).
The question therefore remains: should Labour support or oppose EVEL?
The new Compass pamphlet ‘Progressive Politics and the Question of English Votes for English Laws’ argues that Labour should support EVEL, but only as part of a radical vision for progressive constitutional change.
Actually Labour has no choice; constitutional change will dominate things for the foreseeable future.
The government has a list of proposals that will profoundly effect our political system and the nature of the Union.
They include redrawing the constituency boundaries that is likely to reinforce a Tory majority in England; taking forward the commitments in the Smith report on the radical devolution of power to Scotland; introducing EVEL into the decision-making processes at Westminster; devolving power to ‘Northern Powerhouses’, starting with Greater Manchester; holding an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU; and abolishing the Human Rights Act.
Underlying this is a failing electoral system which gave us the ‘most disproportionate result in British election history’, where the government was elected by only 36 per cent of voters, and a skewed opposition that does not even approximate voters’ wishes.
A system that has led to an unprecedented situation where the four component parts of the United Kingdom are all led by different political parties. Because of the piecemeal nature of devolution, we have stumbled into creating a quasi-federal state.
The Tory response to these challenges has been largely reactive and piecemeal. It is driven by a desire to appease the right wing backbenchers, as well as plans to build in political advantage ie. by changing the rules on constituency boundaries.
The government has also rejected any question of electoral reform, and their proposals for democratic accountability of the new city regions are threadbare.
So how should progressives respond to these challenges?
The government’s incoherent constitutional reform ‘strategy’ provides progressive parties and organisations with a great opportunity to seize the agenda.
Labour could play a central role in working with others to create a democratic and inclusive vision for the United Kingdom that gets to grips with the shortcomings of our existing political and electoral system.
Labour should build upon the ideas outlined in the manifesto:
- Devolving power to regions, cities and local authorities
- Creating a citizen-led constitutional convention
- Replacing the House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations and Regions
This strategy is rooted in the recognition that a more equal society can only come about through radical devolution of power.
Labour must not lose sight of this vision. Such a strategy that would provide the opportunity to challenge the government with a positive set of ideas based on the themes of devolving and sharing power, increasing community involvement and creating more effective forms of decentralised decision-making.
We suggest this the strategy should consist of the following elements:
Supporting the Introduction of EVEL as a first step in constitutional reform
Devolving and localising power to the regions and beyond as a way of addressing the gross imbalance of size (and therefore power) of the four nations of the UK
Working with other organisations and parties to organise an independent constitutional convention to examine questions around the power relationships between the nations, the regions, local government and neighbourhoods
The creation of a House of Nations and Regions to replace the Lords
An all-party campaign for electoral reform
The issues related to EVEL and the need for an ambitious programme of constitutional and structural change cannot be avoided. But the government’s approach lacks coherence and vision.
This vacuum can and must be filled by Labour developing a grand progressive coalition for constitutional change, one that maps out a clear vision for democratic change, decentralisation and inclusion.
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