Monday 5 December 2022

More words, not action, from Labour?


Looking back over successive elections since the time of Harold Wilson, I can’t remember a point during the lifetime of a Conservative government when the Labour Party was not promising, or at least talking about, either abolition or else major reform of the House of Lords. Nor can I remember a time when they’ve ever delivered on the fine words once elected. When push comes to shove, there are always other priorities and too many vested interests. And Labour PMs have usually ended up finding that the House of Lords is useful to them as a means of rewarding donors and supporters – or even just getting rid of troublesome MPs.

Today’s Great Announcement of the results of a Commission led by Gordon Brown can only sensibly be read in that historical context; the rhetoric is fine, but will they deliver this time? Some Labour voices in the Lords are already suggesting that the proposals should be watered down or delayed. There are, they argue, more important so-called ‘bread-and-butter’ issues which need addressing first, as though governments can only focus on one issue at a time. The words coming from Starmer and Brown today suggest that they realise that constitutional reform is not as divorced from the immediate economic reality as many seem to suggest: empowering the regions and nations of the UK can also help government to be more responsive, if done properly. That caveat (‘if done properly’) is an enormous one, though. The whole history of devolution tells us that the centre only ever cedes power reluctantly, always seeks to control tightly how it can be used, and always retains the right to ungrant what it previously granted. And whilst the idea that Starmer's Labour will be any different from the Tories on those questions has yet to be either disproven or demonstrated, the history of Labour attitudes to reform once they get elected is not exactly encouraging.

Some of the answers that Starmer and Brown have been giving today already look evasive, and there is a marked lack of detail on how the grand principles will actually work. What do they mean, for instance, when they claim that the replacement for the House of Lords (the council for regions and the nations) will represent the nations and regions? How will that work? How will they be elected? If elections are fought by the same parties as fight elections for the House of Commons, the new ‘council’ will end up being defined more in terms of its party balance (between ‘government’ members and ‘opposition’ members); the idea that, for instance, the Welsh members will vote and act as a bloc fighting for Welsh interests instead of splitting between the government and the opposition is one for the fairies. None of this is answered by today’s announcement – these are, apparently, all matters for ‘consultation’ and debate (which the more naïve might have thought was what the commission was supposed to be doing).

They are also promising legislation to ‘protect’ the powers of the Senedd and the other devolved administrations, but the ‘how’ is again missing. Unless they are proposing constitutional changes which will abolish the idea that no legislation passed by one government can tie the hands of any future government (and they certainly do not seem to be proposing that), then all they can really promise is that the next Labour government will offer such protection for the duration of a single term. It’s not much of a promise in reality. The real underlying problem, the one that they have completely ignored, is the supposition that ‘sovereignty’ is invested in the monarch by God and exercised by Westminster by the grace of the monarch. It’s the inevitable result of a monarchical constitution. Without moving to a position where ‘sovereignty’ is expressly recognised as belonging to the people in each nation or region, on whose behalf it is exercised through the various parliaments, it’s hard to see how they can deliver the long term changes needed. The founders of the Labour Party would have had little problem with understanding that, but the timid creatures currently inhabiting the party will continue to run a mile from the idea of real empowerment.

1 comment:

An Eye On... said...