Starmer/Brown constitutional plans – damp squib or radical vision?

Dave Kellaway examines the new proposals by Labour.


Blink and you may have missed it. The Labour Party has published a Commission on the UK’s Future.  By  ex-PM, Gordon Brown. One of its key recommendations on abolishing the Lords made it onto the front pages of the non-tabloid press. Overall there was not a lot of reaction in the midst of the strike wave, the cost of living crisis, keeping warm and the continued efforts of the England team in the World Cup. There were one or two opinion pieces and an editorial in the Guardian was fairly sympathetic.

A number of Labour Lords, who are generally on the right of the party, were predictably lukewarm on the proposals. Starmer, ever cautious, emphasised that in any case there was going to be a ‘consultation’ starting straightaway and that nothing was set in stone. The left press did not have much to say. John Westmoreland from Counterfire makes a very good critique of the report while not taking up the elephant in the room – the fact that the key democratic demand for proportional representation is ignored by Brown and Starmer. Political representatives in Scotland and Wales were not impressed as the report does not suggest giving the parliaments in those countries many new powers. It looks a lot more radical for England than for anywhere else.

Despite the cool welcome, the report does take up issues that socialists need to respond to.  Working people know that the political system does not truly represent them. Moreover in the last fifty years there has been an erosion of any trust people ever had that politicians work in their interests. Indeed the way politics operates here provides even less democratic space for working people or progressive voices than other countries in Europe. 

We suffer from:

  • A first past the post system that helps keep the Tories in power and consolidates a two party system closed off to alternatives
  • the lack of a written constitution
  • the archaic grip of the Crown
  • the continued farce of noble titles and feudal ceremony
  • a Union that blocks self-determination for Scotland and Wales
  • the corrupt patronage given to Prime Ministers
  • parliamentary sovereignty gives huge power to the Prime Minister

Consequently the left should not downplay this terrain of struggle or counterpose it crudely to the ‘real struggle’ of strikes, campaigns and the ‘power of the streets’.  Of course it is only through developing class consciousness and self-organisation that democratic issues can be substantially improved and ultimately resolved with a real socialist democracy. Top down managerial commissions tightly controlled by the Starmer leadership of the Labour Party will not provide a solution, even if they provide us with an opening.

Why did Starmer dream up this commission in the first place?

Starmer knows that the Tories are imploding, far behind in the polls with little hope of a turnaround in the economy. Labour is odds on to win the next general election with his pitch as the social liberal manager who can be trusted by big business. Important sectors of capital want better organised state support for their profit making as Jamie Gough has discussed here.  Tory Brexit is far from producing a bonanza for them. Donations are now starting to flow into Labour’s coffers and people like Tesco’s CEO have voiced support. All the proposals on economic hubs and state investment banks in the report are primarily aimed at them rather than changing things for working people.

Sir Keir may be cautious but he knows that to win a decent majority he also needs to work a bit at the ‘vision thing’ and develop a coherent narrative that goes beyond being the establishment B team. Constitutional reform like this, presenting a modern vision against the archaic Tories who support the House of Lords fits the bill quite well. It also may help to mine some Liberal Democrat votes.

Although he has shrunk the Labour membership by a third or more since the highpoint of Corbynism through his witch hunt against the left and the demoralisation this has engendered, Starmer still needs something to bluff members that he is a crusading reformer. In any case the two-party system only works effectively if there are some actual differences between the parties. A limited reform of the Lords and some of the other proposals, for example, on MPs second jobs, would be a step forward and worth voting for.

Scotland has become a nightmare for Labour as its previous strongholds have passed over to the SNP.  Brown places his recommendations as a third way between the ‘destructiveness’ of the SNP’s independence road and the ‘dead end’ of the status quo.  He claims that a few tweaks on the devolved governments powers UK’ will win back Scottish voters from the SNP; for example if Scotland is able to participate a bit more in international bodies or participate in a new forum, such as an Upper House, for the cooperation between ‘the nations of the UK’. 

Support for independence is currently showing at 53-56%%  in the wake of the UK Supreme Court decision that the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood does not have the right to unilaterally conduct a consultative referendum on independence. It is little surprise that the commission report does not seem to have impacted on these levels given that significant numbers of Scottish voters have not forgiven Gordon brown for the lies he spun to win the previous referendum for the Union. Polls also show 73% in favour of re-joining the EU, when Starmer has ruled out even re-joining the single market.

A key driver of the commission has also been to respond to what the Labour leadership considers as one of the causes of its loss of support in the ‘red wall’ seats of the Midlands and the North of England – the sense of isolation from the political process, the notorious mantra of ‘taking back control’ exploited by Johnson.  Labour leadership analysts usually omit the way this was combined with both racism to migrants and that it was rotten Labour local and regional regimes they had no control over.  However, the political alienation in real enough and the report sets out greater devolution for England and its regions/towns as a response to this. But it is highly debateable whether directly elected Mayors with executive powers overriding local accountability and pushing a business agenda will give people back control.

A closer look at the proposals

There are 40 recommendations divided into 6 sections. To save you the tedium of wading through the waffle we summarise and assess each section below.

Section A sets out the vision of a new constitutional statute – presumably the written constitution that Britain, unlike most countries, does not have. It will aim to :

  • treat all parts of the UK fairly
  • guarantee rights and ensure a minimum level of living standards
  • respect decisions made by local and devolved authorities

Britain will be somehow rebalanced with England joining Scotland, Wales, and the Six Counties in a sort of new unity of the nations which will provide better cooperation which in a magical way it says will strengthen devolved powers. It is unclear what the point of another forum like the new upper chamber is for nations like Scotland that have a set of devolved powers. What is the point of discussing the operations of such powers in another body – it does not add anything.

 In principle the second recommendation is something socialists would agree with – for decisions to be taken as close as meaningfully and practically possible to the people affected by them.  The key issue however is which decisions – if it excludes decisions affecting your employment, ownership of property, investment or the environment then these are decisions that still exclude you from real power over anything important.

One positive proposal here (recommendation 4) worth discussing is for new constitutionally protected social rights: right of health care based on need, minimum standards of public services.  Depending on the exact wording and detail such a change could help struggles to defend the NHS or educational rights. A relevant proposal would be for a sliding scale of wages in line with inflation to be written into the constitution. Of course this would mean confronting capitalist interests which Starmer is not interested in.  Even if it was restricted to public services this would be a step forward. We could argue for private health to be excluded from the NHS at every level.

On the other hand, vague good intentions written into constitutions are less useful. The post-fascist 1948 Italian constitution has a lot of good statements about a society founded on labour and so on but it today it is based on exploitation and inequality similar to what we experience. Nevertheless in Italy it has some use as a base line in political debate.

Section B is about having the right powers in the right places in England so every town and city can take control of its economic future and have fair share of resources and play a part in creating prosperity for all.

This harks back to the Wilson period of creating institutions that will stoke the white heat of the technological revolution. Blair stuck closer to the unregulated Thatcherite model. It also builds on the community wealth building of the Preston or Salford models. Brown and even Starmer, who momentarily appears to have departed from his normal script, have made outrageous claims that these institutional/economic changes will produce an irreversible transfer of wealth, income and opportunity to working families across the United Kingdom. 

The regions and local mayors will develop economic hubs or clusters in 300 odd locations which will be innovation led and coordinate growth. A new UK Strength in Places fund, an Infrastructure bank and a British regional investment bank with some new money will facilitate all this. There will be economic plans in all these hubs. Local government will have long term financial certainty and new fiscal powers. 50,000 civil service jobs and other public bodies will be re-located outside London.

Nobody denies that there is a structural imbalance in the British economy where more wealth and resources are concentrated in London and the South East compared to elsewhere. The question is whether these hubs, even with slightly enhanced resources, will really have the powers to direct economic activity capitalist companies still retain all their powers. Fixing regional deprivation and inequality generally cannot effectively work without directly challenging capitalist power If moving outside London and south east would incur more costs. You would need to massively redistribute economic resources. How do you do that if you do not control those resources in the first place? The plan naively believes in a local government/business partnership overcoming the systematic production of deprivation and inequality.

However inequality, deprivation is not primarily a geographically determined reality  – there are plenty of well-paid and rich people living outside London and the South East and there are millions of poor people in the latter region. Hackney, where I live, has some of the most deprived areas in the country according to official statistics. I know lots of places where people live very well up North for example in Alderley Edge near Manchester or St Annes down the road from some of the worst deprived areas in Blackpool.

Decentralising power to elected bodies does not mean that disparity between regions is necessarily changed. Italy and the Spanish state have much more devolved institutions than Britain but the differences between the poorest regions and the richest has not fundamentally changed and is not better than here. Capitalist companies will readily gobble up local incentives and subsidies but they make their decisions to invest on a number of other criteria.

Devolution and more local democracy is fine but you also have to be wary of allowing too much variation from national standards of provision and ensure that the central state redistributes resources appropriately to where there is greater need.  Reactionary right wing forces in Northern Italy for example are in favour of differentiated autonomy with far greater control over tax revenue. 

While we support a better distribution of civil servants and public bodies outside of the South East any socialist programme has to also tackle the inequality within each region and the inequality that is systematically produced by each capitalist company. These are the same companies that all these local hubs will be lobbying to join them. Will the hub or mayor have the power to ban any agency workers or zero hour contracts in the ‘stakeholder’ companies? If the workers in those companies go on strike will the local Labour mayors or councils imitate Starmer’s current stance of refusing to support any of the struggles around wages and conditions?

The next Sections C and D deal with the devolution of the nations and their participation in the new Assembly of Nations and Regions. There is not a lot for Scotland or Wales here as they are brought into a forum with the English nation and regions ‘for cooperation and mutual benefit’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Such arrangements will replace the current inter-ministerial meetings and all institutional bodies will have to include representatives or consideration of these devolved nations and regions. Joint policy initiatives on security and climate change will embed cooperation between different levels of government.  Does that mean anything or change a lot?

Scotland will be allowed to enter into international agreements and join international bodies in relation to devolved matters. In practice this is more difficult. Scotland wanted to join Erasmus – the excellent EU educational exchange programme that Britain used to be in – but the other EU countries are not permitted to allow non-states into the arrangement.

Unsurprisingly these proposals have not lit any fires across the border in Scotland or Wales. Interestingly another commission set up in Wales has just accepted that independence is a ‘viable option’ among others.

The next Section E has sparked some interest because it deals with the ethics of politicians and sets out some new rules for restricting second jobs, limiting the influence of donors and preventing foreign or corrupt money being contributed. The public will be involved in this monitoring along with anti-corruption commissioners. Nobody would oppose these measures but it hardly affects the huge legal influence of big corporations and the right wing dominated mass media on the political system. Keir Starmer recently held a successful meeting for business at Canary Wharf which was all about reactivating the strong stream of business donors to Labour that Blair had previously achieved.

Socialists would argue for the banning of all additional earnings and linking MPs salaries to some measure of the average or median wage. There is an argument for limiting the number of terms an MP can stand for, drastically limiting election spending and for the limited state funding of political parties. Measures to achieve gender parity and better representation of working class and BAME people would also be progressive.

Finally the stand out recommendation comes in Section F with the abolition of the House of Lords replaced by smaller, more representative and democratic second chamber to safeguard the new constitutional basis of the New Britain

This pulls together a lot of the other proposals. The body will bring together the nations and English regions into a more cooperative and effective mode. It will also play a new role in safeguarding the constitution. It will be elected on a different cycle to the commons with a method of election open to consultation.

Socialists – unlike Sir Starmer and the Labour Party – have always opposed the unelected second chamber with its reinforcement of the crown and the very idea of nobility and titles. It is bigger than the Commons with 800 peers, average age, 71, who can all wander in for a few hours and get a healthy allowance (£323 a day) and a cheap dinner. There are still 92 hereditary peers who periodically vote as a group to include another hereditary peer when someone dies! It reproduces the ideology of the great and the good who have the wisdom and right to do politics above the heads of ordinary people. Prime Ministers can use their patronage through the honours lists to reward donors and cronies – a tradition the Labour Party continues but to their credit the SNP does not participate in. Finally as the Baroness Mone affair has shown it allows you handy access to ministers for your business affairs.

The final proposals do open the door ever so slightly to the possibility that the new Assembly might be not elected by first past the post.

The weakness of this actually directs you even more strongly to see the elephant in the room of the whole report. Nowhere is the inequity of the first past the post system addressed. In all the discussion about the hubs often built around elected mayors like Burnham in Manchester it is forgotten that the undemocratic first past the post system will mean that if there is a swing against the next Labour government after two years or so in office then the Tories would be back in charge sabotaging even the limited good intentions of the project.

Right questions but wrong answers

Constitutional matters are not a minor issue today for socialists. The underwhelming response to the Brown Commission launch does not mean we can leave it on one side. The consultation allows us to raise some of the issues we have touched on in this article.

Here are some ideas (not an exhaustive list) we need to further discuss and argue for:

  • rights of Scottish and Welsh people to vote on self-determination and independence if they wish
  • support for Scottish and Welsh independence
  • support for United Ireland
  • for a democratic proportional representation system for all elections
  • abolish House of Lords, for an elected second chamber
  • decisions to be devolved to as local level as far as possible without undermining agreed national standards of health, social care, leisure, environmental and employment regulations
  • national redistribution of resources to some areas to ensure a true levelling up 
  • for a written constitution that limits parliamentary sovereignty, which includes increased protection of democratic rights, women’s and LBGT+ rights, right to asylum, right to work, protection of workers’ rights, inflation proofing of salaries,  welfare benefits set by law at a level equivalent to decent living standards etc.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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