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Britain’s future: Labour candidates respond

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Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

Four out of six of the candidates for Labour’s deputy-leader position favour a written constitution for the United Kingdom: Peter Hain, Harriet Harman and John Cruddas are unequivocal, while Alan Johnson supports the idea “in principle”; Hilary Benn has an “open mind” and suggests “a national debate”, while Hazel Blears replies that she is “agnostic because it hands power to judges”.

Perhaps one of those sea-changes in British politics is underway whereby what was once completely unthinkable becomes “common sense” - and in the process its radical heart is bypassed. One experienced Labour insider to whom I showed the answers told me, “They are listening to their new master’s voice”. What struck me is that it is inconceivable that ten years ago leading and loyal members of Labour would have answered like this. Then small-“c” conservatism on this issue was utterly dominant - and it lives on still in the person of the present lord chancellor, Charlie Faulkner. But it seems that for a growing number of his colleagues, even if what they mean by a written constitution and how it might come about is unclear, the experience of office has radicalised the appetite for change not diminished it.

Gordon Brown will be formally elected as the unopposed candidate for leader of the Labour Party in Manchester on Sunday 24 June and will - barring any dreadful accidents - become prime minister on 27 June when Tony Blair finally steps down. At the same time the deputy leader will be elected by a system of preference votes that eliminates the candidate who comes bottom of the six and distributes second and then next preferences.

A great deal is being written about all six candidates, their backgrounds, children, policy preferences and current positions on Iraq (they all voted for the war). But strangely, despite the fact that Gordon Brown has made only one hard commitment - namely, “I will bring forward reform proposals to renew our constitution with the first draft constitutional reform bill later this year” - there has been little interest in the candidates’ views on what can be called the constitutional reform agenda, apart from electoral reform.

One could blame the media for not pressing the issues involved. But Labour Party members themselves are strangely unexercised. Or perhaps they are embarrassed about raising questions with the candidates on issues of liberties and rights, not least the deeply controversial legislation on ID cards, where the Conservative Party seems to be outflanking them on the left.

I published a post that mentioned this strange reluctance in openDemocracy’s British blog, OurKingdom, after the Fabian hustings between Gordon Brown and the two then-aspiring contenders for the leader’s position, John McDonnell and Michael Meacher (neither of whom in the event could raise the endorsement of enough MPs to be able to stand against him).

After a “good-natured” TV debate among the six candidates on BBC 2’s Newsnight, where again none of these issues were raised, I thought that we should ask them ourselves. The questions and the candidates’ answers are published below. The responses are in the order in which they came back to us: Peter Hain fast and efficient (and complaining at our asking that the answers be kept to one sentence); Alan Johnson last, taking little notice of our request for brevity.

Many things can be said about the differences between the candidates. Three things struck me about them as a whole, apart from the clarity of the responses about having a written constitution. They all say without equivocation that local government should have fiscal independence – this is a deeply radical position. They are all embarrassed about the English question, hoping that devolution of power will somehow deal with it. And on ID cards, behind loyal support for current Labour policy there is a lot of confusion; two candidates, Harman and Benn, say that while they think people should be obliged to have ID cards they do not think we should be obliged to carry them.

Where current government policy is clear, they are loyal. Where it is undefined, for example over a written constitution or fiscal decentralisation to local government, they are for more democracy and entitlement - more clearly than I had expected. In general, they are less evasive and have thought more about the issues than I predicted. They also, it seems to me, have answered in their own voices. The lack of probing and questions on these issues does not give the candidates, their party or our country any credit. A great debate is needed on these issues and these answers deserve to be the start of it.

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The Questions and Answers: note that the candidates were asked to keep their answers to one sentence if they could.

It appears that Jack Straw has changed his mind on the need for a written constitution. Do you agree that a written constitution is needed in order to create a new relationship between citizens and government?

Peter Hain: Yes – as a way of handing more power down to individuals and local communities, and entrenching democratic rights and accountability.

Hazel Blears: I am agnostic on the need for a written constitution, because of the power it hands to the judges.

Harriet Harman: Yes, we need a written constitution, one that makes clear our rights and responsibilities as citizens, one that respects our essential personal freedoms and guarantees our liberty, our security and our equal opportunities. We can’t just draw this up on the back of an envelope, though. We have to work with a wide body of people to try and build a national consensus on a constitution that commands real respect and will stand the test of time.

Hilary Benn: In some respects – for example, the Human Rights Act – we've moved towards one. I have an open mind, so I let's have a national debate.

John Cruddas: Yes, I would be in favour of having a written constitution. A written constitution would be a useful tool for maintaining checks and balances on a powerful executive. I believe in strengthening the position of parliament in relation to the executive, especially on matters relating to taking our country to war. But more than this, a written constitution would be a unique opportunity to engage with the British people, whose input into the constitution and whose consent would be absolutely fundamental to the process.

Alan Johnson: I am not sure that is a correct interpretation of Jack’s position but yes in principle I support a written constitution. It cannot be something handed down from on high by the Government. While we need top legal brains and constitutional experts to help us get it right we must use a constitution to engage and enthuse ordinary people. It needs to be relevant to the man or woman in the street as a way of restoring trust in politics.

The priority for me is for people to re-connect with politics and this is going to be a huge challenge for Labour in the next election. I believe that our values on social justice, in tackling poverty and working to create a fairer and stronger society are the values of the British people. Falling voter turnout is a concern. There is much we can learn, especially in building support amongst younger people, from campaigns like Make Poverty History. So a written constitution is one way we can foster a stronger bond between citizen’s and the political system – but not the only one.

Gordon Brown has spoken of the need to empower communities at a local level. Should the decentralization of power and money to local authorities form part of any new ‘constitutional settlement’?

Peter Hain: Yes.

Hazel Blears: Gordon's recent enthusiasm for localist solutions is music to my ears, because I have been a passionate campaigner for localism for over 20 years. I want power, budgets and assets devolved to local level, to local councils, and then below councils to neighbourhoods. I wrote a Fabian pamphlet Communities in Control in 2004, advocating radical devolution to communities, and I shall continue to bang this drum as Gordon's deputy or whatever capacity I find myself in.

Harriet Harman: Yes, we should decentralise as far as possible. The old days of centralised power were inefficient and wrong. It is far more sensible for people to have as much power over the decisions that affect their lives as possible – and that doesn’t mean one-size-fits-all policies. It means responding to local needs and conditions and letting local communities take decisions far closer to home.

Hilary Benn: Yes, definitely. People want more control over their lives locally.

John Cruddas: Yes, democracy needs to be renewed at the local as well as national level. I believe that real and substantial powers should be devolved to local authorities, and councils should be required to involve citizens and communities in their decision making. For too long many politicians put faith in top-down controls to bring about a more equal and just society. But I think the means of achieving social justice have to justify the ends. I think we need to trust people a lot more and allow them to find local solutions to local problems as much as possible.

Alan Johnson: Labour in power has worked to de-centralise power; through devolution, through elected Mayors and through greater power for ward councillors and local government. Where decisions can be made on a local level, then they should be. Gordon Brown has made it clear in this campaign that he will build on the work we’ve done over the last 10 years to further de-centralise power from Westminster.

 

The elections in Scotland and Wales saw significant victories for the nationalists, whilst in England the Tories have been drawing attention to the ‘West Lothian Question’. What should be done, if anything, to give England more representation or ‘voice’?

Peter Hain: We need much better answers to the “English question”, and that means radically strengthening accountability in the English regions – continuing to decentralise decision-making on issues such as skills, transport, planning and housing to the regions.

Hazel Blears: My answer to the West Lothian question is greater devolution below the level of the nation state. Empowering citizens and communities breaks some of the logjam.

Harriet Harman: It would be crazy to adopt the Tory policy of only allowing MPs from English seats to vote on certain legislation. It would turn some MPs into second class members and it would undermine the fact that in our Parliamentary system the Government depends on its majority in the Commons. I support more regional democracy to mirror the Parliament in Scotland and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Hilary Benn: I think the best thing we can do is change the way we do our politics. I do not support an English Parliament, and the West Lothian Question is a consequence of devolution in the United Kingdom.

John Cruddas: Firstly, I am not in favour of an English parliament. I think when the Tories call for this they risk stoking up nationalism. We should value the Union that is Great Britain, and Scottish and Welsh representation is very important in this. What I think is needed is for Labour to reconfigure its electoral strategy so that it is not just concentrated on the supermarginal seats and those seat’s swing voters. This should be bolstered by a reinvigoration of the party based grassroots campaigning, to make the party a force in people’s everyday lives and addressing their insecurities. We also need to strengthen what democratic bodies we already have in England, local councils and local democratic bodies.

Alan Johnson: The fact that we had some disappointing results in Wales and Scotland does not mean that we should slow our pace of reform, or that we should turn our back on the principle of moving power away from Westminster. We need to continue to make a positive case for devolution and not fall into the trap of ‘zero-sum’ debates- meaning that because Wales and Scotland have been given more power, that this somehow makes the English less powerful, or a marginalised group within the United Kingdom.

 

MPs recently voted for a fully elected House of Lords. In your view what should the role and function of a reformed House of Lords be, and will this have any consequences for the House of Commons?

Peter Hain: I am in favour of replacing the House of Lords with a fully, democratically elected Senate, with powers to revise but not block legislation so that the primacy of the House of Commons is not undermined.

Hazel Blears: The obsession with composition of the second chamber obscures the proper discussion of what it’s for. I think there should be an appointed element, and that the primacy of the Commons must not be challenged. I would rename the House of Lords, and make it sit outside of London, in some of our brilliant town and county halls around the country. I am at heart a unicameralist, but if we are going to have a second chamber, it should have limited powers to improve legislation through expert analysis and different perspectives, not a roadblock in front of the elected government of the day.

Harriet Harman: I support a wholly or substantially elected Second Chamber. Its role should be to revise and review legislation and to hold the Government to account. It should not have the power to over-turn the Commons, to dismiss a Government or to amend financial measures. These should be the prerogative of the Commons.

Hilary Benn: It should be 80% or 100% elected (I voted for both) and remain as a secondary scrutinising and revising chamber as part of a system of checks and balances. It should not ultimately have a veto over the House of Commons.

John Cruddas: I voted for a fully elected second chamber. The government needs to be kept in check. The second chamber has a crucial role to play in British democracy as a deliberative body, complementing rather than duplicating the work of the House of Commons. An elected second chamber, like the Commons, needs to better reflect the diversity of our society, in terms of ethnicity, gender, and class.

Alan Johnson: My starting point is that the primacy of the Commons must be maintained and that the second chamber is for scrutinising and revision. In the latest vote on the issue I backed the 80:20 option as the best way forward. Some appointments can ensure particular expertise as well as gender and ethnic balance. It is my hope that House of Lords reform will not only make our political process more transparent and democratic, but also change the relationship between the Commons and the Lords to ensure that legislation passes more quickly through Parliament, allowing time for proper scrutiny without unnecessary delays.

There has been widespread concern over the Labour Government’s approach to civil liberties.

a) David Cameron has posited the idea of a British Bill of Rights. Shami Chakrabati of Liberty has objected to this on the grounds that fundamental rights are universal and not the privilege of citizens. Are you in favour of a new Bill of Rights?

Peter Hain: David Cameron’s proposal for a so-called British Bill of Rights is an ill-thought out attack on the Human Rights Act. As a government, we should take much greater pride in having passed the Human Rights Act, and should look for ways of building on it – not undermining it like David Cameron.

Hazel Blears: No, because of the power it gives judges, who remain, with honorable exceptions, elitist and drawn from a narrow strata of society.

Harriet Harman: I fully support the existing Human Rights Act and I do not believe it should be amended.

Hilary Benn: No. I think there are serious constitutional difficulties with this idea.

John Cruddas: I agree with Billy Bragg’s notion of a Bill of Rights – one that is universal and codified. If we were to have a Bill of Rights, I would hope that we could have a public discussion about issues surrounding migration; such as housing, wages and working conditions.

Alan Johnson: I disagree with the thesis that concern about our approach to civil liberties has been “widespread.” On the contrary it is evident that most people in Britain want a government that takes firm action to protect its people from terrorism.

I would agree that human rights are universal and not a unique right for British citizens. Of course, this is a very difficult debate. But make no mistake about it the Tories – the notion of a “British Bill of Rights” is as much about snubbing our European partners as it is about enshrining liberties. It is entirely consistent with David Cameron’s pledge to leave the mainstream Conservative grouping in Europe and join a small band of deranged right wing loonies!

b) The introduction of ID cards is creating great opposition to a ‘database state’. What is your view of the concerns raised by ID cards?

Peter Hain: We need a public debate about the privacy implications of technological change. This is not just about ID cards. Ever greater quantities of personal data are accumulated as a result of everything from mobile phone tracking to supermarket loyalty cards, and ID cards are only one part of that picture.

Hazel Blears:
We must have ID as soon as possible, and we must campaign hard against the Tories' opposition to them.

Harriet Harman:
I support the creation of a national database but I do not believe that there should be a new offence of not carrying your ID card.

Hilary Benn:
I am in favour of ID cards, carefully introduced and properly managed. Having to carry them is another matter.

John Cruddas:
I voted for ID cards, but at the same time I think we need to have a public debate about what role they will play in our society. There is a fine balance between preserving our freedom and privacy on the one hand, and maximising our safety and security on the other.

Alan Johnson:
There is no easy answer here, other than to say that we need to balance the need for safety and security, and the needs of our security services, with protecting the rights of the individual. The greatest victory for terrorists would be for us to cave in and make fundamental changes to our values and way of life. We do, however, need to protect the public. It is my view that ID cards, and the database which would hold the information, would play an important role in this. In addition, ID cards have other potential uses- including in determining entitlement to public services and in combating identity theft.

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