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Labour knows our democracy is broken. So why are its ‘reforms’ so weak?

OPINION: Gordon Brown is on the money with his diagnosis of the problem. But his solutions aren’t nearly enough

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
5 December 2022, 5.05pm

Gordon Brown speaks about his proposals at the Apex hotel in Edinburgh today


PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Journalists have lined up to sneer at the idea that “ordinary people” – particularly “during a cost of living crisis” – care about constitutional questions. So, first, let me say what is not wrong with Gordon Brown’s report for Labour on “renewing our democracy”.

Everywhere I go in the UK as a reporter, the dominant attitude about politics is that it doesn’t work. “They’re all the same,” “I don’t trust any of them,” and so on and so on: I’ve heard it thousands of times and so, probably, have those same journalists.

Every successful conservative party in the western world in the modern era has won by tapping into that feeling. Any serious progressive party needs to address it. Yet, often, the British Labour Party has failed to understand this, offering voters this or that nice thing, without realising that few people trust politics enough to think they’ll actually deliver. Throughout the report, Gordon Brown shows that he is beginning to understand that deep sense of alienation. That should be welcomed. All those reporters should be ignored.

After all, it’s not a coincidence that the UK has both the highest inflation rate of any major economy and the lowest levels of trust in our politicians. Both stem from the fact that we are badly governed.

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So Labour is right to think about this. The problem is the timidity of the solutions it proposes.

Yes, Labour wants to abolish the House of Lords – as it has said often over the last century. And yes, that is a good thing – to be applauded in the context of entitled Labour Lords issuing barely veiled threats in the pages of the Observer this weekend. But it’s also an absolute bare democratic minimum. If the UK wants to be seen as a serious democratic country, it cannot continue to have a legislative chamber made up of cronies, great-great-great-great grandsons of some former King’s cronies, and bishops of a state religion most people no longer believe in.

Yes, they have some ideas for removing some of the most egregious corruption from Westminster, banning MPs from having second jobs and introducing a new integrity and ethics commission.

Beyond that, though, what are they proposing?

Local government won’t be any more local. The average population per ‘local government entity’ in Germany is 7,000. In France, it’s 1,800. In the UK, it’s 195,000. And if all of these reforms are introduced, it still will be.

But it will, at least, begin to look a bit more like government. Brown proposes handing down additional powers over a range of areas from public transport to education, and these are good ideas. But there is nothing to stop a future Tory government from undoing that, or even abolishing those local authorities it doesn’t like – as Thatcher did to the Greater London Council in the 1980s.

Scotland and Wales won’t be given any kind of right to decide their own constitutional future. Despite all the recent debate, those in Scotland who want independence – a majority in the latest poll – won’t be offered any democratic route to achieve this.

The report proposes only limited new powers for Holyrood, mainly “a consultation over updating Scottish capital borrowing ceilings to account for changing economic circumstances. Any changes should retain the limits on what borrowing can be used for and be consistent with UK-wide fiscal rules”. But this is offset by a proposed new legal obligation for different UK governments to co-operate – potentially meaning Westminster could use the courts to force Holyrood to collaborate with whatever daft Daily Mail scheme it’s chasing after today, and fundamentally undermining the autonomy of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments.

There is no solution to the problem that England lacks a parliament of its own. There is no real suggestion that Westminster’s neo-feudal first-past-the-post election system be abolished. There is no mention of the most absurd parts of the British constitution – the Overseas Territories and Crown Protectorates, the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, Mann and the Channel Islands – which, together with the City of London and its unique constitutional status, operate as the world’s most important money laundry.

There is no mention of the vast swathes of governance now outsourced to the big four accountancy firms, and the conflicts of interest that arise from that; and no mention of the constitutional absurdities that arise from the growing trend to outsource military action and espionage to private firms, which have made the UK the mercenary capital of the world.

Proposed rights to healthcare, school and housing are good, but more modern constitutions across the world include protections for the environment and biodiversity, too. Why are these missing? The words “gender” and “women” only appear once each in the 132-page document despite ample work on feminism and constitutions. There is very little mention of police powers, beyond the over-general statement that “British people trust the police,” and no attempt to think about whether that applies to everyone, despite all of the apparent introspection that came with Black Lives Matter and the murder of Sarah Everard.

There is no discussion of rights in the context of mass surveillance, data giants and the digital economy. There’s no engagement with the question of rights for migrants and non-citizens.

In a normal, modern democracy, power lies with the people, and what that means is described in a written constitution that they can all read. It is pooled in local, regional and national governments, none of which has absolute power over the others.

Again and again, the report complains about how the Tories haven’t upheld constitutional norms since they got back into power after defeating Brown in the 2010 election.

But in Britain, because our early-modern era revolutions failed, and because of the weird compromises that came afterwards in 1660, absolute power lies with a constitutional absurdity called the ‘Crown in Parliament’ which ultimately means that Westminster can do what it likes.

Labour’s proposals were mooted as radical constitutional change. But in reality, they tip-toe around that principle, offering “constitutional statutes” that would have no more meaning than any other law – and would be no harder for a future Tory government to rub out than those rules and conventions Brown bemoans them ignoring over the last dozen years.

Radical constitutional reform would mean stripping sovereignty from the Crown in Parliament, handing it to the people, and convening conventions of ‘we the people’ to draw up how we wanted to use it.

But Brown and Starmer aren’t suggesting any of that.

What they are actually talking about is more like mildly better governance within the broad restraints of the current system.

It is, in other words, a credible attempt to keep the show on the road for another decade or so. And perhaps it will work – for now.

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