The Labour leader candidates and the constitution

What to make of the Labour leader candidates answers on questions about the constitution.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
12 August 2015

On 20 July the Labour leadership candidates were sent a letter asking them their view on the creation of an English Labour Party as part of the democratic transformation of Britain and a possible federal United Kingdom. The letter was organised by Graham Allen MP and signed by twenty-five Labour figures, mostly his fellow MPs. It is a wide constellation, including Jon Cruddas who was formally in charge of Ed Miliband’s Manifesto; Frank Field, the least predictable independent-minded Labour back-bencher, and Chuka Umunna, who had briefly been a candidate for the leadership himself, as well as Richard Leese and Judith Blake, the respective leaders of Manchester and Leeds City Councils.

The letter and the four answers are re-published here in openDemocracy. The letter could be clearer – its starting point is to ask about an English Labour Party but it meanders into whether or not candidates advocate a larger constitutional settlement. However, it is obviously designed as an opportunity for the candidates to address questions democratic and constitutional, urged on by a significant alliance of Labour politicians from different wings of the party. So, an important challenge from their own neck of the woods at a time when people are crying out for a clear strategic vision. The four answers provide an excellent point to compare the views of the contenders: how will they rise to this opportunity?

Two, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn, gave very short replies. One, Yvette Cooper, a full and clear one, while Liz Kendall was lengthier but less clear. I’ll consider them in this sequence.

Andy Burnham


Andy Burnham MP NHS Confederation conference 2014 by NHS Confederation - Andy Burnham MP. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia

Burnham sent an email back with no ‘Dear’ or ‘Thank you’, just:

"Not opposed to it but needs to be looked at as part of wider review of party structures in regions and nations."

Burnham did not take a moment to present his views. This is a debate he does not want. Instead he conducts a position exercise in the form of non-positioning. He will make up his mind after he has assessed the balance of forces. It was said about Norman Lamont, the one-time Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer under John Major, that he took on the shape of the last person who sat on him. This was a reference to the way he was a Heathite under Edward Heath, a Thatcherite under Margaret Thatcher and a Major supporter under John Major. In this great tradition Andy Burnham seems to be saying, ‘When I have been sat on, you will see how I shape up’. And if enough people sit on him, he will win.

Still a possible winner, however, Burnham’s non-answer needs to be taken seriously. His just published Manifesto permits a further look at his approach, which I will keep for my conclusion.

Jeremy Corbyn


Corbyn writes:
Dear Graham,
Good idea and support. I think we, in opposition, should hold a constitutional convention and allow a serious discussion on national, regions, House of Lords, voting etc.
All best,
Friendly, clear and to the point: Corbyn supports an English Labour Party and wants a constitutional convention to discuss everything, with no holds barred. He seems to get the connections between the national question in party terms and the constitution as a whole, and is willing to encourage a release of energy. The danger is that this refreshingly simple answer permits people to project onto it their own desires. This is the sign of a skilful politician, of course, but should give pause to serious democrats. Note that Corbyn wishes to “allow a serious discussion”. But who will decide the outcome after the discussion? Is the convention about making sure the political elite has power prised out of its guiding hands, or not? Stuart White has set out in a short article why this is a defining issue when it comes to a constitutional convention. If you like Corbyn you will cheer, but if you need persuading that he knows whereof he speaks in terms of the future of Britain… it is not so clear.

Yvette Cooper


Cooper’s answer is considered and grasps the larger issues. She sees the way the question of an English Labour Party is really about the forces at work across the UK. She calls these “fragmenting”, a centrist view, but wishes to resist the centripetal disintegration by offering devolution everywhere, with investment and infrastructure to match. She embraces the convention idea and sees the larger outcome it must lead to: “it’s time to set in train a constitutional convention to draw up a written constitution”. This will build a sense of what we have in common, she says. Note the shrewd way that who has the final word is left unclear. She may not have read White’s analysis but she “gets it”. For her, there will be no letting go: the point will be to “uphold the integrity and importance of our Union” and not permit a democratic assembly to redefine Westminster and reshape the constitution. There will be devolution and distinct voices but no sign of more proportional representation. Scotland’s example does not inspire her, therefore, except that she wants to counter it with a much stronger British constitutional process. For this reason she opposes the creation of an English Labour Party. Labour must be UK-wide, caring about children in poverty “in Leeds as in Lanarkshire”.

This is a calculated claim and because it is so crisply done illuminates something all the candidates share, if in Cooper’s case most of all. They are in denial about losing Scotland to the SNP. It is as if they cannot bring themselves to admit that Scotland has been governed by the SNP for eight years and will be for another eight at least. Formally it is the case that the poverty of a child in Lanarkshire is the responsibility of Westminster, as welfare is not a devolved power - hence the cunning of Cooper selecting children’s poverty rather than education, which is a matter for the Scottish Parliament. But Scotland has introduced free school meals and a ‘Named Person for every child’ policy, which however controversial (see here and here for the openDemocracy debate) means that in Lanarkshire children already have a government seeking to care for their welfare; a reality that Cooper’s unionist rhetoric actively refuses to recognise.

Although Yvette Cooper’s is by far the clearest, best written, and most considered of the four responses it is also the most conservative, designed to use new methods to preserve the old regime – the supreme, historic calling of Labourism. She sees what the open letter is getting at and its potential danger. In response, she provides a unionist case for a written constitution with no guff about federalism, no mention of electoral reform. She resists any concession to Scottish or Welsh energies. Her aim is to modernise the United Kingdom as such. Certainly if Blair had adopted this at the start of the century the British question would have been in a much better place. The question now is whether it is too late to roll back developments in Scotland and Wales as she implies. If they have to be negotiated with as nations, how will that happen in Cooper’s new Britain? Enoch Powell famously said, “Power devolved is power retained”. Cooper supports devolution in this spirit. But at Holyrood and in Cardiff power has gone beyond devolution. It is no longer retained by Westminster and cannot be reshaped by any constitutional convention it runs, unless it has their full consent. Despite the thought-out clarity her vision, it is that of yesterday’s woman.  

Liz Kendall


Kendall’s response is not nearly as well thought out but is more creative than Cooper’s, and despite her reaching for the cliché too often, there is a spirit of democracy in her reply. She too emphasizes devolution but includes the nations of the UK and their unique characteristics; unlike Cooper she embraces difference. She attacks “the Westminster/Whitehall model” (hurrah) and calls for a “constitutional convention that will lead a national debate about the future governance of our country”, adding, “It is important this is led by civil society and that it is as wide-ranging and engaging as possible.” Most pluralistic of all she sees Labour playing its role, “alongside the rest of civil society”. This brings her to “recognise the right of England to have a clear voice of its own”, making her’s much the most radical of all the responses on the national question.

And she wants there to be an English Labour Party, writing “We already have a Welsh Labour and Scottish Labour parties. We now need an English Labour party that speaks for the people of England”. An outsider might be puzzled at how one leadership contender could write this when another, Cooper, writes in her response, “I do not believe, at this point, that we should have separate Labour parties for England, Scotland and Wales”, as if there are not Scottish and Welsh Labour Parties, when there are. The answer is probably this: that seen from the centre that is Cooper's optic, Scotland and Wales do not ‘really’ have their own Labour party in any meaningful sense – they elect their own ‘leaders’ but so do local Labour parties when they elect their own officers.

Despite her embrace of the new forces at work there is something that fails to convince about Liz Kendall’s federal radicalism. To pose the Stuart White question, her constitutional convention may “lead” but does it decide? She recognises more than Cooper that something significant has happened in Scotland, but still sees a federal Labour party’s role as an entire United Kingdom one, as if its influence in Scotland is as great as in England and the SNP does not exist.

It leads her to a highly implausible redefinition of Labourism. She concludes,
“there is a deeper Labour tradition, stretching right back the founding of our party, which believes in the values of self-reliance, accountability and co-operation. Its rallying cry was ‘power to the people’. That is the tradition I come from”.

I am not sure that the Labour tradition of self-reliance and co-operation ever included accountability but it always had “solidarity” at the heart of its appeal. Its omission from Kendall’s list is telling, not least as solidarity resists the rule of capital. But whatever selection you may make of the values of the Labour tradition, the party has never called for ‘power to the people’. This Sixties slogan (later appropriated by Duracell) has always been anathema to Labourism. It would be wholly positive to argue that the time has come to break with tradition and make it Labour’s slogan: to turn the party into one that seeks to end centralised rule and replace it with democracy. Kendall might join forces with Corbyn in this case (if this is what he is calling for). But to claim power to the people was always a Labour value when this was never the case feels like shallow populism, using dangerous words with fuzzy intent. Kendall can’t really be demanding “power to the people”. The vested interests, not least Blairite ones, who currently look so benignly on her candidacy, would be horrified were she to make real democracy such a far-reaching part of her leadership, not to speak of premiership. It may sound good but it is unbelievable.

Taken together

Taken together, how should we assess the state of the Labour party’s thinking about democracy across Britain and the national and constitutional issues, in the light of the four candidates’ replies? For those familiar with the Labour party of the last century there is an astonishing embrace of a constitutional convention by all three of the intellectually serious candidates: Corbyn, Cooper and Kendall. Each goes out of their way to assert the need for one. The significance of a constitutional convention is threefold: it is a mechanism for addressing and renewing the political system as a whole; it acknowledges that Westminster is no longer fit to do this; it is potentially a means of introducing democracy and breaking the grip of the British political class. Given Labour’s historic loyalty to parliament and the Fabian incorporation of Whitehall into its very being, to risk this is a major breakthrough. And it recognises, implicitly at least, the systemic challenge of the national question as well as the decomposition of old loyalties.

Both Cooper and Kendall, however, want to use a constitutional convention as a contemporary device to restore rule from the centre: Cooper in a crisp traditional fashion, disregarding nationalist concerns as if they are irrelevant with classic Labourist contempt; Kendall prefers to reach out to voices of separatism, to acknowledge their rights, tap their localist energies and even share their spirit of the sixties, rather than moon longingly for the wartime collectivism of rationing and 1945.

The fourth candidate, Andy Burnham, might, after he has been sat on by the weight of opinion, agree to a constitutional convention. But his just released, professionally produced manifesto shows no understanding of the larger democratic drama. It is a strange document that feels like a form of nostalgia for a Labour manifesto that might have been. It is not without seriously thoughtful radical proposals. The integration of health with social care, especially of the elderly, would be hugely important and positive. Burnham calls for local councils to be able to borrow to build, a Treasury-defying measure as essential as it has been unthinkable. But his Manifesto’s underlying assumption is that what matters is getting the right policies and that their delivery can rely on the traditional Westminster state. There is no mention at all of Scotland, Wales, or the federal pressures on the UK: a staggering absence given the challenges of the separate national realities, as exposed by the election. The Burnham manifesto section on democracy has a lame headline taken from any number of past election appeals: “Fixing our Broken Politics”. The assumption is that some part or other has snagged and a bit of piecemeal engineering will put the good old show back on the road at full power. Burnham’s two such fixes are votes at 16 and replacing the Lords by a chamber that is selected in proportion to votes cast in the General Election. This is Billy Bragg’s neat proposal. But because the Lords is a legislative chamber there will be gridlock if it becomes more representative and therefore more legitimate than the Commons, for which of the two houses of parliament would then rule? We must democratize the second chamber. But we can’t do so without re-defining its constitutional role. And how this is done will be critical. Hence the need for overall constitutional change. Other systemic issues are present by their effective absence in Burnham’s Manifesto. The challenge of Europe will be met by staying in a “reformed EU”; climate change by a moratorium on fracking. There is nothing frightening, difficult, in Burnham-world, that cannot be managed by a progressive policy and certainly no challenge to what we are as a country.

Is Jeremy Corbyn different? In one obvious sense, undoubtedly: he wants to take on the domination of financial capital. This too is a constitutional issue if of a less obviously institutional kind. To do so he and his supporters will need to mobilise and articulate public energy in a fashion not seen before and for which the Labour Party is hardly prepared. A Corbyn English Labour Party, working in alliance with others to unleash a convention process that breaks the control of Westminster… well this would be something. But it would mean a Labour Party that breaks with Labourism and discards the allegiance of most of its MPs to the routines of the palace of parliament. “Not opposed but needs to be looked at” opens the door, perhaps, but is quite some way from going through, if indeed this is possible.

Meanwhile, a joint exercise the Labour Campaign for Human Rights and by Left Foot Forward asked the candidates four questions that are constitutional although not about the constitution as a whole: on the right to strike, on the Tory proposal to scrap and replace the Human Rights Act, on mass surveillance and human rights and foreign policy. Each gave full answers of approximately equal length and Corbyn’s qualities and the considered nature of his position comes through clearly. The most striking difference is between his opposition to the collection of metadata and mass data and Cooper’s support for it under improved supervision. The other two are equivocal. The full questions and answers, which I recommend, are here; the Labour websites' analysis of the candidates' answers to their questions is here. So far, the two websites refuse to endorse any of the four.

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