A new Britain in review

By: Dexter Govan

At a time when people are struggling to pay their bills, feed their families and are striking over pay settlements, you’ve produced a 155-page report talking about devolution, constitutional reform and abolishing the House of Lords. This might look to many people as completely out of touch, and you could look like another politician talking to Westminster about stuff that might never come to pass. – Beth Rigby, Sky News’ Political Editor, to Sir Keir Starmer at the launch of A new Britain

Monday saw the release of the long-anticipated Labour Party Commission’s report on the future of the UK. A new Britain: renewing our democracy and rebuilding our economy has been the subject of much speculation and reported infighting within the Party over the last six months. What was ultimately delivered in Leeds by Keir Starmer and Gordon Brown is a rather dense document which will prove to be only the beginning of Labour’s wrestling match over constitutional reform. 

The report itself is a curious thing. While addressing the constitutional changes Labour would make within its first term in office, it phrases almost all its arguments for reform around the need for economic growth. Perhaps this is the defence against a hostile line of questioning which holds that constitutional change should always be delayed in favour of more pressing “real-world” issues. Among others at the report’s launch, Beth Rigby of Sky News tested the Labour Leader on just this point.  

The Commission and Kier Starmer’s defence that constitutional reform is necessary to grow our economy and empower our nation is, in and of itself, something of a concession. By tying the need for constitutional reform so closely to the economy, pressing and important questions which bare little direct relationship to economic performance receive less space than they should. In truth, constitutional reform is a worthy goal in and of itself. Improving our democracy, our laws and systems of justice should be among our highest aspirations. The quest to improve our constitution is an acknowledgment that we can do more to include all people in our democracy and to ensure that their democratic will is properly expressed in our society.

To patronise those who demand constitutional change and suggest their discontent can be answered in growth, reeks of a stale economism which cannot address the great questions of our time. That Labour has itself long relied on such arguments in Scotland is an inescapable irony. 

Demands for change on the scale of Independence or Brexit do, of course, inescapably relate to economics. But equally, it seems bizarre to suggest that either could have been fully resolved by stronger regional development hubs. And so, across its 155 pages, the report slips disconcertingly from demands that we establish a democratically elected second chamber, to advising that local government and chambers of commerce should be more collaborative and inclusive in developing Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs). The slide between such recommendations is often alarming, regardless of the great merit of many of the ideas.

A new Britain suggests such discontinuities are resolvable in its vision for a new nation in which vibrant localised democracy and economies are supported, rather than held back, by “the centre”. Maybe they are, but the report itself doesn’t convincingly articulate a grand vision. Instead, by seeking to align the mighty with the minute, the Commission has delivered a rather hazy first glimpse of its promised future. 

This lack of clarity of purpose is evident in other areas too. Chapter four, for example, uses opinion polling and social attitude-style surveys to suggest that there are unifying British character traits which translate directly into support for often quite specific constitutional reforms. An especially jarring case appears where a shared desire among people in England, Scotland and Wales to ‘lower levels of poverty and homelessness’ is taken as evidence that such desire is a uniquely British trait and that ‘the agreement to share across our country is far stronger and more entrenched than in many other countries, or indeed far deeper than in a union like the EU’.[1] Thus, it argues, the natural codified expression of these shared desires is further devolution to nations and regions. 

Such arguments are so tenuous it’s surprising they made it into the final draft. We are also told at one point that ‘people in the UK – as across the West – share common personal goals of being prosperous, secure, and respected.’[2] It remains a mystery what awkward and vaguely xenophobic anecdotes like this add to a report on constitutional and economic reform. 

If A new Britain lacks a searing clarity, though, there are a slew of proposed reforms which would undeniably transform the UK and the state. 

A new second chamber 

While the reform or abolition of the House of Lords has been a mission of the Labour Party since its infancy, A new Britain’s recommendation for an elected second chamber has generated a great deal of publicity. 

Unlike many debates about the UK constitution, there is general agreement about many aspects of Lords reform. Few would argue that hereditary peers have any place in a vibrant, modern democracy. Most would agree that at 800 members, the House of Lords is far too large – indeed it is dwarfed only by the People’s Assembly of China. Many, if not a majority, would also suggest that any second chamber should be elected. 

Despite the agreement, though, debates about how the Lords should be reformed, abolished or replaced quickly become fraught after its current problems have been identified. In answer, Labour’s Commission makes its own proposal for an elected second chamber called the ‘Assembly of Nations and Regions’. Here the influence of Seán Patrick Griffin’s Labour Party report Remaking the British state is particularly pronounced, especially in the echo of his proposed ‘Senate of Nations and Regions’.[3]

The Commission’s proposed Assembly would be composed of around 200 elected members and work on a different electoral cycle to the House of Commons. The report leaves the ‘the precise composition and method of election matters for consultation’, but it is clear that members should be selected from across the UK to break the London and South-East bias which exists in the present Lords.[4] The extent to which there should be disproportionate representation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is again left open. Beyond this, the Commission speculate that elected national and regional leaders should be able to participate in the chamber, raising issues of pressing concern to their constituencies. 

Indeed, unlike the present second chamber, the report envisions a codified role for the Assembly in protecting devolution as a principle within the UK constitution. While the House of Lords current veto of legislation is restricted only to bills attempting to extend a term of parliament, the report suggests this should be expanded to include precisely drawn powers to safeguard the constitution and the distribution of power within it. The Assembly would also help monitor standards in public life and act as a forum of devolved nations and regions at the centre of government. Alongside this changed remit, the Assembly would continue to perform the functions of the present Lords in scrutinising legislation and offering amendments to bills. 

Of these functions, the most controversial is clearly expanding the scope of a second chamber veto, which might well be said to challenge parliamentary supremacy. This is a thorn to which we will return, but the Commission suggests such concerns can be ameliorated with the introduction of suitable safeguards. Such safeguards would include overcoming a relevancy test through the Supreme Court and then perhaps a further threshold test such as requiring a supermajority in the Assembly to enact the veto.  

Standards in public life 

As a direct response to what Peter Hennessy and Andrew Blick have called the ‘bonfire of decencies’ in recent years, the Commission proposes a new system for ensuring standards in public life are maintained. Part of their recommendation is to disempower Whitehall, an underlying theme of the report as whole. They suggest that Parliament should take responsibility for the Information Commissioner’s Office, that FOI should be expanded to all new public service contracts delivered by private companies, and perhaps most importantly, that a new independent Integrity and Ethics Commission be established. This would replace the Prime Minister’s Advisor, the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Civil Service Commission and have investigatory powers independent of prime ministerial influence. 

The Integrity and Ethics Commission would then make representations to a wholly independent body people who are not politicians who would then make a recommendation to the Prime Minister or Parliament to decide the ultimate verdict. These individuals would thus form ‘juries of ordinary citizens’, chosen at random and representative of the population.[5] This process of approvals nonetheless raises the prospect that Parliament or the Prime Minister might simply reject the jury’s recommendation. The authors of A new Britain clearly believe the pressure of a public independent recommendation, to be debated annually in the Commons, would be more difficult to resist than recommendations under the current system. 

Beyond this, the report advocates the creation of a ‘powerful new anti-corruption Commissioner to root out criminal behaviour in British political life’.[6] This position would be appointed with the approval of the Westminster and Scottish parliaments, the Welsh Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly. This process mirrors other recommendations in the report which create permanent “seats at the table” for devolved administrations in Whitehall departments and other public bodies. 

Councils of nations and regions 

Perhaps the most high-profile commitment to regional and national devolution in the Commission’s report is the creation of a number of different councils. It can be difficult at times to keep track of the various commissions, assemblies and councils in the report, but I think it is a little unfair to suggest, as some have, that this weakens the strength of the proposals. There is something inevitably warrenous about mapping out new structures for the state. Or writing an article summarising them, for that matter.

Stripped back, it seems that the ‘Council of Nations and Regions’ in effect serves to replace the Joint Ministerial Committees which have been largely ineffective since their introduction. The Council would be chaired perhaps once a year by the Prime Minister and various subcommittees would work to navigate issues of contention and areas for cooperation between Westminster and devolved nations and regions. The report suggests that a new independent secretariat be created to staff the Council. 

Less clear is the Council of the UK, which receives only brief mention in the report. It is suggested this will help ‘manage relations between the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and UK governments’, and is presumably envisaged as a regular meeting or briefing.[7]

Last, and among the most interesting aspects of the report, is the proposal for a Council of England which would bring together English local government with mayors, Westminster and Whitehall. Again, while there is doubtless much to be gained from these groups talking to one another, this is less toothy than recommendations from previous constitutional reports. The Council is aided by a further ‘English Grand Committee’ which works as a slightly better formalised approach to English Votes for English Laws.

Over each of these councils will sit the new elected second chamber, the Assembly of Nations and Regions, with a particular responsibility for overseeing the councils’ work through ‘regular hearings of a suitably constituted committee and reports of the new independent intergovernmental secretariat.’[8] Together, it is hoped that these new systems of government will balance the powers of the Prime Minister and the Commons and lead to a more considered, just and devolved form of governance. 

Remaining issues 

While undoubtedly complex, many of the new structures proposed in the report offer promise. If they are implemented in full, these recommendations would see the biggest changes to the state since devolution and likely even beyond that. There are problems large and small, though. Of the large, two stand out as being especially worrying at this stage. The first is the issue of parliamentary sovereignty, and the second is the nature of the report and the ensuing consultation. 

A new Britain acknowledges that to transform our economy and democracy, fundamental constitutional change is required. It also suggests this can be achieved without compromising the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Across its pages, frequent allusion is made to ‘constitutionally entrenched’ reforms. This entrenchment ostensibly means that the principles established by these recommendations could not be overturned by a vengeful parliament or Prime Minister. And yet, the report is not entirely convincing in arguing how these principles will come to be entrenched. Without a codified constitution, reforms like replacing the Lords with an elected Assembly will be enacted by standard legislation. It follows that, in some fashion or another, they might just as easily be undone by standard legislation if parliament is to remain sovereign. 

The Commission seems to hope that shared political will will bind our new Britain (read UK) to new reforms and institutions. Like the NHS, oft mentioned in the report, the legislation formalising the devolution of power will be unassailable. Similarly like many unwritten aspects of the UK constitution, Labour’s reforms will be protected from presumed hostile Conservative governments by convention. 

The issue with this thesis, of course, is that many of the constitutional issues which the report seeks to address have arisen out of recently eroded conventions. Unfortunately, by deferring to parliamentary sovereignty in this way, even if the Commission’s recommendations are adopted, they will never be quite secure in their foundations. The fallback defence of A new Britain is that constitutional legislation will have to pass the Assembly of Nations and Regions. To preserve parliamentary sovereignty, though, it suggests that if an impasse is reached between the two chambers, this might be overcome by a Commons supermajority or, more worryingly, by the legislation’s inclusion in a winning general election manifesto. That the exact resolution of the problem of parliamentary sovereignty and the UK constitution is left to opaque consultation, is troubling. 

Indeed, whether the Commission’s recommendations will be adopted at all remains to be seen. A new Britain goes far beyond a starting point for many conversations about how to reform the United Kingdom, but it nonetheless leaves much of the detail to be worked out through this ‘consultation’. We are assured that by the time of the next election, and Labour’s presumed victory in it, these proposals will have been set in stone, ready to be enacted from day one of a Starmer administration. 

Yet nowhere have we been told what consultation actually means, nor how likely it is that the Commission’s recommendations will survive it. The report itself briefly mentions that a series of citizens’ assemblies might be the way to develop these policies in collaboration with the public, but details are thin on the ground. Thus, while it seems likely that some version of certain recommendations will be adopted, such as an elected second chamber, others may well be cast aside. 

After years of discussion, debate and controversy, with a 155-page report and a series of recommendations, then, Labour’s ultimate position on constitutional reform and devolution is yet to be decided. 

Dexter Govan is the communications manager and researcher of the Constitution Society. He holds a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and is a historian of unionism in Britain and Ireland.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.

[1] A new Britain: renewing our democracy and rebuilding our economy (2022), p. 48.  

[2] A new Britain, p. 48. 

[3] Seán Patrick Griffin, Remaking the British state: for the many, not the few (2020), pp 192-212. 

[4] A new Britain, p. 17.

[5] A new Britain, p. 128.

[6] A new Britain, p. 17. 

[7] A new Britain, p. 119.

[8] A new Britain, p. 139.