Conference season: Four constitutional questions that parties need to answer 

By: Kelly Shuttleworth

As the leaves turn and the days grow shorter, the United Kingdom can hear whispers of change in the air as it enters a new season – party conference season. This annual tradition, which stretches back more than a century, sees the major political parties gather to discuss policy, ideology and visions for the future. 

Stretching from 23 September to 17 October, the Liberal Democrats, Labour Party, Conservative Party, Green Party, Reform UK and the SNP will all be meeting in various cities for a mixture of debate, speeches, and occasional heckling. It is always a crucial period on the political calendar, but there is particular significance attached this year as it is expected to be the last set of party conferences before the next general election.

It also comes in the context of an undeniably tumultuous time in UK politics which has damaged trust in both politicians and political institutions. Five prime ministers in seven years, alongside a rapidly-changing cast of ministers, have brought muddled priorities and many scrapped plans, alongside repeated questions over integrity and ethics in government.

This blog will delve into four of the most critical constitutional questions that political parties must grapple with during this conference season. These questions will also serve as a litmus test for the parties’ ability to lead and govern effectively – something of which the Labour Party, who currently lead the polls by 15 to 20 points, will be well aware.

What does an effective and realistic devolution plan for England look like?

Metro mayors led by the media-savvy Andy Burnham have received a greater national profile since Covid-19, and combined with widening regional inequality, devolution within England is likely to be a headline affair.

The ‘Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future’, also referred to as the Brown Commission, reported to Labour on potential proposals last December. The report sets out a plan to use existing borders and political institutions, but build capacity within local government. However, important questions remain. This conference season, Labour needs to demonstrate that they have a feasible timeline for capacity-building, particularly as Starmer has stated devolving power will be a first-term bill if successfully elected. Starmer must add detail to, at times tantalisingly vague, statements such as; “we support fiscal devolution, where relevant and beneficial. Local decision makers are considering taxes and levies at a local level. It is for the Shadow Chancellor to make any announcements in due course”. 

Indeed, Labour are facing questions on the extent to which the Brown commission’s recommendations will lead to more radical proposals than the current government’s – both in terms of the powers that will be decentralised and which areas can access them. Labour may take this opportunity to flesh out what will make their proposals distinct.

The Conservatives’ flagship ‘Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill’ has made markedly slow progress through the Houses of Parliament, and factions within the Party cannot be pleased with the lack of advance. As the relationship between the government and existing Mayoral Combined Authorities remains tense, Sunak’s party will face renewed questions over its commitment to English devolution and should consider how to improve working relations. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have chosen to focus primarily on ‘ultra local’ issues ahead of the next general election, rather than broadscale reform. In light of the other parties’ broader plans, they should consider what joint priorities can be found and agreed upon.

What will help restore a functioning government in Northern Ireland?

Too-often pushed to the second page of news results, it can be easy to forget in Great Britain that Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since February 2022. That was when the power-sharing arrangement collapsed after the largest unionist party – the DUP – resigned in protest over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The leader of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has said that the party will not return to government until issues around the Protocol are resolved. The Windsor Framework, agreed in February 2023 and containing revisions to the protocol, has been insufficient to prompt a return.

In the absence of local ministers, senior Northern Ireland civil servants are responsible for the day-to-day running of government. However, they can only operate within the context of existing policy directions set by the previous Northern Ireland ministers when they were still in post and cannot develop new policies. This same decay and stagnation was a problem during the 2017-20 Northern Ireland executive collapse and party leaders must take steps to ensure this hiatus is not as prolonged.

Setting out clear steps to support the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland and proposing a timeline for the process of inter-party talks would show conviction and demonstrate the parties’ understanding of and commitment to Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party, in particular, should clarify its plans to implement the Windsor Framework in the smoothest way possible, and explain how they will address legacy issues in light of the Northern Ireland Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023. All parties would also do well to address how to improve constitutional literacy on Northern Ireland and its constitutional arrangements within party structures and within Whitehall.

How should the House of Lords and its processes be reformed?

Reform of the House of Lords is a tricky subject that has once again reared its head in UK politics.

For the Conservatives, the resignation honours lists of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have reignited debates over the appropriateness of this system, as the Lords becomes ever more bloated with political appointees. Keir Starmer was quick to vow never to issue resignation honours in the event of his becoming prime minister, and Liberal Democrat chief whip, Wendy Chamberlain, agreed that: “The days of exiting prime ministers nominating peers should be left in the past”. Sunak will doubtless face questions over how he can justify the list of Liz Truss in particular, following her 49-day stint as Prime Minister. This has additional pressure as public support for the House of Lords decreases – recent research by the think tank Labour Together found only 21% of people trust unelected peers to act in the best interests of the people, less than either journalists or MPs.

It will also be a focus of questions for Labour; one of the Brown Commission’s most striking proposals was that the House of Lords should be replaced by an elected ‘Assembly of the Nations and Regions’. Building a consensus for large scale Lords reform has been a stumbling block for many governments. Meg Russell summarises that “[t]he history of the House of Lords is, in many ways, a story of constant pressures for reform – some successful and others unsuccessful.” Keir Starmer has been vague on whether the House of Lords would be subject to reform during a first Labour term, and Brown’s report ends with a commitment to consult widely. Labour should clarify how they intend to build public consensus for this major constitutional reform, including if there will be any constitutional assemblies held, as well as providing further details on a potential timeline.

How should trust and morale be restored within the civil service?

In recent years, the United Kingdom has witnessed a breakdown in trust between the government and the civil service. Several factors have contributed to this decline, including controversies surrounding government decision-making, huge job cuts, and most worryingly, ministerial attacks on civil servants in the media. Indeed Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has been forced to call on politicians to stop referring to the civil service as “the Blob”, calling the term “insulting” and “dehumanising”. He has also warned that attacks on civil servants by “significant political figures” have increased in recent years.

Morale within the civil service has been falling sharply over the past couple of years, which will contribute negatively to ongoing issues of churn and efficiency. Urgent action is needed, and all political parties should set out what they will do to heal relations between the government and civil service and improve morale to make sure this crisis doesn’t worsen.

Concluding notes

It is striking how few of these questions are new; they have largely plagued political parties across the spectrum for years, if not decades. But that doesn’t make them less significant or reduce the pressure that the parties should be feeling to provide adequate answers. The UK constitution is in desperate need of change, and all eyes are now on the political leaders. 

Kelly Shuttleworth. 

Kelly Shuttleworth is a PhD student looking at constitutional conventions across the UK, New Zealand and Canada at the University of Auckland. She is a contributing writer for the Constitution Society. Prior to this, she worked at various research organisations in the UK, including the Institute for Government and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, focusing primarily on devolution issues.

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.