Democracy in the UK is in flux. Six years of unprecedented constitutional reforms have changed the face of British democracy, and Labour now needs to engage the country in debate about where we go next.
This Labour government can proudly claim to have delivered more on constitutional reform than all of its postwar predecessors put together.
But the government has failed, not so much in determining the ingredients of reform but by not making sense of them. The old constitutional conventions have been swept away but without any sense of the new country that the reforms are trying to build.
This failure to create a strong democratic narrative was all too clear in the abolition of the role of the lord chancellor. A press release was sent out before there was any understanding of what the alternative should be or even how the reform could be brought about.
Equally, there has been devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, and shortly to a select few regions, all on different terms and with little discussion about how they relate to each other or to local and national government. The government has succeeded in building political palaces that people do not live in.
Perhaps the clearest example of the government’s constitutional confusion is the farce that is now House of Lords reform.
Creating a democratic and legitimate second chamber, as called for in the 2001 manifesto, has long been at the heart of the Labour party agenda. Yet the government seems determined to tie itself in knots and ignore the pleas from both the party and the country. Having accepted in the 2001 white paper that an elected element was necessary to give the second chamber legitimacy, we are now faced with a fully appointed second chamber by default.
The second stage of reform seems to have been taken off the agenda and the manifesto commitment forgotten.
The removal of the hereditary peers is a necessary step. Many hereditary peers have given great service to parliament and the country but a seat in the legislature cannot be a birthright. Yet this is by no means an end to the story. The UK needs an effective second chamber with power to scrutinise legislation and to act as a check on the executive by delaying legislation for a fixed period. It can only be effective when it has democratic legitimacy and its members are elected.
The vote in the House of Commons in February did not agree on a percentage but it did agree on a principle: that the majority of the members of the second chamber should be elected. This should be the starting point for a new constitutional settlement.
After six years of Labour government we have an executive more powerful, and less accountable, than any of its predecessors. Rather than the puppet master letting go of the strings, reform and devolution has given the government more strings to pull on.
The modern experience of politics is one that has a House of Commons dominated by one political party. The power of the party ensures that the government gets its legislation through the Commons. The House of Lords, fatally weakened by its lack of democratic legitimacy, is then browbeaten into accepting the legislation and the Crown automatically gives assent. Far too often, therefore, the checks and balances placed on the powers of the executive are too weak to be effective. This not only leaves citizens out of the picture; it also leaves them vulnerable to repressive legislation such as the recent anti-terrorism legislation.
In its third term, Labour should follow the logic of its own reforms and engage the public in debate to help finalise a democratic constitutional settlement. In drafting next year’s election manifesto, Labour should build upon the Big Conversation to call for a nationwide debate on British governance.
Having taken many steps towards modernising the British constitution in its first two terms, Labour should now engage the public to finalise a democratic constitutional settlement. It should be a settlement that sets out what a government can and cannot do in our name; that defines the relationship between the different branches of government and between the separate territorial parliaments and assemblies; and that enables voters to become active citizens rather than just voters.
For citizens to possess a constitution they need to have built it themselves. An open debate about the British constitution would allow Labour to develop a constitutional strategy and a shared vision of the core values that underpin our society. The resulting constitution would set out the limits of what government may and may not do in our name. A single document that sets out the powers and functions of government and the rights of individual citizens would enable Labour to leave a lasting and progressive legacy.
A written constitution is not a panacea. Having a constitution is like having a vote; it is essentially procedural. It does not in itself guarantee more justice, equality or economic growth or any other outcome. It cannot bring into being a society in which citizens participate in and exercise control over their government. It will not automatically create a country in which people are free from discrimination and the indignities of inequality. But it does establish a relationship where these wider policy goals may be achieved.
By engaging with the public to reach a new constitutional settlement, Labour could usher in a new era of British democracy. Decisions would be made at the most appropriate level whether that is local, regional or national. Parliament would be truly representative, and citizens would have power over the political process. This would be a settlement in which, to paraphrase Tony Blair, the government truly becomes the servants of the people.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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