What is it about Labour and the constitution? After a series of electoral setbacks, there always comes the demand for constitutional reforms. The Labour party has suffered shattering defeats over the last six years – two general elections, two Scottish elections, the Brexit referendum and, most damaging of all, two elections of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. So, regular as clockwork, comes the reform programme. This time the charge is led by Gordon Brown who sees more devolution, even a quasi-federalism, as a response to the Brexit vote. What response did his speech get? A demand for a constitutional convention, of course, from the estimable Lord George Foulkes. A lot of hand-wringingly thoughtful blogs from the progressive blogosphere. A yawn, at best, from voters. All natural – and fully anticipated – reactions, but it is the voters who are the important ones. And they are right. Why?
First and foremost this is a solution looking for a problem. There is absolutely no evidence that in June there were millions of voters who said to themselves – ‘I do understand the economic contribution made to the economy by migrants and the growth we gain from the single market, but I have to vote Leave to send a signal that I want the democratic deficit addressed properly.’ Any more than there were voters in May 2015 who were attracted to Milibandism – that strange mix of higher spending and hostility to capitalism – but needed a bolder program of decentralisation, subsidiarity and workers’ councils. Constitutional conventions and the consequent caravan of consultation and consensus creation is a job creation scheme for academics, politicians, staffers and think-tankers. The political equivalent of the old youth opportunity programme schemes – ‘dig a hole and fill it in again’ – except sheltered from the elements. Indoor relief, if you will.
Second, and bluntly, it does not work. If the proponents of restoring faith in politics by constitutional reform were paid by results they would be paupers. Though we would all be better off as they would have shut up a long time ago. Since Watergate there have been two worldwide political trends – tee relentless rise of reforms aimed at ‘transparency’ and a matching collapse in the approval ratings for politicians as a class. In a rational world that correlation would give rise to a pause for thought, and ideally a moratorium. Instead, in the perverse world of politics it leads to acceleration.
Third, and crucially, it is a massive diversion. Politicians lost their reputation in the expenses scandal. And they compounded that in their dishonest response to the global financial crisis. The reality then was that Depression was avoided and the worst type of recession too. But we lost seven per cent of GDP and we were all going to be poorer and all have to work harder. A tough message but one that a true leader could deliver. Instead, we got David Cameron and George Osborne blaming Labour for a global downturn. And Miliband blaming the Tories for cost of living pressures which were the consequence of that global downturn. Not telling the truth is always a bad strategy, it always finds you out in the end – just more quickly in Miliband’s case than in Cameron and Osborne’s.
Finally, Labour’s problem is not that politics is held in disrepute because it is insufficiently devolved and transparent. Labour’s problem is that it is unpopular – and rightly so. High on taxes and spending. Soft on defence and Vladimir Putin. Committed to the impossible dream of a Europe with free movement of labour but not of capital. As one northern Labour member of parliament sardonically observed to me ‘It’s not that Jeremy’s message isn’t getting through. Trust me, on the doorstep they know what he stands for, they just don’t agree with him.’ That’s a problem that is not solved by devolution, but by defenestration.
Tony Blair always used to say that the difference between opposition and government was simple – every day in opposition you wake up thinking about what you are going to say, while every day in government you wake up thinking about what you are going to do. The constitutional talking shop is the institutionalisation of talking about stuff as an end in itself, not a means to an end. While Labour, and indeed the government, has no answers on the pressing issues of our age – productivity, pensions, housing and ageing – everything else is wasted time. And when we have answers on these, everything else is wasted effort.
John McTernan is former political secretary to Tony Blair and head of international political practice for Penn Shoen Berland. He tweets at @johnmcternan
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