The Labour party has adopted a report produced by a team led by Gordon Brown, putting parliamentary reform back on the political agenda. It remains to be seen how much will be incorporated into Labour’s manifesto, but with an election looming it deserves some scrutiny.
From the outset we see that the report is stuck in the rut of striving for growth as measured by GDP, which has long been discredited as a useful measure. The authors seem to have totally missed the contradiction between “Our economy needs a massive increase in growth rate..” and “ ….meeting the existential threat of climate change (p.3)”. Little progress can be made on the economic reforms that are needed until our political class catches up with the reality that the growth in the production of goods and services that nobody wants or needs is a significant factor in driving climate change. In striving to reduce the harm done to our environment we need to plan more carefully how we use the scarce resources and if we act accordingly the result will be that GDP will fall.
The report rightly draws attention to the loss of trust in our politicians. It is no surprise that with a Parliament that is neither representative of nor accountable to the people: “70-80% feel invisible to their political leaders”(p.5), or that MPs are “the least trusted people in Britain”(p.6). The blind spot that Parliamentarians have to the lack of representation and accountability is self evident in this report as it offers no solutions to this issue. Proportional representation doesn’t even get a mention! For the past 3 years, we have been unable to replace a government that has mishandled our exit from the EU, the response to COVID, and the cost of living crisis. No publicly owned business would have tolerated the leadership that the nation has been subjected to for past 3 years. MPs simply do not want to be accountable, and it is no accident that the only one of the six points of the people’s charter of 1838 that has not yet found its way into law is the one that demanded that MPs be held accountable through more frequent elections.
Given that many can now see and understand the benefits of parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is really surprising that Brown’s team focused on boosting the powers of the city regions and didn’t consider giving the English Regions their own parliaments. Were the English regions left out because they cannot be trusted with the powers given to Scotland? Perhaps it was more to do with Westminster retaining overall control in England of Health, Social Care, Education, Water, Energy, Law, Justice, Transport etc. Would Manchester be able to offer free pensions as the Welsh Government has done, or Newcastle nationalise its water supply?
Throughout, the report refers to a new Constitutional Settlement, but it studiously avoids mentioning the need for a written constitution. If real power is to be transferred there needs to be a written constitution, which amongst other things would define and protect the boundaries between the different levels of government, namely District, Regional and National. So that when the national government disapproves of policies of a regional government, it cannot simply decide, as Margaret Thatcher did with the GLC, to abolish it.
That the need for a written constitution wasn’t even mentioned illustrates the paucity of ideas in today’s political class. Compare this report with the efforts made in the 18th Century by James Madison and others to explore ways in which people can better govern themselves.
There is clearly no intent to transfer real power over local matters away from Westminster. What Wales and Scotland currently have, should be offered again to the English regions.
A history lesson
Sadly the authors demonstrate an ignorance of our history that is hard to excuse.
“Our first industrial revolution was built around mobilising every city and region of the country, backed by the great global city of London” (p.11)
This is just a shocking misrepresentation, the United Kingdom that “built the modern world” did so on the back of slavery and the exploitation of almost 25% of the globe. Thanks to books such as Empireland, and the work of the National Trust and museums across the nation, there is a greater understanding of what being a great imperial power really meant, and it really isn’t anything to be proud of.
The sooner our leaders stop wrapping themselves up in a flag proclaiming their intent to “make Britain Great again” the better. Then perhaps we can focus on the real issues and set out a more meaningful way to renew our democracy, build a sustainable economy and make sure that the most basic needs of all those who inhabit these islands are met.
Democracy within Labour
Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise that the report fails to set out how to improve representation, accountability and subsidiarity. The Labour party is struggling with the same issues in its own governance. The past year has seen
- A former party leader being told that he can no longer stand as a Labour MP
- A member elected to the NEC barred from taking her seat
- Prominent local figures stopped from standing as councillors, mayors or MPs.
On reflection perhaps the best advice to the Labour Party is “Physician, heal yourself!” (Luke 4:23). Then perhaps it can take a fresh look at the real democratic reforms needed by the country.
Editor’s note: The views expressed here are the author’s own.