For years, Britain’s political system has crumbled under the pressure of its failing democracy. But Gordon Brown’s proposals to shake up Westminster institutions could point a way forward.

Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks on the Commission on the UK’s Future report on 5 December 2022 in Leeds, England. (Ian Forsyth / Getty Images)

Gordon Brown’s report on the future of the United Kingdom, ‘A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy’, is the most comprehensive and radical Labour Party contribution to constitutional reform in a generation. It is also an essential blueprint for the next Labour government, to enable it to seize the initiative and map out what the future United Kingdom could become.

In its pages, the former Labour prime minister sets out some of the social democratic principles that must underpin what would be the biggest shake up and transformation of the distribution, delivery, and administration of government and power since the establishment of devolution in 1999—decentralisation, subsidiarity, empowerment, equality, prosperity, and ultimately, accountability.

Leaving the European Union has led to a fracturing of the tectonic plates of the UK constitution. These have been growing for many years, but with the loss of the EU constitutional umbrella, the dysfunctions and contradictions have been exacerbated and exposed.

When the Brexit referendum took place, we struggled to elucidate a simple and understandable explanation in support of our membership and the importance of the EU and the single market to our economic and political wellbeing. We couldn’t explain clearly to people why the EU was important to us all.

Now, under the shadow of a right-wing centralising UKIP-style government, we must not only defend devolution but go further and develop a model for constitutional reform that will create the long-term stability we need for better and more democratic governance within the framework of a fairer and more equal society.

This is not just about Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, although resolving their constitutional dysfunctions is fundamental to the overall stability of the UK. The debate for reform in England has lagged behind the devolved nations, but is now emerging as a key political factor in local government and mayoral elections. That means it is also about solving the democratic deficit in England—the English question.

The Starting Point

Before I comment on the report itself there are a few reflections to be made to the way the report is likely to be perceived.

For the ardent nationalist, it will be seen as a betrayal because it will fail the ‘shopping list’ approach to reform and ignores the inherent essentiality of governmental inter-dependence that is so important in the global world in which we live. For the ardent centralist, it will be seen as a betrayal of our UK sovereign ‘British’ parliamentary structure and the exercise of Royal Prerogative.

But for the progressive, we must see the report as outlining the principles for reform and change and understand the need to do away with those structures that for decades and longer have protected and promoted vested interests.

As the report explains, across all parts of the UK, people have become increasingly disengaged from politics and government. Democratic civic society is teetering at the edge of viability. Around 50% of the population no longer believe that voting makes any difference and that 60% believe the country has a ruling class which will always rule the country no matter what happens. This is an indictment of the state of our democracy. As the report states:

‘All of this makes the case for a radical devolution of power to locally elected and locally accountable representatives best placed to identify the needs and opportunities in their own areas and to unleash the potential that exists everywhere throughout the country.

Our aim must be to put power and resources in the hands of communities, towns, cities, regions and nations to make their own decisions about what will work best for them.’

People want more control over the decisions that impact their lives and their families. They also want greater fairness in the distribution of wealth. Gordon Brown correctly describes inequality as a scourge that sees half the population

‘live in areas no better off than some of the poorest parts of Europe and the USA and with growing regional inequality with the majority of investment increasingly concentrated in London and the South East.’

It is this inequality that was so easily and readily exploited by the far right during the Brexit campaign and contributed to the losses during the 2019 General Election.

Decentralisation

The starting point for Westminster reform has to be the abolition of the House of Lords, an outdated and unrepresentative body increasingly corrupted by royal patronage exercised by the government of the day. Replacement by an elected chamber, representative of the regions and nations with powers to safeguard constitutional rights, is a vital first step.

The report also recommends the radical decentralisation of power to the towns, cities, and regions of England. Precisely how this might be implemented requires more detail. It will undoubtedly be complicated and controversial but it is a vital step to increasing subsidiarity across the whole of the UK. Devolution cannot properly succeed while England remains over-centralised in London and the South East.

For Wales, some early commentary on the report has been critical of what is a perceived lack of detailed devolution proposals and radical reform. That is not an analysis I agree with or accept. The proposals for Wales are groundbreaking, recommending constitutional protection for devolution through the second chamber and a super majority in the Commons. At the same time, devolution in Wales has always been gradual and incremental. It has been the strength of Welsh Labour that it has always maintained its link and hegemony with the majority of people in Wales. That is why Welsh Labour wins elections.

It is a tribute to this political symbiosis that polls show that half of those who might consider supporting Welsh independence also support and vote for Welsh Labour. This should come as no surprise. Support for Welsh independence, while growing, nevertheless is only one of a host of issues of concern. Most people want to remain in the UK but in a reformed UK and with increased devolution. The report recognises this.

Devolving Justice

With justice and policing, no door remains closed, and undoubtedly the views of the elected Police and Crime Commissioners for the devolution of policing will be influential. The deference of the report to the Welsh Government’s own independent commission is also to be welcomed. It is a proper recognition that the decisions over the future of Wales are not the sole domain of Westminster.

The devolution of justice is a longstanding recommendation of the commission set up by the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, John Thomas. The case was further endorsed in a Welsh Government report from May 2022 titled ‘Delivering Justice for Wales’.

The case for the devolution of youth Justice and probation has become unanswerable. No credible case has ever been delivered to justify these parts of the justice system, which are so intertwined with devolved responsibilities over education, housing, social care, and health, remaining directed and controlled from London. The case for such devolution is also directly relevant to the decentralisation and delivery of justice in the regions of England.

Wales has the highest proportion in Europe of its citizens imprisoned under the current justice system. We have a higher proportion of women in prison and shockingly the majority of Welsh citizens in prison or probation are from black or ethnic minority communities.

A recent publication by Cardiff University titled ‘The Welsh Criminal Justice System: On the Jagged Edge’ adds to the weight of evidence to support this reform. Labour must become not only the party of social justice but also of the delivery of real justice and access to justice.

Labour reforms must focus on the delivery of justice and recognise that much of the justice system is failing and must be addressed. Devolution of justice offers this opportunity. We must now prepare for this next step to be implemented as soon as possible after the general election.

Delivering the Reforms

There is never a good time to embrace such reforms. We have a cost of living crisis and falling living standards; the temptation will be to kick this into the long grass. But if not now, when? We ignore the momentum and necessity for change at our peril. Change is taking place, and either we embrace it and seek to reform in a progressive and constructive way, or the right-wing centralising forces will. The Scottish referendum, Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Retained EU Law Bill, the Bill of Rights—these are all part of a developing constitutional battle in which rights and liberties can be won or lost. They may dictate what the future of our civic society will look like.

The constitution, both written and unwritten, is ultimately about power, how it is constrained and exercised, and how it impacts our lives. The challenge is how to explain it to people in a way that makes it accessible and relevant. Either we set the agenda for reform based on progressive values, or the Tories will do so—and the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer, and civil rights, democracy, and the rule of law will continue to be whittled away.

One thing is clear—only a Labour government can and will deliver these essential reforms. We have a duty as socialists to be the torchbearers and exemplars for democratic and progressive reform. That is why we must elect a Labour government at the next general election.

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