Why constitutional reform is so important for Labour

Constitutional change is perhaps not the sexiest subject in British politics. It is, however, of critical importance if Labour is serious about transferring power and democratising our country.

One of the most significant changes of Tony Blair’s Government was the devolution of decision-making to Scotland and Wales, even though Blair himself was not an enthusiast of devolution. Today, hardly anyone in Scotland and Wales would seriously question the worth of devolved government and there is much to be learnt by UK Labour from the Welsh experience of government over the past 19 years.

Bringing ‘power’ closer to ordinary people and constructing ways of devolving decision-making to the regions of England, as well as to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, has to be a key message of the modern Labour Party. This is of course easier said than done, because people’s sense of identity varies so much from one English region to another, and a coherent framework needs to be developed so that the various Mayoralties operate in a complementary way.

But an even greater priority for Labour must be to develop a well-worked out plan to deal with the House of Lords. In a modern democracy there can be no justification for an unelected chamber of over 800 Peers, 90 of whom are hereditary, having the ability to modify and reject legislation. The fact that under a Conservative Government the Lords is a relatively helpful restraint on government excesses, does not mean that the House of Lords would not be an unhelpful impediment to the radical legislative programme of a Labour Government.  It is important to remember that the Tories have been increasing hugely the number of Tory Peers.

When Ed Miliband was Leader of the Opposition, an effort was made to draw up plans for an indirectly elected second chamber. The idea was that members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and groups of local authorities would send representatives to London to form a second chamber. The proposal floundered on the grounds of sheer impracticality; for example the devolved institutions probably would have been unwilling or unable to second representatives without an increase in their overall numbers. But Ed did not want to see an increase in the number of elected politicians, for fear of this being electorally unpopular.

There was also the idea of setting-up a Constitutional Convention. This idea was first mooted by Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones. He had witnessed how the Scottish Parliament owed its genesis to a Scottish Convention and he argued that a not dissimilar Constitutional Convention on a UK level could examine and propose a way forward on a number of interrelated constitutional issues, not least the formation of a democratic second chamber.

The suggestion made a great deal of sense and it was taken up by Ed Miliband. More recently, it was embraced by Jeremy Corbyn and was referred to in the 2017 Labour general election manifesto. That manifesto also referred to what it described as “our fundamental belief” that the second chamber should be “democratically elected”. More recently, the Labour Leader has been unequivocal in stating that there ought to be an elected second chamber and has rejected any notion that a second chamber could be appointed in part or made up of indirectly elected members.

There has been the concern that a Constitutional Convention would become embroiled in esoteric constitutional debate, rather than concentrating on what is politically necessary. There have been various attempts to draft a comprehensive British constitution to replace our unwritten constitution, but these have all ended in failure or have been aborted. The most recent example of this was under Prime Minister Gordon Brown. If a Constitutional Convention turned into another attempt to draft a written constitution then Lords reform could be effectively forgotten about for another generation.

The question is not whether Labour is firmly committed to a wholly elected second chamber, but the method of election to that chamber – if it should be First Past The Post or a form of proportional representation (PR). Given that the second chamber should not challenge the sovereignty of the Commons, it makes sense for the new second chamber to be elected by a different electoral system to that used for the House of Commons.  The case for this is reinforced by the fact that all of the new elections which have been introduced since the 1990s, for a variety of positions, use PR of one kind or another: for example, the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, the elections for the Police and Crime Commissioners and Scottish local government.  If PR were used for elections to the second chamber, I believe that the chamber could fulfil more effectively its role of scrutinising and revising laws sent to it from the Commons.

All too often in Labour circles constitutional reform is seen as the preserve of political anoraks. This has to change. Fundamental reform of the Lords and the creation of a second chamber, in particular, cannot be left to those who are looking for a polite and absorbing past time. All of us have to realise that if we are serious about securing the kind of radical change that the country needs, and we want to see, then the extension of democracy has to move to the very top of our agenda.

In essence, a democratic second chamber is required for two important reasons. It is needed so that radical legislation under a Labour Government is properly scrutinised and improved, but not thwarted. And it is needed because it is unacceptable that in a modern Britain, so much power should be vested in the hands of unrepresentative people who are unelected and unaccountable.

Wayne David, Labour MP for Caerphilly