Labour leadership candidates grapple with ideas for constitutional reform

Sienna Rodgers
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Although the official Labour Party leadership hustings set to be held on Saturday was cancelled, the deputy one went ahead – as did the full Open Labour version on Sunday in Nottingham. Keir Starmer couldn’t make it, but the soft left group organised hustings for both sets of candidates. With a different format, offering 90 seconds for responses rather than 40, the debate was hugely improved as candidates offered detailed answers. Let’s hope the party will follow suit. The high quality of candidates in both races was evident on Sunday – with tons of personality and wit, as well as thoughtful interventions on policy. Check out my summary of key takeaways from the day, and a comprehensive Twitter thread.

Starmer has now resumed campaigning, and he’s back with a policy announcement. The leadership candidate is calling for a new federal structure in the United Kingdom, which he says would deliver a “radical devolution of power”. This shift away from the “status quo” would involve a written constitution developed through “consultation and discussion with communities across the UK”. There is not much flesh on the bones of this one yet, but Starmer will be touring the country this week – Scotland tomorrow, the North of England on Wednesday, then Wales – presumably to do just that.

This plan for federalism sounds remarkably like the speeches that have been delivered by Gordon Brown recently. Pledging to “fight, fight and fight again” for the union in June, the former Prime Minister warned that “narrow nationalism” was putting the UK at risk. Last week, he talked about the need for a “constitutional revolution”. These points are serious and carry weight. The risk, however, is that Starmer sounds non-committal when he talks about such abstract proposals. Brexit and Scottish independence seem tangible, and a more complex scheme based on federalism must surely be discussed in concrete terms before it can gain traction.

This risk of sounding vague is shared by fellow leadership candidates Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy. Three of them are now talking about devolving power to towns and building new constitutional settlements, with lots of overlap between their policy offers. Did Jess Phillips have a point when she said nobody in real life talks about “this senate or that senate”? Can any of this stuff about constitutional change excite members of the public or even the party? There is a danger that these ideas aimed at reducing the alienation felt by voters are alienating in themselves. Nonetheless, Starmer is right that if he wants to argue against a second Scottish independence referendum, he needs an alternative solution – and this is a good time for Labour to tackle its weakness on constitutional matters.

  • Wednesday: PMQs
  • Wednesday/Thursday: FBU leadership candidate nominations
  • Thursday: CWU leadership candidate nominations
  • Friday: UK leaves the EU (11pm)
  • Saturday: Party hustings in Bristol
  • Sunday: Party hustings in Cardiff
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