Ideas to improve the constitution aren’t enough: Labour must change the debate

John Denham

Setting out his plans for a constitutional commission, Keir Starmer said: “Of course, a project of this scale and this urgency should be initiated by the UK government.” Last weekend’s media were full of speculation that Boris Johnson will open up some form of constitutional inquiry. But far from making Labour’s work redundant, it makes it all the more important. Labour needs to do more than come up with better ideas for the constitution. It needs to change the public debate about why we want a union at all.

Conservative talk of a constitutional review is an attempt to buy time while they assert a new more assertive unionism. Aiming to emphasise the strength and benefits of the union, they will take powers away from the devolved administrations to make the centre seem both more important and benevolent. Calls for a new referendum will be faced down and the costs of independence talked up. The Tories hope SNP support will crack if it fails deliver independence and is dogged by domestic policy failures. The aim, at best, is to keep an unhappy and disgruntled Scotland within the union for fear of life outside.

Scottish Labour activists will have a better idea than me whether that can work. But I do know that Labour must be more ambitious. We can’t define success by whether a narrow majority of Scots decide to stay. As the Sunday Times reported, the very idea of being British has been losing its power as a common shared identity across the union for many years.

Northern Ireland already has the right, in international law, to have a border poll (though the precise mechanism is imprecise). Support for an independent Wales is increasing. There, too, it seems that rising numbers feel they only belong to the union because the alternative looks impractical. Over the past 20 years, England’s politics have been shaped by the ‘political English’ who want England’s interest defended, while many who say they are British are really thinking of their passport and citizenship, not any strong idea of Britain as a nation. 

A future in which large numbers of people feel they are not governed by institutions that reflect their identity, within a union that does not serve their interests, will not just be an unhappy place. It will be an impossible place to do progressive politics.

We cannot defend the union for what it was. Yes, let’s draw on the past, but it is the future that matters. Our aim must be to inspire people in every part of the UK that it makes sense to have a union of nations in the 21st century. Labour is right to set up a constitutional commission, but it should not be an exclusively Labour affair. Understandably – we live in cynical times – some people will assume Labour is primarily concerned with its own electoral prospects. Nobody doubts the passionate British nationalism of the commission’s adviser, Gordon Brown, but his well-known hostility to ideas of English nationhood, and belief that England is merely a collection of regions, puts him at odds with many English voters. 

Labour needs to open its commission outwards. Instead of aiming for a better Labour policy, Labour should aim to transform the public debate by engaging the widest possible sections of society in every part of the union. This means other political parties or their members, trade unions, business, voluntary organisations and faith groups. It can take some inspiration from the Scottish constitutional convention whose broad based created the consensus for reform in the 1990s. But that was an elite body, out of step with the mood of our times.

Today we can draw on the considerable expertise now available on deliberative and participative consultation. We can imagine numerous organisations and institutions promoting debates about how each nation wants to be governed, the relationship between the national governments and local communities, and the relationship between the different parts of the union. It would, no doubt, be a somewhat chaotic process that won’t appeal to people who want political debates tightly controlled. But it may be the only way to have the debate that is needed.

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