Keir Starmer urged to back radical constitutional reforms by new report

Elliot Chappell
© ComposedPix /

Keir Starmer has been urged by a new Labour report to back radical constitutional reforms including major devolution, a codified British constitution and a proportionally elected senate of the nations and regions.

A 234-page paper, Remaking the British State: For the Many, Not the Few, commissioned by Labour while Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader and written by constitutional lawyer Seán Patrick Griffin, has now been published.

Overseen by left-wing Labour peer Pauline Bryan, it makes the case for a federal UK with a “council of the union”, replacing the House of Lords with an elected senate and substantial new powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Chapters one to four of the lengthy document focus on Scottish devolution, while chapters five to ten take a broader view and “offer an attempt to imagine a fully federal UK”. The recommendations of the report include:

  • Conducting a UK-wide constitutional convention supported by citizens’ assemblies to consider options for reform;
  • Creating a codified constitution, greatly reducing the power of the monarch;
  • Replacing the Lords with a federal senate of the nations and regions;
  • Establishing a council of the union, for consultation and co-decision, comprised of the Prime Minister and all First Ministers including a newly created minister for England;
  • Introducing proportional representation for the House of Commons;
  • Securing permanent constitutional independence for the Scottish parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish executive;
  • Providing more borrowing and policymaking powers for Holyrood including over postgraduate immigration, alcohol taxation, drugs policy and social security; and
  • Devolving policymaking and financial powers, including borrowing, to English regions and councils.

The Electoral Reform Society’s Willie Sullivan welcomed the debate within Labour around how to “empower the public and bolster our democracy” and argued that now is the time to “be brave and to commit to giving power away”.

The report identifies two questions for England: how to achieve regional autonomy while ensuring representation of the regions at Westminster; and how to ensure more effective governance to give expression to English national identity.

Under the recommendations put forward, local authorities would be empowered to voluntarily combine into combined regional authorities, which would return senators to a new senate of the regions and nations.

The report rejected the idea of an English parliament, instead calling for an “overhaul of English voted for English laws in the UK parliament and a clear delineation when the UK government is acting only in respect of England”.

A proposed council of the union would replace the joint ministerial committee and act as an intergovernmental conference for the heads of government of each part of the UK, similar to the First Ministers’ Conference in Canada.

The paper states that the body would “discuss the strategic objectives of the UK as a whole”, points of disagreement between the different UK governments and consider issues such as amendments to the constitution.

It would also be afforded a co-decision function to make decisions relating to the regulation of the UK internal market, common frameworks on issues such as environmental standards, and on foreign affairs and war.

Reacting to the report, Compass think tank director Neal Lawson said that while new thinking on democracy in the UK is starting to emerge from the Labour Party, it is “still too hesitant and piecemeal”.

The report recommends that the House of Lords be replaced with a new second chamber – a fully elected senate of the nations and regions to “give voice and physical expression to the new federal settlement in the UK parliament”.

It suggested the number of senators could be assigned to each nation and regions of the UK based on a principle of proportionality, or that the number could be fixed for each nation and region similar to the Australian senate.

The body would retain the revising function of the Lords, while also holding a power of veto over certain bills, ratifying international treaties, confirming certain judicial appointments, holding the council of the union to account.

Commenting today on the release of the document, Politics for the Many coordinator Nancy Platts said: “There is a vital need for this kind of in-depth analysis on moving to a more equal political system.”

She added that “the whole labour movement” should look at the proposals made by Remaking the British State: For the Many, Not the Few, and stressed that the constitutional changes needed “go beyond left and right”.

Scottish Labour is electing a new leader to replace Richard Leonard who resigned from the post with immediate effect last month. His potential successors are Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon.

Sarwar said the report had “ideas worthy of serious consideration”. He argued change must be “more than just devolving power from Westminster to devolved parliaments” but must avoid a “deeply divisive” referendum.

Lennon pledged that as leader she would “work across our movement and fully engage with Labour’s constitutional commission” for an “alternative to both independence and the broken status quo”.

The report published this weekend comes ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections on May 6th. Recent polling has showed Scottish Labour ranking third on voter intention, behind the SNP and the Scottish Tories.

Baroness Pauline Bryan and Neil Findlay MSP, both closely involved the drafting of the report, have today described the paper as a “first attempt at informing the much-needed debate that is required within the party”.

They added: “This publication offers examples of how by making the second chamber a democratic institution rather than a relic of feudalism we can create the foundations of a more democratic and accountable parliament.”

The report comes amid growing calls for greater devolution and a rethink of the constitutional settlement from across the labour movement since Starmer promised to deliver a “radical devolution of power” in the leadership contest last year.

The then Labour leadership candidate called for a new written constitution for the UK. He described a “radical federalism” and a “new constitutional settlement with a large-scale devolution of power and resources”.

The Labour leader announced the launch of a UK-wide constitutional convention in December, declaring in a speech aimed at Scottish voters ahead of the Holyrood elections that the status quo is “broken”.

Calls for devolution have been voiced by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who will advise the commission, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and the Welsh Labour leadership.

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