It follows Protecting the Natural Environment After Coronavirus, Education after Coronavirus, Health and Social Care after Coronavirus, and our member Liz Bell’s personal submission.
Thanks to Sam and all the contributors!
From Devolution to Federation?
The struggle for devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland arguably developed an irresistible dynamic from the late 1970s. Despite at first meeting fierce opposition in Westminster from Tam Dalyell and his “West Lothian question”, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were established in 1999 under a Labour Government.
Mayoral elections for London were first held in 2000 during the Blair government and there are now eight metropolitan mayors for areas outside London.
Should a future Labour government continue the process of local democratisation and accountability further, with the eventual aim of creating a fully federal nation?
"Should a future Labour government continue the process of local democratisation and accountability further, with the eventual aim of creating a fully federal nation?" Sam Dawkins
Despite Devolution, political power remains over-centralised to Westminster. The population of each region is entitled to expect greater consultation over policies affecting its local environment, industry and economy.
More consultation could result in greater, more enthusiastic political engagement, which is sorely needed. Currently, entire regions of England feel disillusioned with politics, through neglect. Consistently over the last decade, only one-third of the electorate have turned out to vote at local elections, unless a general election has happened to fall on the same date.
A natural and important accompaniment to consultation over a federal system would be electoral reform. Large electorates within constituencies such as ours here in Newbury feel virtually disenfranchised by the current First Past the Post system.
A natural and essential preliminary to initiating changes to the UK system would be to examine the operation of federal structures and proportional representation voting in other countries. An example of potential problems could be seen during the Obama years in the States. Not only the speed but also the extent of the President’s healthcare reforms was reduced by the opposing forces of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
On the other hand, a more positive example is presented by Germany. There, elections are more likely to result in coalitions. Voters have come to expect that for two months or so following the election the most successful parties hold discussions to enable the formation of a government and programme for the term ahead. There is more discussion, continuity and compromise.
Germany also provides a recent example of a possible danger of such systems: the threat of extremist groups coming to power. The leader of the far-right AFD was briefly elected to the post of Thuringia’s prime minister, until the scale of national outrage forced him to stand down. Powerful safeguards have to be in place before political structures or methods of voting are changed. Indeed, it would seem sensible to make changes in a planned, step-by-step manner. Existing devolution could be furthered and local experiments undertaken.
The eventual establishment of a Federation, accompanied by electoral reform to create a more active, engaged and aware population could assist our Party in the medium to long term. At the next election due in 2024, Labour has to increase its tally of MPs by 60% to secure a majority. And this has to be accomplished against a background of Conservative dominance at elections since the start of the 20th century!
Would a Federal System tighten the bonds between the UK’s constituent nations, making the break-up of the Union unlikely and weakening support for the SNP?
Here the answer must partly depend on the decisions this country takes with respect to its relationship with the EU. A No-Deal outcome at the end of this year is likely to result in a decisive rise in support for the SNP so that an independent Scotland can choose to take up EU membership once more. Similarly, now that the Johnson government has placed a border in the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland’s destiny could ultimately lie in a union with Ireland. Arguably, a fully federal UK with close links to Europe is the only way to secure the future of the UK. (See Keir Starmer’s stance here).
A Written Constitution?
Should this nation have a formal, written constitution in order to guarantee the rights of individuals, Parliament and the Courts against an over-mighty Executive? Many European and Commonwealth countries and the USA are governed in accordance with such a document.
The need for this protection would appear to be clear: the authority of Parliament and the Courts has undeniably been deliberately undermined by the Conservatives. Over the course of the Brexit crisis years since 2016 the Tories in government have eroded the parliamentary system, with its checks and balances. Their actions reached an apogee last autumn: opposition MPs felt compelled to meet and agree to form, “an alternative parliament” if Johnson were to attempt to force a no-deal Brexit using prorogation! The next day, the Prime Minister asked for and got approval from the Queen to suspend Parliament from September to mid-October (6).
Some writers believe that a written constitution would weaken parliamentary sovereignty, that it could, “refute the convention that no future government can be bound irrevocably by the actions of a former government” (2). Well the introduction of such a constitution should be the result of more than the will of one powerful executive. It would have to be at the very least the fruit of a cross-party convention and some form of public consultation. If this country is able to take such momentous decisions as joining the European Community and then leaving the European Union, the introduction of a codified constitution should not be beyond the realms of possibility.
Indeed, as argued by Sionadh Douglas-Scott, Brexit should not have been so easy, “on the basis of an advisory referendum whose result commanded the support of less than 50 per cent of the franchise”. A written constitution should make it clear that any changes would only be made, “subject to rigorous requirements”.
The existing arrangement is no longer able to withstand the methods now deployed by government and their chosen counsellors. Last autumn, the Supreme Court became embroiled in parliamentary politics because of the Tories’ deployment of the ancient royal prerogative, a source of extensive power for the executive, to prorogue parliament. This led to Lady Hale’s declaration that the prime minister’s suspension of parliament had been unlawful. Some feel that unelected judges should not have the power to question the sovereignty of parliament. However, the courts should be empowered to uphold parliament’s rights as well as the laws of the land against the executive power of any government.
The decision to leave the EU has brought with it threats to individual rights and freedoms. The European Convention on Human Rights was brought into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998. It enabled members of the public to take on the powerful institutions of government. The British public will now have to await the human rights legislation to be introduced by Johnson’s Conservatives.
The Brexit crisis years have revealed the clear need for reform of political structures, the electoral system and the need for a formal written constitution. Equally these years have demonstrated the importance of proceeding with careful preparation and extreme caution.
Political Education Officer
- Andrew Marr: A History of Modern Britain
- Politics.co.uk: Do we need a written Constitution?
- Jenny Hill: Germany AfD: How Far Right caused political earthquake, bbc.com, 06.02.2020
- Economist.com 21 Dec 2019
- Sionadh Douglas-Scott and A. Tomkins: Prospect Magazine, 02.04.2019
- Wikipedia: 2019 in the United Kingdom