December 2022 saw the publication of the long-awaited report of Gordon Brown’s Commission on the constitutional and economic future of Britain. The represents an extensive body of work and we welcome its publication. It is clear from the report that Labour recognises the need for a different type of politics, and furthermore that if we’re going to get our economy moving and tackle inequalities, we need changes in how the machinery of government operates. We agree wholeheartedly with this and many other aspects of the report, but we would like it to go further in several respects.
The Commission has recognised the alarming loss of public trust in politics: it calls for “a New Britain that gives the British people the power and respect they and their communities want” and makes the case for devolving power to local, and locally elected, institutions. Adopting these recommendations could strengthen our democracy by giving people a stronger voice on decisions that affect them, and they are therefore to be welcomed. However, as the report notes, “to co-author the future of our country, we must put the people at the heart of constitutional change” and wide consultation, possible involving citizens’ assemblies, is therefore proposed.
This is surely right. Constitutions should belong to citizens and not government – people should have some say in formulating them and the broad principles should require their approval. We need a consultation that examines the Commission’s recommendations and where necessary, revises or adds to them.
We would like to see the Commission’s recommendations developed to incorporate the Party’s decision, taken at the 2022 Conference, to support PR. Whatever powers are passed to local institutions or regarded as matters for national co-operation, people will not feel more engaged in decision-making unless there are electoral systems that give people the politicians they want, and the ability to hold them to account. Although the Commission did not regard electoral reform as part of its remit, it did note that “a well-functioning electoral system is vital to the health and defence of our democracy, and that our proposed changes will no doubt be discussed within this context”.
The report notes that issues of regionalism and localism are important throughout the UK, but special attention, understandably, is given to Scotland. We support the proposals to strengthen and entrench devolved powers, but we doubt that they will be sufficient to win back the support of many who now favour an independent Scotland. Polling at the time of the 2016 referendum showed that the leading reason for voting for independence was the dissatisfaction with Westminster politics on which the Commission has reported. We believe that a commitment to make votes count and make politicians accountable through a proportional voting system would go much further in re-establishing trust and confidence in UK-wide politics than other constitutional adjustments, worthy and necessary though they may be. Not all Scottish electors like their local and national politicians, but it is their perception of those at Westminster that creates an acute problem: it may be noted that while they have PR systems for the Scottish Parliament and local government, it is Westminster that retains FPTP.
With regards to elected Mayors and PPCs, we welcome the report’s recommendation to reverse the Conservative decision to revert to First Past the Post (FPTP) but would prefer to replace FPTP with a proportional system. And if FPTP is not fit for mayoral elections, why should it be fit for anything else?
We welcome the proposals to replace the Lords with a second chamber which “must have electoral legitimacy”. A new chamber could only claim to be an “Assembly of the Nations and Regions” if the electors of each nation and region are able to choose who they want to represent them, and voter choice would only be meaningful if a PR system were used.
We also welcome that the necessary consultation and preparatory work should begin now, and this should include a ground-up conversation with the people of Britain. We agree as the report concludes that we must put the people at the heart of constitutional change.
The report finishes by saying that “The single most transformative aspect of our recommendations is the distribution of power across England. This is essential to rebuild the broken trust between the central institutions of the British state and the British people”.
We agree but feel strongly that this redistribution of power must include a change of the voting system too. We cannot have truly transformative change in our country without replacing FPTP with a proportional system in line with the wishes of the majority of the Labour Party and we believe, the wider public.