The United Kingdom will have a general election at some point before January 2025, most likely in May or June 2024. Work has already begun on manifestos for the next election. With the precarious state of the UK economy, the likelihood of big spending promises is unlikely. Though public services have faced over a decade of austerity and the public is suffering a cost of living crisis, demands on the exchequer will be significant.
Where the next election will potentially be quite interesting and possibly see long-lasting changes is constitutional reform. Britain does not have a written constitution and instead has various written and unwritten arrangements. Recent events in British politics have highlighted the issues with this. In August 2022 Hannah White from Prospect Magazine made the following observation regarding Boris Johnson’s time in office:
The most important lesson that Johnson’s three years as prime minister have taught us is how uniquely vulnerable this type of constitution may be to concerted manipulation by a determined populist leader with a large Commons majority and a calculated agenda.
What Boris Johnson taught us about the UK constitution – Prospect Magazine
There is growing recognition of the need for constitutional and political reform in the UK after the last decade. While the 2011 referendum in the UK saw a general lack of interest in the topic of electoral reform, there has since been increased awareness of how the current system produced distorted results with parliament not being truly representative. This, along with general dissatisfaction with politics creates an opportunity for public debate about the future of democracy and the UK Constitution.
At the time of writing, Labour enjoys a significant lead in opinion polls, though in some polls this is starting to narrow slightly. The next UK election is Labour’s to lose, which given the result of the 2019 election is an incredible turnaround. If elected, it has an opportunity to usher in a new modern era of British democracy improving representation and trust in politics.
Signs are that the Party is thinking along these lines. In late 2022, the Party published a paper by the Commission on the UK’s Future, chaired by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. This paper made various recommendations including:
- Greater devolution of political power in England
- Enchrenching in a new constitutional framework the Sewel Convention, which protects existing devolution in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
- Abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an Assembly of Nations and Regions
This paper is helpful in it starts an important debate about the future of political arrangements. Its strongest arguments are in favour of greater devolution in England, with the report highlighting the fact that the UK government is much more centralised than most others in Europe. It argues that current geographical inequalities in England are largely the result of this centralisation.
The current government’s Levelling-up agenda is also aimed at addressing regional inequalities, and included in its proposed reforms is greater devolution to local authorities. Both with the Conservative Government’s reform package and Labour’s proposals, there is still a lack of detail as to how this devolution will occur. Devolution to local government would require a significant funding boost, as current devolution to local authorities has been hamstrung by austerity and local authorities lacking resources. Establishing a regional government, similar to those in Germany, would be a logical way of ensuring regional decision-making, but would the public support the creation of another layer of government in England?
What the report proposes for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are fine, but they avoid a bigger issue.
Northern Ireland is covered by the Belfast Agreement, now 25 years old. This agreement includes the provision for a border poll should the people of the Island of Ireland with it. Were a border poll to be held today, it is not entirely clear how this would go. But whatever the outcome, there would be a continued need for power-sharing, compromise and diplomacy given the history there.
The Commission on the UK’s Future report describes the union of nations as voluntary. Yet, the November 2022 Supreme Court judgement on the matter ruled that another independence referendum in Scotland could only happen with Westminsters’ consent. Regardless of one’s views on this issue, or indeed the recent issues with the SNP after Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, if a union is voluntary then there must be some mechanism to leave. Even if the mechanism is a high threshold, such as 50% of eligible voters signing a petition calling for a referendum. That may not sound much, but getting 50% of eligible voters to do this would be a herculean task.
The blunt reality is, Labour’s opposition to Scottish Independence appears to be more motivated by a fear of losing crucial Scottish seats, as historically at least Labour did well up there. This may be very unfair, as many in Scottish Labour undoubtedly genuinely support staying in the union. But there is no denying that this impression has contributed to many former Labour supporters moving to the SNP since 2007.
Whilst the current strife in the SNP may change this, it would be incredibly naive to think that support for Scottish Independence will now completely collapse and the issue will go away. The argument that the people of Scotland already voted on this in 2014 holds little water given one of the key issues in that referendum was EU membership. The offer to the people of Scotland in 2014 was very different to the reality today.
Improve devolution and entrench the Sewel Convention by all means, but there still needs to be a mechanism by which the Scottish people can leave the United Kingdom if they so wish. This principle must apply to people living in other nations of the UK as well.
It is somewhat strange that a report that primarily focuses on the need for greater devolution in the UK includes a recommendation to abolish the House of Lords, yet when asked in the media, Gordon Brown said reform of the House of Commons (electoral reform) was out of scope. Either the report should just focus on devolution, which was by far the stronger section in the report, or it needs to include proposals for reform of both houses of parliament in Westminster.
In one of my posts following the 2019 election, I made the case for electoral reform, and in particular the need for UK Labour to sharpen its thinking in this area. Suffice it to say, three years on, having seen the results of a government that won 43% of the votes gaining 56% of seats in parliament, my view has not changed. What has changed, is that there is now far stronger support both within the UK Labour membership and more broadly for some sort of electoral reform.
In terms of the Lords, I declare my interest having worked on Piko contracts for two members of the Lords. My views of the Lords, and of the reform proposals are my own, not those of Piko’s clients.
The House of Lords is in need of some reform. At present, there are over 800 members, whereas the Commons only has 650 MPs. Whilst quite a few of its members have been appointed due to their expert knowledge and make important and meaningful contributions, the level of patronage, especially with Boris Johnson’s appointments, is simply unacceptable.
The Commission on the UK’s Future acknowledged the quality of committee reports from the Lords. I would add to this the valuable contribution of pre and post-legislative scrutiny, many of the amendments tabled at the committee stage of bills in the Lords and the overall quality of debate. This is due to the expertise and experience of many current Peers.
Any reform of the House of Lords should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Any reforms should protect what does work about the current House of Lords. One of the sad things about the current set-up is that many of the Lord’s reports get ignored by the government and get little attention in the media.
There is a strong case for a smaller, elected upper chamber. Having an unelected chamber means in reality its authority is reduced in the eyes of many. The Salisbury convention means it will not oppose the second or third reading of any government legislation promised in its election manifesto. During this term of parliament, the government have put forward legislation that attempted to breach international law and in some cases its own human rights legislation. An elected chamber might have been in a stronger position to push back.
Yet many of the unelected members today are not aligned to a party, and are there due to their expertise and experience. Any reform should consider how this pool of talent can still be utilised in any future structure, potentially through creating another role for current Lords with specific experience that parliament needs.
The proposal in the UK Future report is to replace the House of Lords with a democratic chamber representative of the nations and regions of the UK. Whilst this proposal is clearly to link it to the wider theme of devolution and empowering regions, its description of the new upper chamber sounds a lot like the current House of Commons. Given the poor performance of the Commons in recent years, this is hardly inspiring.
In reality, greater devolution, electoral reform and reform of the House of Lords and House of Commons need strong public buy-in. Slipping a few sentences into a party manifesto is simply not enough. Any manifesto commitment would need to be for something that furthers this important discussion, maybe a Commission on the UK’s constitutional and democratic future. But from there, any changes would need a direct mandate from the voters.
In New Zealand, electoral reform happened after two referenda, and a similar process would be needed in the UK. Unfortunately, post-Brexit, there is now a real fear of referenda as that experience was divisive, with many feeling the level of misinformation resulted in a bad decision. Britain’s political establishment must get over this, as ultimately referendums are the best tool to test public support of crucial constitutional or moral issues. The issues raised in the UK’s Future paper certainly fall into this category.
Were a Labour Government elected next year, its primary focus would be on the economy, just as it is for the current government. Constitutional reform would take time and a significant level of public engagement so that whatever ultimately was implemented, would work and have greater public support that the current arrangements. It would be very easy for this to be put in the too hard basket. Yet when public confidence in the institutions of government has fallen significantly in recent years, it would be a mistake not to take action in this area.