In a single day, the Labour Party blew open the entire constitutional future of the United Kingdom. On December 5, the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer MP, promised “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people” as the party’s special commission chaired by former prime minister Gordon Brown announced its drastic recommendations for rewriting the basic working premises of Britain’s government.
The most headline-grabbing proposal is to scrap the House of Lords, an ancient part of the British parliament which has met separately since at least the fourteenth century but whose origins go back further. Opponents claim the current chamber is indefensible—full stop—without being able to name any outrages it has committed. Indeed, in recent years it has acted as a moderate brake on the desires of Conservative governments, especially during the prolonged struggles over Brexit. The mere fact that most of its members are appointed for life and some are hereditary is offensive to the intolerant all-encompassing Gleichsaltung of enlightened metropolitan modernism. From this sentiment of correctness there can be no escape, and the enemy must be allowed no quarter.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Lords-phobia is most easily understood by two tendencies. One is a simple hatred for all things old and traditional, which must be uprooted and destroyed, or at the very least neutralised. The other is a lack of understanding of how the House of Lords works and what role it plays in the exercise of political power in the United Kingdom.
Only a simpleton would think that, because almost all laws require the approval of the chamber of peers, it is somehow equal with the elected House of Commons. The paramount status of the Commons is unchallenged—or at least was until Labour announced their constitutional proposals to undermine it.
The basic premise of the British Parliament is that authority comes from the Crown, power and money from the Commons, and useful advice from the Lords. Gordon Brown proposes replacing the Lords with a democratically elected chamber representative of the nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and the “regions”—merely geographic expressions that have no organic or emotional reality in English life. How the democratic legitimacy of this new second chamber would affect the conventional status of the House of Commons is unenumerated by Brown or his commission.
Other measures would allow local leaders and metropolitan mayors the right to initiate legislation in the British Parliament they don’t sit in. Fifty thousand civil service jobs would be transferred out of London. Outside employment for Members of Parliament would be banned, except for those who need to maintain professional qualifications such as in medicine. The British government would be constitutionally required to “respect” the political, administrative and financial autonomy of local government. Borrowing powers for the Scottish administration would be increased—as if burdening future generations of Scots with even more debt was a pressing need.
Meanwhile, a “solidarity clause” would mandate each level and form of the UK’s governments to work together. What does a “solidarity clause” even mean in practice? If there is an effective breakdown, who would be held legally liable? What would the penalty be? Somehow I suspect the well-funded industry of lefty lawyers and judges will have a delightful time apportioning blame on a British government any time they seek to use their democratic legitimacy to pursue policies that are unionist or conservative.
Brown suggests including the Sewel convention—providing that Westminster won’t legislate in devolved areas without the consent of the Scottish parliament—as an entrenched clause. The constitutional scholar Alan Trench took to the BBC to point out that the Scotland Act 2016 already attempted this, but the Supreme Court (itself a constitutional innovation) ruled in the Gina Miller case that this was without legal effect.
Matters traditionally viewed as a subject for normal deliberative politics would instead be removed from the purview of a democratically accountable parliament as social and economic rights like housing and healthcare are constitutionally entrenched. The new second chamber would be empowered to reject any legislation from the lower house that, in their view, threatened or undermined these newly entrenched rights.
Similar provisions helped scuttle the recent leftist attempt to rewrite the Chilean constitution, which voters overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum early in 2022. Ironically, it is the very nature of the British constitution—in which the Crown in Parliament is supreme—that could allow a Labour government to permanently rewrite that constitution, without any reference to the people in a referendum.
The changes proposed are far deeper and wider ranging than the matter of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, which by wide (if incorrect) consensus required the rare event of a UK-wide referendum to resolve. Starmer proposes to rewrite the constitution in record time—and without a referendum. A simple parliamentary majority will be good enough for him, with changes delivered “as quickly as possible” following the formation of a Labour government.
The severe lack of available housing sits at the top of many voters’ list of priorities, but Labour propose strengthening local authorities’ ability to refuse applications for new houses—in the same week as the sitting Conservative government announced they have dropped their house-building targets.
“Just when you think the UK’s legal framework for growth literally could not be worse,” the Oxford academic Yuan Yi Zhu commented, “Gordon Brown comes up with a report which will make doing anything about it constitutionally impossible.”
According to the Economist’s British politics correspondent, Matthew Holehouse, the proposal to ban second jobs for MPs risks reducing the role of the legislator—by its nature a strange and uncommon job—to mere contractual employment of a certain number of hours per week. The London barrister Evan Price pointed out that every single government minister—including the Prime Minister—by their nature has a second job in addition to being a mere MP.
The extra powers in foreign affairs allowing Scotland a role in signing international agreements and joining international bodies could be interpreted as a division of sovereignty. Politically it is a gift to the pro-independence Scottish National Party and might torpedo Labour’s unionist credentials north of the border, undermining any hopes for a red renewal in Scotland.
Richard Johnson, a historian covering the Labour party, suggested that “Labour is not only proposing having an elected upper chamber but one that is chosen on a different electoral cycle, which will almost certainly become used to weaken the government and make the likelihood of legislative gridlock much worse.”
British voters are used to having the ability to decisively throw out a government they’ve decided is past it. Those who highlight Labour’s proposals to restrict the traditionally broad powers enjoyed by any party that commands a clear majority in the House of Commons are missing the point. The very point of these proposals is to effectively guarantee permanent rule for the establishment Left—granting a veto for those periods when they lack the benefit of a majority in the Commons. Claims of transferring power away from Westminster mask the reality that these changes represent an attempt to permanently disempower the working classes of Great Britain that the Labour party was founded to represent and defend.
Small committed minorities, whether in the new upper house, local government, or devolved administrations, will be able to block legislation and prevent a democratically accountable Commons majority from governing. No Gordian knots will ever be cut again. No Boris-style landslide will ever be able to solve a crisis again. Starmer is effectively telling the voter that choosing Labour at the next general election will be interpreted as a blank cheque for rewriting the constitution of the United Kingdom—traditionally a slow-changing elastic concept given to bending instead of breaking and to evolution instead of revolution.
If Labour really wants to devolve power away from Westminster, why not bypass the intermediate bodies of devolved parliaments, local councils and metropolitan mayors, and devolve power directly to all vote-bearing adult citizens of the United Kingdom? To co-ordinate their collective wills, they could elect a body of 650 individuals to represent them, out of which a government could be formed and held accountable at election times. To help scrutinise legislation, a second less-powerful chamber could include people appointed from all spheres of life to give the benefit of their experience, but respecting the democratic primacy of the elected chamber. Funnily enough, a legislature created out of such a pragmatic and rational framework would look pretty much exactly like the current set-up of the British parliament.