Labour’s Constitutional Challenge

The rise of nationalism at home and abroad makes tackling the constitution vital for Labour, says TREVOR FISHER. The Starmer team needs to map out a coherent alternative both to Tory-style unionism and independence. The answer lies partly in Corbyn’s manifesto.

Will Brown’s thoughtful piece on the challenges facing Labour rightly points out the vital need to make constitutional reform a priority. It’s a complex area and the rise of nationalism in the UK and abroad make issues of co-operation and sovereignty of particular importance to an internationalist party such as Labour.

Unfortunately, the Starmer leadership’s ‘make Brexit work’ position, which concedes too much ground to the Brexit Tories and may lose Remain voters, is not going to change in the near future, so the current focus must be on the UK and preserving its shared sovereignty. Clearly, there will be no independence referendum under a Starmer premiership, so Labour needs a third option other than support for the status quo or separation.

Brown’s article focused on the English-based priorities raised in John Denham’s Compass paper, but the terms of the debate need to be wider than “Tory support for the status quo and the SNP’s troubled pursuit of a second referendum”.

The key here is the rise of nationalism. Sinn Fein, now the biggest party in Northern Ireland, and Plaid Cymru in Wales are both growing in strength. Denham assumes the UK will continue – and Brown suggests a reform package could help address inequalities. But nationalists do not want to play ball. Sinn Fein, for example, does not want to “resolve the impasse in Northern Ireland”; it wants out.

Brexit, whose advocates now dominate the Tory party, can also be seen as a narrow nationalist tendency. The slogan ‘take back control’ is common to all national currents, threatening constant conflict. There is no future for the UK if this situation remains, and while defence of the union is essential, Labour needs to map out a coherent alternative both to Tory-style unionism and the nationalist threat to Britain.

The LOTO problem

A brief article cannot do more than touch on how defence of the union might be the core element of a constitutional platform, but first we need to consider the internal problem within the Leader of the Opposition’s Office (LOTO).

If Starmer continues with his politics of triangulation – moving Labour towards Tory positions, a reprise of New Labourism – then we are all wasting our time devising other schemes. Starmer not only refuses an independence referendum in Scotland, but refuses to nationalise failing industries while instructing the Labour front bench not to support striking workers. Crucially, he has abandoned the 2019 manifesto in total.

I am soft left, not a Corbynite, but I suggest that embracing the section of the manifesto dealing with the constitution would be a step forward. That section contained the following statement (emphasis added):

“For many people, politics doesn’t work. The Westminster bubble is a world away from their daily lives… We want our political institutions to be connected fully to the wider electorate, and will take urgent steps to refresh our democracy… We will work to abolish the House of Lords in favour of Labour’s preferred option of an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, but we also believe that the people must be central to historic political changes. The renewal of our parliament will be subject to recommendations made by a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly.”

The ideas here were not fully worked out, and notably there was no mention of a referendum principle. But at least Corbyn’s team recognised that the constitution was not the property of the political class. In a democracy, the rules cannot be devised by the people who play by them (or not play by them, in Boris Johnson’s case). Any proposals must be put to the electors via a referendum.

By rejecting the 2019 manifesto Starmer has rejected this tentative move towards popular decision making. It has to be resurrected, as the alienation of everyday people from politics has reached alarming levels, particularly among the young. We are a long way away from the last days of the Weimar republic, but the threats to democracy are clear and demand a focus on better processes. Labour needs to start talking about the use and nature of referendums.

Forward with the people

To be fair to Denham, he accepts that any move to proportional representation (PR) has to be approved by a referendum – which, of course, means the voters have to have the power to reject the proposal. The precedents were set by the 2011 poll on the Alternative Vote, which was a genuinely democratic decision-making process.

But the use of referendums in Denham’s scenario is limited to the sole issue of the electoral system. Referendums should be used for all elements of constitutional reform, but only for constitutional reform. Government by referendum is not possible; the Swiss have much to teach us in this respect.

Denham’s focus is on England, seeing an appeal to English nationalism as offering electoral advances to Labour. This is deeply problematic. One of the lessons from the Ukraine conflict is that large nations with small nations on their periphery can lapse into imperial dominance. Those voters who think themselves more English than British are also likely to be Brexiteers. While Labour’s decline goes back further than 2019, some ‘red wall voters’ still back an isolationist politics and now have Liz Truss as prime minister.

Clearly, reversing Brexit will not be part of any constitutional debate before the next general election. But in preparing a manifesto for 2023 or 2024, Labour has to make the case for the maintaining the UK and resist threats to Britain from nationalist parties. Arguing for a citizens-led process of reform would help to provide a democratic alternative to the current polarised debate.

A second vote on Scottish independence should be suspended pending a wider debate on the future of the UK as an entity. That is a much better option for an English politician such as Starmer than telling the Scots they cannot have a vote. Ultimately they do have the right to have a second referendum, but if people have already voted on a new constitutional settlement for the UK, the nationalists would be marginalised.

There has to be constitutional change. Starmer has backed himself into a corner with his anti-Corbynism, and part of the solution to that is for Labour to reclaim valid elements of the 2019 manifesto, starting with the better parts of the section on constitutional reform.


Trevor Fisher is editor of the Progressive Readers website.

See also: ‘Labour & the Constitution’ by Will Brown.