Labour's next leader must fight for a new constitution, not just tinker with the current one

The Tory manifesto set out to change the British constitution in ways that would let Boris Johnson rewrite the rules of power in his favour. Labour must fight back

Rob Abrams
Friday 10 January 2020 16:08
Rebecca Long-Bailey becomes sixth MP to announce Labour leadership bid

Whatever else you may think of the candidates in the Labour Party leadership elections, we can all agree that whoever wins has their work cut out for them.

The new leader will take the helm of a weakened opposition still licking its wounds after the party’s disastrous results in December’s general election. Their task will be to rebuild the party’s confidence, reinvigorate the membership base, and recapture the public’s imagination, all while opposing a Conservative government with an 80-seat majority.

It is no surprise then that some of the leadership candidates have started talking more passionately about democracy.

Among the factors that led to Labour’s election disaster was the simple fact that it got caught in an impossible situation in the midst of the Brexit culture war. Not only did the party fail to earn the trust of a significant proportion of the electorate based on its second referendum stance, it also got caught out by decades of political apathy and alienation.

Though many of the policies laid out in the party’s manifesto consistently polled well, even after the election, the overwhelming perception of politicians as “all the same” was just too strong. Boris Johnson was able to exploit this, posing as a champion of the people against callous, out-of-touch MPs in Westminster. In one of the most centralised political systems in Europe, this is a clever strategy.

Labour can only win again if it tackles the same problem head-on – and that reality has started to filter through.

Labelling himself the candidate to tackle the “crisis of democracy”, Clive Lewis has used his leadership pitch to call for a program of constitutional reform, including a proportional voting system, reforming the House of Lords and further devolution of power from London.

Likewise, leadership hopeful Rebecca Long-Bailey used her pitch to pledge a “war with the political establishment” as part of a constitutional revolution, adopting a much firmer tone by including the aim to remove big money from politics.

This shift in discourse will be very important in a post-Brexit UK. Both Lewis and Long-Bailey recognise the need to develop a framework that empowers democratic participation and strengthens trust in the political system. The vision they’ve invoked is one of a country reunited after the question of Brexit has finally been resolved.

The question is, are these ideas enough?

Rebecca Long-Bailey becomes sixth MP to announce Labour leadership bid

Wedged in between promises to “get Brexit done” and modest spending proposals, the Conservative Party’s election manifesto contained a severe warning for the future of our democracy. Framed as an opportunity to “review” the balance of power in our political system and the “broader aspects of our constitution”, the party has pledged to set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission.

It’s clear now that the government will look to tighten rules around judicial review, something the manifesto justifies as necessary to stop “needless delays” and keep politics from being conducted by “other means”. This is addition to plans to “rebalance” the Human Rights Act, introduce voter ID laws, scrap the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and “update” parliamentary boundaries.

As we can see from these measures, the thing this government values most is power. Unchallenged, this means a prime minister that is effectively able to ignore our rights and rewrite the rules to keep himself in office.

The lack of checks and balances inherent to our uncodified constitution allows a strong prime minister with a majority in the commons to get away with murder. Furthermore, any regional devolution of power that is not subject to proper constitutional protections is open to being fatally undermined.

The government’s plans are the perfect recipe for a democratic crisis far beyond what we have seen previously. To face this challenge, Labour needs to develop its own values-based approach to constitutional reform. One that challenges the authoritarianism of Johnson’s government and asserts that the people have the right to determine not just the composition of the government, but also the rules that govern the political system.

The key difference between the two main parties when it comes to constitutional reform is that while the Conservatives often speak about these matters in terms of values, Labour speaks more in terms of democratic procedure.

A new proportional voting system, a reformed House of Lords and greater regional representation are necessary changes, but won’t alone address the power imbalance in our political system.

As well as building effective checks against the misuse of power, any constitutional revolution proposed by the next Labour leader should be based on the protection of fundamental social and economic rights.

By making the moral case not just for building new democratic structures, but for enshrining rights such as those to education, healthcare and work in a written constitution, Labour will be able to position itself as the only force capable of truly democratising the country.

Rob Abrams is activism & outreach coordinator at Unlock Democracy, a campaign working for reform and a written constitution. He is also a Labour Party member​.

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