Trevor Fisher warns the Johnson threat to our constitution is the battle of 2020
Flying under the radar of the 2019 election was the agreement of Labour and the Conservatives that the constitution is bust. The approaches to solve the problem were of course very different, but it is clear this is going to become a priority for this government – as they have said in the Queen’s Speech. Changing the rules is the key to the Trump Tory political programme for reshaping Britain, making this the challenge for 2020. This is a challenge that cannot be ignored.
Alas, few party members seem to know what Labour said in the manifesto. Starmer and Long-Bailey both make constitutional reform commitments, which cannot be operated as Labour lost the election. So let us revisit what was said behind the dull heading ‘Constitutional Issues’. The manifesto had a key statement, to wit: “For many people, politics doesn’t work. The Westminster bubble is a world away from their daily lives,” and a limited but important commitment that “the renewal of our parliament will be subject to recommendations made by a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens assembly”.
This commitment seems close to what the Tories promised in their manifesto. The ill-named ‘Protect Our Democracy’ section (p47-48) stated: “In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission that will… come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy works”. But the agenda behind what appears to be an open discussion of the constitution is massively different to Labour’s tentative proposal and is hinged on removing democratic rights – making the power of the executive overwhelming.
The Johnson administration is after all the one which prorogued parliament and resented being told by the judiciary this was unconstitutional. At the opening of this manifesto section it states: “The failure of parliament to deliver Brexit – the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum – has opened up a… rift between politicians and people… It is only by getting Brexit done that we can start the necessary task of restoring public trust in government and politics.”
No short review can summarise the anti-democratic thrust of the Tory approach, which is anti-parliamentarian and anti the freedom of the judiciary – the latter being given lip service at the start but so clearly not the case in practice. The lawyers, virtually alone in the political class, have protested.
More than protests are needed. The constitution is indeed broken as both major parties have realised, confusing ordinary people as the 2016 referendum showed. The Tories intend to resolve the confusion by changes which will institutionalise elected dictatorship. There will be no written constitution, which is a bridge too far, meaning ad hoc changes which Labour cannot stop. Johnson has an obedient 80-strong majority pledged to implement the Tory commission.
Yet there is a weakness in Johnson’s position. No party has the right to determine constitutional changes alone, as Labour’s gesture to a Citizens Convention led by a Citizens Assembly recognised. The way forward is to use something which is already established – the mechanism of a Royal Commission.
Given that the Tories will act this year, the only existing way to put a spoke in the Trump Tory wheel is to produce a Royal Commission. Parliament will make the final decision on what the terms of reference should be. But prior to that a process of discussion defining the issues should be a national priority. The main reason is to stop a right wing Tory clique deciding what constitutional changes shall happen. But this rests on a fundamental principle: that no one party has the right to decide the rules.
The two manifestoes pointed up the constitutional problem. The Tory proposal would undermine our rights, not enhance them. It is urgently necessary to produce a wider debate than Number 10 is currently planning – and given that Labour cannot implement its manifesto commitment, a wider campaign will be needed. The Tory challenge has to be met head on.