Lords abolition plan cannot marginalise the fundamental democratic change that is electoral reform, says Don Flynn
The idea that elections are contested, won and lost on the centre ground is one of the foundational myths of Blairite Labourism. It seems impossible to sustain since the late 1970s to 2019, when the evidence shows the electorate willing to go with off-centre parties at pivotal moments in the evolution of British capitalism.
The current Labour leadership has had determined tutoring about its options at the hands of remaining believers in the old faith (aka Peter Mandelson) and swallowed it hook, line and sinker. The unenthusiastic response from this wing of the party might well seal the fate of Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future, which stunned a few commentators by the apparent radicalism of its proposals when released in December. Wasting political capital on the pursuit of constitution reform is the standard formula for pushing this into the long grass, but maybe not so much if it has deflected discussion of change to the voting system demanded by supporters of proportional representation. So, what has been going on here?
Challenges to Westminster
Brown’s report is best understood as an attempt by one of the main victims of the electorate’s willingness to break with Westminster conformity to get a grip on what has been going on. His commission sees this rejection of the establishment as being manifested in two key areas: the first being Scotland’s apparent willingness to contemplate a future outside the unequal union with England; and the second, the disaffection of working-class voters with ‘Whitehall’ and ‘Westminster’.
Three proposals emerge from the report to get the UK project back on an even keel. The first is decentralisation to reduce inequality across the regions. Brown calls for measures mirroring proposals outlined in the Government’s white paper published in February 2022, Levelling Up the United Kingdom. More powers by metro mayors to intervene in skills training, grants from central government in line with local authorities, and organising progress towards net zero carbon emissions are now the consensus across the political establishment. Labour’s hope is that, whatever the similarity in the political messaging, it will have more credibility than Conservative governments whose policies have increased inequalities over the past 13 years.
The second set of proposals concern the extension of powers to the Scottish and Welsh governments so they have more influence over international agreements that impact on devolved powers. The reform of the second parliamentary chamber (abolition and reform of the House of Lords) has caught the news media headlines. Its replacement would be charged with protecting the interests of nations and English regions, with the power to block legislation to restrain the predations of Government based on a Commons majority. Brown favours the selection of this chamber by popular election, the reason for the excitement in the headlines.
Third, Brown wants to see a change in the ethics of government, a reformed civil service with powers of department heads more clearly defined, and an emphasis on its role in focusing on long-term issues which are currently crushed under the weight of policy agendas determined by winning the next general election.
The current concern about the standing of the UK system as a democracy, making government accountable to the will of the people, is largely absent from democracy activists on the centre-left of the spectrum. The level of criticism directed against the first-past-the-post (FPTP) ballot system has largely been with the way MPs are elected. Those who want reform are less concerned with moving the furniture around in devolved and regional government or the way the civil service operates if the place where real political power resides remains unchanged.
It is the majorities achieved for parties in general elections which determine the structure of government across the UK, and the Brown Commission has nothing to say on how these work to close down nuanced debate about policy options and replace it with the simplistic binaries revolving around one party in power and the other in opposition. FPTP allows parties to ‘win’ when they have in fact lost crucial arguments, with their opponents gaining well over half the popular vote at all modern elections. Losing the argument doesn’t matter. Once the FPTP winner has the prestige and resources that comes with being the occupant of No 10 Downing Street, it is gifted all the power it needs to structure political agendas which all the other parts of government – the developed nations and regions, the civil service and even the courts – have to abide by, even if they grumble and obstruct as best they can.
Brown and Starmer leave consideration of PR, although enthusiastically supported by the Labour Party and affiliated unions, because it upsets the outcome which has to be retained as the hallmark of UK Government, which has been able to ensure that the ‘right’ sort of people get into positions of power, and issues they feel need to have priority are not upset by factions which have commitments to more radical forms of balancing power and redistributing wealth.
The commission has already done useful work for those who want to place strict limits on the sort of reforms that might be permissible by agreeing to separate off consideration of PR and, instead, generating a degree of fuss about an elected second chamber. With a reform so limited – little more than a check on the encroachment of central government on devolved and regional powers – we can be confident that, even it makes the party’s manifesto, it will not be acted on by any Labour administration in the near future which has to carefully marshal its political capital during hard times.
Early critics – Lord Mandelson and Baroness Helene Hayman – arguing against any element of election to the second chamber, with pleas not to “waste time” with constitutional issues, will settle the debate well before a Labour government is formed. Unless campaigns like Labour for a New Democracy can assert themselves, the demand for a Commons elected by PR will be pushed firmly back into the shadows.