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What lies in store for the UK constitution under a Prime Minister Starmer?

The constant, but simmering issue of constitutional reform has taken a key role in Keir Starmer’s mission to be the next UK Prime Minister.

Sir Keir Starmer MP has previously been criticised for failing to initiate palpable Labour policies. Despite the promising number of policies that won him the Labour leadership in 2020, commentators dispute the extent to which he is tabling these plans as an alternative model to the current Conservative government. However, he does appear to have made further strides with pledges regarding the UK’s constitution. Starmer outlined his plan in a ‘Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future’, spearheaded by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in December last year.

Last week, Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Lisa Nandy MP pledged to unleash “the power of all people in all parts of Britain” by pushing power out of Westminster if the party gets into power.

Nandy’s speech echoes Starmer’s own commitment that his government would offer “the biggest ever transfer of political power out of Westminster and into the towns, cities, and nations of the UK”. The potential reforms span three areas: decentralisation, greater public scrutiny and rebalancing of the economy. In broad terms – Labour’s take on levelling-up.

Labour's constitutional direction of travel

One of the most radical suggestions in Brown’s report is that Britain will have constitutionally protected social rights, such as the right to healthcare. This could translate into a guaranteed minimum standard of public services. Enshrined in the Human Rights Act (1998) are rights to life and peaceful enjoyment of property, however additional rights to free education, adequate housing, and free healthcare would mark a notable change in the fabric of the UK quality of life and would likely prove politically contentious, not least because it would expose such policies to judicial review.

The flagship policy: Lords reform

The report’s most anticipated reform concerned the proposal to create an elected ‘Assembly of Nations and Regions’ to replace the House of Lords. 

This proposal has divided Westminster. Lord Blunkett, Labour peer and former minister under Tony Blair, has warned of the dangers of a US-style ‘gridlock’ if the Lords were to be as democratically legitimate as the House of Commons. Starmer’s proposed Assembly may exacerbate the constitutional conundrum should elections to it be conducted in a ‘more democratic’ way than the current legislature, for example via proportional representation. 

Henry Zeffman of The Times laments that the Assembly would “look like boom time for bureaucracy”. The efficiency of our legislative process is a direct result of the centralised power of the executive. Yet, binaries grip political discourse – we either stick with the status quo or transform into an American system of impasse, rendering successive prime ministers lame ducks. The legislative process can be more nuanced than this. After all, the UK is the most centralised country in Europe. Starmer could transform the House of Lords into an elected ‘Assembly’, whilst maintaining the primacy of the House of Commons, by legislating to ensure that the second chamber exists for revising and scrutinising purposes only. This should come with a guarantee that the Commons retains primacy regarding budgets and taxation. 

The abolition of the House of Lords is certainly a headline-grabbing policy. The Labour Party has pushed Lords reform since the mid-1990s, but with diluted success at each turn. Britain’s ancient constitution is creaking under its own weight. The conduct of some members of the Lords is being questioned by the public – exemplified by the Baroness Mone ‘Medpro’ scandal and questionable political appointments to the body. 

This breakdown of trust has taken a toll. In September 2020, support for the House of Lords hit 12% – a record low. 71% supported overhauling the chamber. In August 2022, 64% said they had little to no confidence in the Lords, with just 2% having a lot of confidence. Such scandals only increase the public appetite for rearrangements in Westminster, and it is certainly patronising to suggest that voters don’t care for constitutional reform because of the cost of living crisis, or other current political issues. 

I would encourage Starmer to focus on immediate policies that will undoubtedly matter to the public, whilst using the overwhelmingly popular Lords reform initiative to shore up support. Whilst very few voters would cast their ballot on the basis of constitutional reforms, it is an issue that transcends political parties. Furthermore, whilst increased autonomy for local communities would be a direct result of an elected Assembly of Nations and Regions, it is difficult to convey this within headlines. Though Starmer did navigate around this by shamelessly poaching the ‘take back control’ slogan from the Brexit campaign to describe his plan to sweep power from London to the towns – a battleground his party will be heavily leaning on to win in 2024.

A place in the constitution?

Whilst the public may think that we could do without 800 Peers, the House of Lords does have a vital function. It removes itself from the sometimes visceral and polarising debates that take place in the Commons. Generally, the Lords has greater scope to build consensus on specialist topics, such as energy support schemes, combustible materials bans and smart motorways, all debated by peers in 2022. Additionally, the Lords shoulders a significant legislative burden, allowing the Commons to do its job more effectively. Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, Speaker of the Commons, recently defended the Lords on the grounds that “when you have speedy legislation, you need someone to really look at it”.

In the words of the Lord Speaker, Lord McFall of Alcluith, “the Lords should be smaller, more inclusive, and more representative of all parts of the United Kingdom”. A 200-strong House of Lords, in which half of its members are elected may offer an alternative. Every party, including the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems, etc., would have representation in order to avoid partisanship. The other half of the house would consist of experts and activists, selected by the Appointments Commission and approved by a supermajority in the Commons. Perhaps this would result in a chamber in which all peers take their responsibilities seriously, as being a member of the legislature is, after all, a public duty, not a reward.

Whilst Labour’s proposed House of Lords reform is the most talked-about aspect of the report, perhaps the conversation should be more focussed on devolution in general. This is, after all, the centre-piece of Starmer’s plan for Britain if he is elected Prime Minister. 

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