Reform or RuinCould Labour Win the Next Election but Lose the Future?
AV Deggar considers the structural changes needed from Labour, if it knocks the Conservatives out of power at the next election
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On current polling, the Conservative Party will be ousted from government the next time the country is called to the ballot box, in a landslide victory for Labour.
The Conservative leadership contest and coronation of Liz Truss has shown that the only change coming to the UK will be an acceleration of ‘the lessening’ – the radical reduction of everything from political accountability to the power of the pound in your pocket.
If the next general election happens as planned in 2024, there will have been 14 consecutive years of Conservative rule – an entire generation. A generation book-ended by the misery of austerity in the David Cameron years and the rampant corruption and shredding of constitution and convention under Boris Johnson and the Vote Leave cabal.
Only 5% of voters said that politicians were motivated by the good of the country in the wake of the Owen Paterson affair, during which the Government attempted to defend the former MP’s lobbying on behalf of paying companies, according to research by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank. Two-thirds of those polled believed that MPs were ‘merely out for themselves’. The report was released just days before the ‘Partygate’ saga broke, a defining event that would further rupture the voting public’s trust in elected officials.
Cynicism in politics is at an all-time high. There is a clear space opening up for a Great Reform agenda – a slate of legislative and judicial actions that could close the gaps exploited by an increasingly authoritarian Conservative Party.
But what could such an agenda look like?
The lack of a written, codified constitution, that makes explicit the powers and limitations of the different branches of the UK’s political system, has been both bemoaned and defended across the political spectrum.
The unlawful prorogation of Parliament in 2019 brought into focus the kind of exploitation that becomes possible when legislation resides in common law, convention and interpretation.
Standards in public life have been brought low by multiple breaches of the Ministerial Code in recent years. Lying from the despatch box is tolerated, but calling out those lies in the House of Commons chamber is grounds for ejection. Extant systems for self-policing and tonal censorship are antiquated and unfit for purpose.
Moves for constitutional change can be brought about through analysis and recommendation by commissions of experts, via direct public involvement though citizens’ assemblies, or a mixture of the two.
More formalised rules on conduct in public life can and should be instated, underpinned with a statutory framework to provide checks and balances.
Staunching Executive Overreach
Much has been made of the use of ‘Henry VIII powers’ to amend or repeal acts of Parliament “by order” – without having to create a new act that must be debated and voted on in Parliament. This so-called ‘delegated’ or ‘secondary’ legislation was customarily reserved for administrative and technical tinkering around the edges of primary legislation.
Of late, delegated legislation has been disguised so as not to appear as legislation at all, taking the uncontroversial guise of ‘protocols’ or ‘guidance’.
In an even more disturbing turn, ‘tertiary legislation’ has been introduced, which outsources the law-making process to extra-parliamentary third-party agencies, unfettered by the proper mechanisms of government.
While the House of Lords proved to be an impediment to the executive excess of Johnson’s Conservative Party, the power of patronage has always held the potential for unscrupulous actors to weaponise the unelected Upper House.
The self-styled eminence grise of the Vote Leave Government, Dominic Cummings, asserted in 2014 that, if he was in 10 Downing Street, he would “bring in people from wherever, make them ministers, whack them in the House of Lords”.
In a more recent episode, a paper named ‘Operation Homer’ – authored by Boris Johnson’s political advisor Lynton Crosby – proposed the ennoblement of 50 new Conservative peers. Some these new Lords and Ladies would be mainlined into Government posts – all of them would be forced to sign a binding contract obliging them to vote with the party line in every instance.
Leaked reports of a recent review by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed his recommendation of replacing the House of Lords with an elected house of the nations and regions. This idea has been vocally supported by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.
While reshaping or disintegrating the Lords would be controversial for a body whose origins stretch back to the 13th Century, any restructuring would have to go hand-in-hand with even more polemic changes – the reorganisation of local and regional government, and electoral reform.
Redcliffe-Maud 2.0 and Proportional Representation
In 1969, the Royal Commission on Local Government in England published a report, overseen by Lord John Redcliffe-Maud, which recommended the dissolution of all local government bodies, replacing them with 58 unitary authorities and three metropolitan areas, organised into eight country-wide provinces.
This radical restructuring was rejected in 1970 by the incoming Ted Heath Government, representing the last time local government was on the cusp of root-and-branch reform.
The need for a ‘Redcliffe-Maud 2.0’ – taking into account 50 years of demographic change – is a vital part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda to which the Johnson regime applied plenty of lip service but little elbow grease.
Burnham has warned that, without structural democratic reform, levelling up will be “a fad that burns brightly but disappears quickly”.
An overhauled Upper House and local government would necessitate an equally modern method of electoral representation, for all tiers of government.
Disproportionality under the UK’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is stark. According to an analysis by the House of Commons Library, in the 2019 UK General Election, “the Conservatives got one seat for every 38,264 votes, while Labour got one seat for every 50,837 votes. It took many more votes to elect a Liberal Democrat (336,038) and Green MP (866,435), but far fewer to elect an SNP MP (25,883)”.
The Conservative share of the UK vote was 44%, but the party’s share of seats was 56%. In Scotland, the SNP’s 45% vote share was enough to win 81% of Scottish seats.
This balance will be further tipped in favour of the Conservative Party after the changes proposed by the Boundary Commission for 2023, where equalised constituency populations will give the Tories between five to 10 more seats under FPTP, simply because of where the votes fall.
Although devolution saw the introduction of proportional representation in Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont elections, the UK Alternative Vote (AV) referendum in 2011 saw the proposal to introduce a new Westminster voting system rejected by more than two-thirds of voters.
Should a future Labour government wish to change the electoral system as part of a manifesto pledge, it would not have to go to the country for permission. The Johnson Government’s Elections Act, which received Royal Assent in April, regressively changed mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections from a supplementary vote system to FPTP, without any consultation with the public.
As suggested by politics professor Tim Bale, the Mixed Member Proportional system that New Zealand switched to from FPTP in 1996, would be a good candidate for future UK elections as it “retains the constituency link, it’s easy to explain, you get a result on the night, and it’s fair”.
For all of the progressive benefits that wide-scale democratic reform could bring to the UK, they could all be undone by the same forces in the right-wing media that radicalised an ambivalent nation against the EU.
The original Leveson Inquiry into the “culture, practices and ethics of the press” was conceived to assess the British media landscape in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. It published its findings in November 2012, but its recommendations were not implemented by the Coalition Government and the second part of the inquiry was postponed, and then cancelled outright, in 2018.
‘Leveson 2’ would have examined the relationship between the police and the press.
Without the accountability that Leveson 2 could bring to a political and media class that has largely merged in recent years, the fabric of democracy will continue to be threatened.
The same coalition that created the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson could easily do the same for a far-right party under a PR electoral system. There will be no panaceas when a handful of parlous press barons can dictate political discourse.
Like New Labour taking the reins after 18 years of Conservative rule in 1997, the current opposition is being handed the poisoned chalice of a fractured and fractious nation.
But for too long, Labour has been suffering from a kind of political exotropia. With one eye fixed on the polls and the other locked on the merest twitch from the right-wing media, the party is missing the big picture.
If the Labour Party wins the next election but does not deliver a raft of reforms in the space of a single political term, there may not be another chance to do so in the imminent future.
This is why the next two elections are all-important. It is entirely possible to win power but lose the future.