Constitutional reform is a policy area that encompasses a wide range of challenges. There are classically thorny issues of our democratic settlement, such as reform of the House of Lords. There are the practicalities of our democracy, such as voter registration – the fact that around eight million eligible voters aren’t even registered to vote – and the modernisation of the way we do elections and the different methods of drawing political boundaries. On top of this is the increasingly critical issue about power and devolution to localities, regions and nations. We want to win in May to hand power away.
It’s a vast policy agenda, encompassing different areas of government. It affects what happens in parliament, but also our attitudes to public service delivery, budgets, Europe and the way we run elections. Labour understands the need to grasp these challenges in office and not merely retreat to using power as we find it.
The Labour movement has not always embraced constitutional change. There has at times been an antipathy towards what was seen as a distraction to social and economic reform. But there has also been a deep tradition of reform. In the 19th century, it was the Chartists who campaigned for democratic demands. It should not be forgotten that the last Labour government also achieved significant reform – introducing the Supreme Court, reforming the House of Lords, legislating for devolution to Scotland, Wales and Greater London, introducing the Freedom of Information and the Human Rights Act.
The next Labour government will adopt a programme of reform, rejecting a conservative approach that is inadequate to the challenges of our time. This is not a mere intellectual pursuit, but central to our plans for government. We understand that our politics, democracy and Westminster model reflects and ultimately informs policies and government.
In the 21st century, we need to move away from a centralised, top-down state, where Whitehall knows best, but instead devolve power to the regions and localities. We know there is a huge intergenerational challenge for our young people, who are struggling to find work or get on the housing ladder. We need to give more of them a vote, to ensure their voice is heard. Labour will introduce votes at 16 and make it easier for young people to register to vote. There is a deeper malaise in our politics, a gaping disconnect between communities and Westminster. We need a second chamber which better reflects the country we seek to serve. That’s why we want to implement a Senate of the Nations and Regions.
Our commitment to constitutional reform is because of our desire to change the country and improve people’s lives, not despite it.
However, a criticism of the last Labour Government’s changes that they were too ad hoc, and never brought together a coherent programme. Partly, this was because we were attempting to catch-up after years of no reform as well as reflecting different opinions in the Party on major issues including electoral reform and regional devolution.
We now have a lopsided devolved settlement, with Scotland rightly gaining more powers after the referendum and similar progress of greater devolution for Wales. This leaves some big questions about England how to devolve power within England. There has been no substantial reform of the House of Lords this parliament, despite most of the major political parties supporting change. There was a referendum on the alternative vote that was defeated, but in an increasingly multi-party era, it may not be long before the issue returns.
That is why it is time to take stock and have a serious and thorough constitutional convention to answer some of these questions. After all, this year is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, when the Barons at Runnymede began the gradual development of checks and balances on the royal prerogative. This historic moment gives us the opportunity to evaluate how far we have come and where the next steps are for reform. Ed Miliband has said this will be a citizen-led process, producing lasting constitutional reform, tackling the issue of devolution and the consequences for parliament, democracy and our politics.
It was Ramsay McDonald, the first leader of the Labour party, who said, ‘we hardly appreciate how delicately adjusted is the whole of our system of government. Remove from it the trust and deference of the people, make it common and unclean, and it begins to crumble to dust like a human body from which the breath of life has gone. And what can we put in its place? Nothing.’
Labour will get to work to rebuild trust in our politics and democracy.