There is widespread public dissatisfaction with how we are governed. The Brown Report, ‘A New Britain’ launched by Sir Keir Starmer on 6 December, is a response to this concern. It was commissioned by the Labour Party from a team led by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It promises to be the centrepiece of Labour’s bid to reform Britain
It is a massive and complex piece of work, both in size and significance (155 pages with 40 recommendations). If implemented, it would make permanent change in the way our democracy and economy work. The Commission’s research suggests that such change is necessary and popular.
Its complexity may be a handicap politically. The media reaction has picked out particular bits for attention, such as the replacement of the House of Lords, while missing other important issues, including plans for ‘levelling up’ the UK, for removing corruption from our politics, and formalising our constitution.
A document for discussion
At this stage, it is not Labour Party policy. Rather, it is a set of proposals for discussion. The expectation is that most of it will appear in the Labour manifesto at the next election, and it is designed to be implemented by a Labour government within a single parliament. However, in reality, it will have to compete with a range of other policy issues, both for the manifesto and for government time.
A flawed constitution
The report draws on extensive polling and research, which shows that public confidence in how we are governed, in politicians, and in our ability to influence anything, is lower in the UK than in almost any developed country. It suggests that there is an appetite for change. It argues that the constitution is too dependent on convention and too vulnerable to bad behaviour by the government of the day. In the East of England, the Commission found two thirds of people feeling “invisible to their political leaders”.
Wasted potential and inequality
The report argues that our economy is held back by wasted potential, because our decision-making is too centralised in Westminster and Whitehall. Local people and local government can only develop their economy or tackle their problems if their view matches a London-based solution. As a result, levels of productivity vary hugely. Asked if “my local economy is being held back by decisions made in Westminster”, 43% in the East agreed.
By international standards, levels of inequality between regions are extraordinarily high. Gross domestic product per head varies from £58,000 in London to £24,000 in the North East, with the Eastern region at almost half London levels on £31,000. While some areas and regions are thriving, others have poverty levels below that of the former East Germany or the poorest states of the USA.
National purpose and social rights
One radical proposal is the formalising of a series of citizens’ rights. These would be enshrined in the constitution, and protected by a new assembly of nations and regions, which will replace the House of Lords. They include a right to “health, schooling, prevention of poverty, and housing”. They might also include rights relating to environment and culture.
A second set of principles would bind the new institutions proposed by the report. These include a commitment to devolve power as close as possible to citizens, to cooperation between public bodies, and to promote equal development between all parts of the United Kingdom.
The report makes two major proposals: on devolution and on the constitution.
The first is to devolve large areas of funding, and economic and political decision-making, closer to local, regional and national communities, who are best placed to understand their own needs and potential. The powers retained to Westminster would be more formally defined, and the powers devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be increased, including tax-raising powers.
The recommendations propose a radical model of levelling up. This would include not only new powers for towns, cities and regional clusters, but constitutionally protected minimum social rights, such as access to healthcare dependent on need, not ability to pay. Every area would be required to produce and publish an economic growth plan, and levelling would be a core duty of the UK Infrastructure Bank and the British Business Bank. Local government would have new powers to raise money, and longer-term financial security.
Protecting the constitution and cleaning up politics
The second major proposal is to formalise aspects of the constitution, and give it stronger protection. The plan is for an elected assembly of the nations and regions. This would replace the House of Lords. It would still be a revising chamber for legislation, but it would also have explicit responsibility to protect the constitution. It would ensure that the devolution principles, and the mission to promote economic equality are honoured.
A related set of changes would overhaul the rules for the behaviour of politicians and civil servants. Parliament would set the rules, with a new anti-corruption commissioner to enforce them. There would be a ban on foreign political donations and MPs’ second jobs, a strengthening of freedom of information rules, and an independent integrity and ethics commission. This would remove the power of patronage from the prime minister, and reduce the influence of money in British politics.
There is a vast amount of detail still to be filled in, and the report proposes wide consultation about principles and detail. It suggests that the Labour Party should do the groundwork necessary for implementation quickly after a general election (which Labour expects to win). But it also proposes that some of the critical questions should be subject to wide public consultation, and perhaps citizens’ assemblies. So, there are many unanswered questions. Here are a few:
1. Is this the right tool for change?
The report correctly identifies social and economic failures. It proposes that the root of these failures lies in our dysfunctional constitution, on the centralisation of power far from the people affected, and on our dependence on convention and assumption of good behaviour (which have been severely challenged in recent years).
It proposes that formalisation of some constitutional principles and institutional change can address these issues. It may be that there are other, possible simpler, solutions. Many people who share the concern about social, economic and political failure would see its root in our electoral processes, and believe that electoral reform and proportional representation would be a simpler and more effective way of reforming our politics, even if it left the second chamber unreformed.
2. How to devolve, and to whom?
The report proposes that devolution should bring real power and funding as close as possible to the people affected. It does not propose a standard form of devolution, arguing that decisions on what to devolve, and for what areas, should come from the bottom up. So there would be different arrangements in different places, to reflect local circumstances. New institutions would oversee the process, but this has clear potential for confusion. How will people know who is responsible for what?
The report talks a lot about devolving to towns and cities, but for a region like East Anglia it is worrying that the word ‘rural’ appears only four times. The only significant one simply suggests that rural areas could be included in new partnerships. But twelve million people (21.3%) live in ‘predominantly rural’ local authorities, and they represent a growing proportion of the population.
3. How to elect the second chamber?
The proposal is that, at around 200 members, the assembly of nations and regions should be a quarter of the size of the current House of Lords, and should have strong, balanced representation from the various devolved entities. But how this is achieved is left for further consultation. Will it be directly elected by the people of the devolved entities, or formed from people already elected to national, regional of local roles? How will balance be achieved, especially between the four nations? How will it replace the many people who provide expert scrutiny of legislation in the current House of Lords?
4. How solid is public support?
The Commission’s polling, and polling by others, shows widespread lack of trust in our present arrangements, and public support for radical change. However, it is not clear how far this will be maintained when faced with detailed consultation and more urgent political priorities. Is there really public appetite for this? Are people ready for a transformation of institutions and practices, some of which date back hundreds of years?
5. How easy will it be to implement?
Current polling suggests that the next general election will produce a working majority for Labour. However, there are bound to be disagreements within the party, and there will certainly be opposition from the current House of Lords. This will consume a lot of parliamentary time, and may conflict with other, more urgent priorities.
The changes proposed here aim to address very widespread public unhappiness about how we are governed. It includes a host of detailed proposals, all of which need scrutiny and debate.
If implemented, this would be the most comprehensive constitutional change for at least a century. It would reverse many of the changes which have centralised power over recent decades. It would formalise our constitution. It would, for the first time, enshrine in law a definition of national purpose, and a commitment to levelling up (though it doesn’t use the term). It would transfer much political and economic power to a much more local level. Its new assembly of the nations and regions would have an explicit function to protect the constitution.
This is the beginning of a process of debate and consultation. There is much to discuss. East Anglia Bylines will add our bit as the story evolves.