Keir Starmer has been urged to support radical reforms to devolve power in the UK, including a federal parliament, a written constitution and significant new authority for England’s regions under plans initially drawn up for Jeremy Corbyn.
A lengthy report commissioned by Corbyn recommends reorganising the UK as a federal state, overseen by a new “council of the union” and replacing the House of Lords with an elected senate, alongside substantial new financial and policy powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Senior figures within Labour, including Gordon Brown, centrists close to Starmer, and Corbyn allies such as the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell believe that Brexit, the impact of the Covid crisis on English regions and growing anger over underinvestment in the north of England have fuelled a stronger appetite for significant reform and are urging the Labour leader to support the plans.
Some of the report’s recommendations echo proposals being floated by Brown, the former prime minister, who is advising Starmer on setting up a new constitutional commission due to be launched by Labour in early spring.
“There’s a ferment going on at the moment,” McDonnell told the Guardian. “There’s a challenge to the way the British state is constitutionally organised coming from so many fronts.”
Labour feels under pressure to propose ambitious new powers for Scotland to counter demands for a second independence referendum, which are intensifying in the run-up to May’s Holyrood elections.
The 234-page report for Corbyn, overseen by the Labour peer Pauline Bryan, called Remaking the British State, proposes:
A UK-wide constitutional convention bolstered by citizens’ assemblies to investigate options for reform.
A written constitution that would greatly reduce the monarch’s powers.
Replacing the Lords with a federal senate of the nations and English regions, able to veto some legislation and ratify international treaties.
Giving the Scottish parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish executive permanent constitutional independence.
More borrowing and policymaking powers for Holyrood, including over postgraduate immigration, alcohol taxation, drugs policy and social security.
Significant devolution of policymaking and financial powers to English regions and councils, including borrowing.
Starmer was due to launch Labour’s constitutional commission in January but that timetable was disrupted by the sudden resignation of Richard Leonard as Scottish Labour leader. His departure triggered a leadership contest that will finish in late February.
The commission is expected to be launched soon after the new Scottish leader takes over; it is understood Brown wants it to be driven by citizens’ assemblies across the UK, tasked with tabling specific proposals for reform.
In an article for the Guardian, Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour’s constitution spokesperson and favourite to win the party’s leadership contest, agreed with the authors of the paper that new powers to control drugs misuse and Scotland-specific immigration rules should be considered.
Senior Tories, led by Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, are considering an official review of the UK’s governance, driven partly by the surge in support for independence in Scotland and the political crises in northern England exposed by the Covid crisis.
For the Tories, much hinges on whether the Scottish National party (SNP) wins a Holyrood majority in May. There are reports one option includes a royal commission on the UK’s post-Brexit structures and the constitution. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, has already mooted new powers for Holyrood.
In Wales, Mark Drakeford, the first minister, endorsed a pamphlet by Welsh Labour members in mid-January calling for federalism “based on the simple but profoundly radical proposition that the UK is a voluntary association of four nations, where sovereignty is dispersed amongst four democratically elected legislatures”.
The pressure within Labour to respond to the SNP’s surge in popularity has again led to a split over its stance on a second referendum between the two rivals in the Scottish leadership contest.
Monica Lennon, a leftwinger backed by many Corbyn supporters, has called for Labour to accept Nicola Sturgeon will have a mandate to stage a referendum if the SNP wins a majority in May, but argues Labour should campaign for a third option, of maximum devolution, to be included.
In his article for the Guardian, Sarwar rejected that strategy, arguing it was “deeply irresponsible” to consider staging a referendum during a pandemic and an economic crisis.
Sarwar reopened a conflict with McDonnell by revealing he would ask Starmer to guarantee Scottish Labour had control over its policies on the constitution if he became Scottish leader, attacking the former shadow chancellor’s decision in August 2019 to “unilaterally” announce Labour was open to a second independence vote.
McDonnell told the Guardian he believed that was “the right thing to say at the time”. He backed Lennon’s call for a third option if a referendum were held, saying: “We’ve got to stimulate the debate in a way in which people can really engage and feel that they can contribute, and they’re part of the decision-making process.”