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Response to Keir Starmer's speech on devolution

Published: 21 December 2020

Keir Starmer set out Labour's devolution plans ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections in May, promising to decentralise powers from Westminster and set up "a UK-wide Constitutional Commission to consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved". Our Fellows had some comments on the speech: 

CCC Co-Director, Nicola McEwen said

"Having read Starmer's speech, I am none the wiser about Labour's devolution policy other than to set up (another) commission to come up with a policy. I have some questions...How will the Commission operate? What is the balance between Labour Party interests and the public vote? What is scope for citizen-led deliberation? And what happens if/when different parts of the UK want different outcomes? 

Is opposition to an independence referendum because now is not the time, or just because... What if the party with a commitment to a referendum at the heart of their manifesto wins a majority - is it still a no? 

Does the phrase "This won't be an exercise in shifting power from one Parliament to another" suggest an end goal is to bypass or weaken devolved legislatures to devolved power to local communities and councils? 

How would you combine commitment to "pool our resources to share the risks and rewards" with "A new phase of radical economic and political devolution across the United Kingdom." What does that mean for tax/social security devolution, territorial finance, etc? 

And crucially, where is the focus on central institutions? Successive UK governments, including Blair/Brown era, failed to see that effective devolution means changing central government too and building structures of co-decision. 

As Brexit process and the Internal Market Bill have shown, without shared power, devolved institutions are exposed to central government decisions that affect/alter devolved powers, but over which they have no control and little say." 

CCC Deputy Director, Coree Brown Swan explained

"The challenge for Labour (in general, but particularly in Scotland) is to set out a distinctive constitutional position. Labour has been squeezed between unionism and nationalism, and despite its efforts, is widely regarded to be fudging on its constitutional position. 

This is often attributed to Corbyn - one interviewee memorably noted that the only constitution Corbyn cared about was the Irish one. But I think it suggests something deeper within the party - that has to be grasped by the new leadership. 

The Labour Party is the party which delivered devolution in 1999 but has struggled since then to adapt to these new electoral/institutional realities. This is true for both its constitutional position and for its internal organisation. 

Starmer's speech doesn't appear to move beyond this - proposing a constitutional convention, with Gordon Brown taking the lead. This has been a manifesto staple for a while but we haven't seen details on what this might look like. 

The Union is justified with reference to 'pooling', shared history/challenges. But Labour is in a tough position - how do you oppose the actions of the government while talking up the strengths of the Union? 

The overall argument is pretty standard - both the Conservatives (obsessed by Brexit, mishandling Covid) and the SNP (obsessed with independence, mishandling education, drugs deaths) are undermining the Union. And Labour is to save the day. The challenge here is how? Without a UK election on the horizon, what prospect does the constitutional convention have? And change at Holyrood looks unlikely, given recent polling. 

And again, the party appears to have fallen into the typical trap - responding only to the threat of Scottish independence. England, Wales and Northern Ireland feel tacked on. 

In sum, Starmer sets out the party's thinking but I'm not convinced there is anything new here. The same problems (opposition to an independence referendum) and the same solution (constitutional convention, Gordon Brown)." 

Co-Director, Karlo Basta provided comparative insights

"Reading Starmer's call for major constitutional change, I couldn't help by squirm. To explain why, I'll need the aid of a brief anecdote.

In 2018 I had the opportunity to witness a talk in Barcelona by Alan Buchanan who 3 decades prior wrote an influential book on the morality of 'political divorce' as he called secession. This was a year after botched attempts to hold a referendum in Catalonia and the audience was, I will guess, almost entirely comprised of those interested in the region's independence, and certainly in its constitutional future. At one point during the Q&A, Buchanan basically said, sure, you can make the case for independence, but why wouldn't you try to have another go at negotiating with the Spanish central government. I may have been imagining things, but you could almost hear the collective 'but doesn't he know we tried and tried and tried?' from the audience. 

The key element of Catalan secessionist movement's strategy was to prove to their potential constituents - those Catalans who were not yet in favour of independence - that various Catalan governments have tried to negotiate with Spain so long that by 2010 they basically knew this was a pointless exercise (I am not saying they were right/wrong, just that is was an important argument). 

I call this bitty “exhaustion frame” – where someone who wants to convince fence-sitters to adopt a radically new course of action (let’s say for the sake of argument, independence) basically tries to persuade them that they’ve run out of patience. 

Here, Starmer (or whoever wrote the speech) seems oblivious to the possibility that Scots might remember what happened in the past and that this might make it into the way they make sense of the present, and more importantly future (including future promises). So, sure, he can promise constitutional renewal (though seemingly wisely he didn’t mention the f-word this time round) but this is a promise that’s been made once or twice before, and by Labour Party too. Meanwhile, the notion that cotland has been governed by those it hasn’t elected has now filled out nicely with Brexit (the vote, the intent, the parliamentary debacle, and now finally the impending reality of hard Brexit). And let’s not even mention covid.

I see two conclusions here. First whatever Starmer says may not carry much heft in Scotland as a result. Second, even if it does, he and the Labour party (and the UK political elite in general) are on dangerous ground. If they actually manage to get hopes of major constitutional reform up in Scotland (a big if, but let’s say they get closer to power a few years down the line) and if then they don’t come through with it (let’s say because of some kind of backlash in England – on which more another day) they will only make the independence argument stronger. Using constitutional politics for electoral advantage can work from time to time. But sometimes it blows up right in your face. Just ask Spaniards. Or Canadians."

Richard Wyn Jones provides a Welsh perspective

"The first point to make is that the Welsh Government is the only part of the Labour party to give really serious thought to the future of the UK. Labour’s 2019 manifesto represented a major setback for the Welsh Government’s constitutional agenda compared to the 2017 version as the previous pledge to devolve justice was dropped in the face of resolute support for the status quo among most Welsh Labour MPs. But, at least there was a specific commitment in the 2019 manifesto to ensuring that Labour’s much vaunted Constitutional Convention would consider the Welsh Government’s ideas. A year later, though, and even that’s disappeared!

Why? One suspects that part of this is about personality/ego. When Labour launched a very similar initiative to today's in Cardiff back in 2017, it was clear that Gordon Brown was intent on having his own way. He was once and will be again the Great Redeemer. But I also wonder if substance is also an issue?

The Welsh Govt is clear that the Union is voluntary with secession a possibility. Yet is it increasingly clear that Scottish Unionists are seeking ways of making secession practically impossible. What's the betting that a Starmer/Brown convention would seek to insist that a simple majority for Scottish independence would not be enough in any second referendum? Westminster sovereignty trumps voluntary association and hello super-majorities!

Then there’s the issue of finance. We know that an overwhelming majority in England think that relative levels of public spending in Scotland are unfairly high. The Welsh Government wants to see Barnett being replaced by a needs based formula, which would hit Scotland hard. Strikingly, Starmer had nothing to say about this today. Yet perhaps no surprise given that past experience suggests that Brown will be very, very reluctant to allow any heretical thoughts to emerge on this issue from any putative Convention.

Lots more to say but two points to conclude. First, given that this was his major speech on devolution and the future of the Union, it’s remarkable how easy Starmer seems to have found it to ignore not only the ideas but even the very existence of the Welsh Government!

Two, while Brown gets to influence Starmer, ultimately it’s the people of England who'll decide the shape of the UK. To succeed, any Labour proposals must go with the grain of English opinion a subject on which Ailsa Henderson and I will have much more to say in early 2021." 

James Mitchell said

"Responses to Starmer speech reminiscent of reactions to Labour support for Scottish Constitutional Convention: premature demands for answers; dismissed as ‘doomed to failure’ etc. Like Convention, once established (now looks inevitable) it will likely generate it’s own momentum.

Time is the main challenge. Need for a proper consultative process while taking account of May’s Scottish elections. Refusing to tie too much down now criticised by partisans but welcomed by those keen to see comprehensive institutional reform.

New phase of ‘radical economic and political devolution’ that incorporates local level and not exclusive focus on devolved level is very welcome. Scottish debate has become far too narrow. Clear focus on social justice. Interesting to see what emerges here.

Whatever emerges - both in process and outcomes - this is a welcome and much needed contribution, challenging for sure but with potential to lead to much needed new constitutional architecture and avoid sterile binary shouting match." 

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