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The Brown Commission

In the summer I wrote a series of short articles titled "How to save Westminster" detailing my thoughts as to the best reforms which could prevent the breakup of the union. This would mostly make up a potential "Seventh Reform Act" which should preferably be passed in the first-term of a Labour government. Yesterday, the Brown Commission finally published it's report into constitutional reform including forty recommendations, so I will compare my thoughts with the conclusions of the commission.


The Second Chamber (Recommendations 37, 38, and 39)

Let's begin with the headline recommendation. The abolition of the House of Lords - finally bringing centuries of tyranny from unelected peers to an end. What should have occurred over one hundred years ago after the Parliament Act 1911, Labour will finally abolish the unelected house. The newly proposed Assembly of Nations and Regions (ANR) would be a purely revising chamber, and the superiority of the Commons would remain. One responsibility the ANR could have is maintaining standards in public life and the constitution, a crucial role which is incredibly positive to take out of the hands of the executive. It has been hard for the Lords to do this due to it's illegitimate and unelected nature, so should be much improved with the ANR. The Commission has been very careful not to propose any electoral system for the ANR, but it would have a separate electoral cycle to the Commons and have a membership of roughly 200. This is an excellent set of recommendations which can bring Britain into, if not the 21st century, certainly the 20th century. 

Political Funding (Recommendations 34, 35, and 36)

Plenty of excellent recommendations are included in this section which can achieve some amazing things. These include preventing foreign money from continuing to influence politics, banning MP second jobs, a new Ethics commission, juries of citizens regarding standards in public life breaches, an anti-corruption commissioner, and more. There is however one missing piece of the puzzle, which is the continuing influence of rich donors within the UK in political parties as a whole. While this is still at a level far below America's, it is building and needs to be tackled at the source. A state funding system for political parties needs to be considered. While not a huge loss that this has not been included, I hope a debate regarding state funding can occur in the near future.

Improving Public Life (Recommendations 2 and 15)

There is a desperate need to give local people direct power over their local communities. Making a legal requirement to take decisions locally is a fantastic step forward. The idea of citizen's assemblies are quickly capturing the minds of policymakers. I hope that this can be expanded into a promotion of the community including third-sector organisations as ways for local people to direct influence their own lives. Overall this could be a great step towards that.

English / Asymmetric Devolution (Recommendations 6, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 30)

The recommendations rely on the current structure of local government. Using the current systems as a base it does do a reasonable job of devolving certain powers to councils, particularly through the "Special Local Legislation". The idea of regional or English wide assemblies similar to the one in Wales first created in 1999 was not proposed, as it was considered out of the scope of the report. I hope Labour do not dismiss the consideration of how to bring far more uniform structures of devolution to England in the first term of it's inevitable upcoming government. I believe asymmetric devolution is even in a Union of Nations a system doomed to fail in the long-term, someone is always resentful in the end, whether that be Scottish and Welsh nationalists, or English ones. This must be a structure separate from Westminster, an English Grand Committee similar to English Votes for English Laws is not a solution to the West Lothian question that can last. Because so long as Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland are meant to see Westminster as a parliament for them alongside Holyrood or Cardiff Bay, England will not have that same representation, which is unjust.

A Union of Nations (Recommendations 1, 16, and 22)

It is very positive to protect devolution through constitutional entrenchment, but the recommendations are lacking in the "willing" part of a union of nations. While Gordon Brown has certainly considered the full implications for the decision on Scotland, I wonder how much input on this was given by Carwyn Jones. He was the most experienced on the panel regarding Welsh issues, yet there is a lack of focus on Wales, much but not all being copy-pasted from Scotland, especially considering the victory for the Labour MPs over Senedd Members with refusing to commit to full devolution of justice to Cymru. I feel it is imperative that independence supporters cannot make themselves out to be victims of an oppressive UK, that is in fact the basis of why devolution has been so successful in Wales. It has allowed everyone to have full input into the policies made on a Welsh level for the first time ever. This is a very contentious issue, but how can a union of nations be fair if those nations have no mechanism to end that union without permission of the Prime Minister?

Economic Devolution (Recommendations 3, 6, 12, 13, and 20)

While the general idea of raising local taxation powers to end the unique economic centralisation that exists in England as a solution to the levelling-up agenda alongside devolution of powers does appear in the report, there is a lack of specification as to what that means. Additionally, there is only one mention of the Barnett formula, and it wasn't stating that the Barnett formula will be abolished. While this may or may not have been within the scope of this report, the fundamental potential of a needs based formula with input from devolved nations is something Labour must consider.

Parliamentary Language & Oaths

This may be a result of the long parliamentary experience of those partaking in the commission, but I feel there was a serious opportunity to overhaul accessibility to Parliament. By repealing parliamentary conventions and bringing it inline with the devolved parliaments, we could modernise the People's Parliament (that is the new Commons and ANR), to assist in getting more normal people interested in becoming representatives. Similarly the lack of an oath to constituents or even to the citizens of the UK or devolved nation is a backwater relic of a bygone era.

Separation of the Executive

Sadly there is very little investigation into the potential of further separating the executive from the legislature. Labour did successfully free the judiciary from the binds of the legislature and executive branches. It is very possible to do the same once again. It is my belief that this discussion is inevitable, though it may have to be decades down the line, once a proper debate regarding the monarchy is held. Luckily the new emboldened elected second chamber and ethics commission should improve the accountability the executive can be held to, the constitutional protections will also make this a less necessary reform in the short term.

Electoral Reform

Nothing - Gordon Brown confirmed this was out of scope for the commission. A great disappointment, but I hope that alternative ways to discuss it's place in Labour policy are properly utilised including the National Policy Forum.

 

The Future (Recommendations 1, 2, 4, 5, and 38)

A codified Constitution the Commission is effectively proposing a list of documents to be complied to directly be regarded as "constitutionally protected". This is effectively a huge step towards the creation of a codified and entrenched constitution - an incredible endeavour. An interesting concept that will fly under the media radar, but could be crucial for the future development of a new and modern codified British constitution.

There are many positive proposals in the report which could go a long way towards healing the divide within the UK. Some reforms are still lacking, however many of these were not within the scope of the report, and perhaps it did not help that Brown's background has shaped the views of the commission. The true progressive agenda hasn't been fully realised, but this is a huge step forward for the Labour Party, and I hope there is room for further improvement in future, some of which would be in potential second or third terms of Labour government. The full report does successfully bring the UK into the current era, but it does not look past that. It does not include much innovation as to the potential future of the country. There are radical elements that must be embraced, and it is a foundation to build upon. I welcome this vision of a new Britain, but does it really fully create a modern Britain?

06/12/2022

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