24 September 2008

New Labour's Missed Constitutional Opportunities

When New Labour electorally crushed the Tories in 1997, one thing was foreseeable another was not. Not predictable was just how rotten from a progressive perspective Blair’s government would turn out to be: reactionary polices ranged from the Iraq War, privatisation and benefit cuts to the promotion of religious schools. Foreseeable to everybody, however, was that at some point – and it now appears to be 2010 – Labour would lose office.

Progressive political discourse in the eighties and nineties had centred on building an anti-Tory alliance for constitutional reform to bury the re-occurrence of another eighteen years of centralised and reactionary Tory rule on the strength of a minority of votes. The two key progressive reform proposals were proportional representation and decentralisation. With the significant exception of Scottish and Welsh devolution – achieved despite Blair’s personal misgivings – little happened.

Following Labour’s 1997 election victory, the new government set up the Jenkins’ Commission to consider PR for Westminster elections. In the absence of support and direction from the government it dragged on and finally recommended a bizarre PR system, reflecting only a muddled compromise of the divergent opinions of the commission members. Its findings were quietly forgotten. On regional autonomy, John Prescott pressed ahead with an emaciated form of devolution for the micro-region of the north-east. In 2004 a majority of 78 percent of the residents of the area voted against the assembly; the plan was sunk by a coalition of centralisers and those who saw the proposed assembly as little more than a talking shop and an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. In truth, by the early 2000s all meaningful constitutional reform was over. New Labour in London inaugurated an era of constitutional conservatism.

What then are the consequences? New Labour’s 2008 meltdown means that in two year’s time there will in all probability be yet again a majority Tory government at Westminster. Surely one small thing that Blair and Brown could have achieved was PR? After all, the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments as well as the Greater London Assembly are elected by proportional representation. True, if Labour had introduced PR after the 1997 or 2001 elections, the whole political map would be different, probably with a Labour-led coalition, instead of a majority government, in office today. But so what? It was not as if Blair planned to do anything socialist or left wing! Nearly all of his agenda had the support of the Tories or Liberal Democrats – or often both.

In 2010 Labour will still be the leading party in one English region, the north, defined as Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the historic counties up to the Scottish border; in the other English regions, though, Labour will probably achieve second place or worse. The north, consisting mainly of cities and former industrial towns, has about a quarter of England’s population and is its poorest region. Yet unlike Scotland and Wales, the north will have no elected institution to fight for it. Despite the north consistently voting Labour, Blair focused New Labour on the concerns of Middle England, geographically centred in the south and Midlands; northern Labour voters were largely taken for granted and were ignored. Cameron, though, after 2110 will have even less cause to worry about the industrial towns and inner-cities of the north. He wins no seats there, and probably never will.

So déjà vu. Welcome back to the eighties: majority Tory government in London and the non-Tory voting north is left naked. However both these outcomes were easily avoidable: PR to stop a majority Tory government; and decentralisation so as not to leave the Labour voting north uninsulated from a non-Labour government in London. Why was constitutional reform abandoned?

No doubt there are several reasons, but not least among them were the preferences of Tony Blair. Behind Blair’s US-style déclassé persona is a deeply conservative and anti-democratic politician. Having killed democracy inside his own party, he had no taste for injecting it into the British constitution. Using Britain’s centralised state he carried out his own brand conservatism (called New Labour), and when that had run its course he was happy to hand the UK back to the Conservative Party.


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