Keir Starmer has vowed to undertake a root-and-branch reform of the UK constitution, moving political power out of London, banning second jobs for MPs and abolishing the House of Lords.
The plans are a victory for the former prime minister Gordon Brown, who has pushed for Labour to set out a bold strategy that would hand new powers to local and regional government, including over transport and infrastructure, development funding, housing, training and jobcentres.
Starmer said political reforms such as the abolition of the Lords were fundamental to the redrawing of the British economy. “The driving force of the report is this sense that politics is broken and the economy is broken and we need to fix both parts,” he said.
At the centre of the proposals, set out in a 155-page document, is an overarching commitment to decentralisation, including a new constitutional commitment for Westminster to respect the autonomy of local and regional government.
The report, put together by a commission headed by Brown, lists 40 recommendations, including new proposals to clean up Westminster, replacing the Lords with a small elected second chamber of nations and regions, and a ban on most second jobs for MPs.
Launching the plan in Leeds alongside Brown and Tracy Brabin, the Labour mayor of West Yorkshire, Starmer said too many places were being “held back by a system that hoards power in Westminster”.
“I don’t see it as handing power away. I see it as putting power where it should be,” the Labour leader said.
Despite the breadth of the report, Starmer has faced a backlash from supporters of proportional representation for rejecting that as part of the democratic reforms, as well as accusations of hypocrisy over his stance on a second referendum for Scottish independence.
The progressive thinktank Compass, a key driver behind a campaign by Labour members for electoral reform, said the report lacked the depth and breadth needed to tackle the UK’s “democratic disillusionment”, and failed to involve citizens in designing “a new democracy from the start”.
Starmer dismissed Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that the next general election will be fought in Scotland as a “de facto referendum” on independence, saying issues at a national poll cannot “be reduced by somebody else into a completely different constitutional question”.
But he said Labour would have a mandate to implement its constitutional reforms, including abolishing the Lords, if it won the general election.
Sturgeon’s spokesperson said Starmer’s claims were “bizarre” and “hypocritical”, adding: “They will claim a mandate for their constitutional proposals regardless of whether or not voters in Scotland endorse them, and yet they will simultaneously stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories in blocking the cast-iron democratic mandate which exists for an independence referendum.”
Starmer said that while he had not backed Brexit and did not support Scottish independence, he could sympathise with the underlying idea of people wanting “more control over their lives, more control over their country”, and feeling dissatisfied with remote Westminster politics.
He dismissed questions about whether it was self-indulgent or out of touch to discuss broader constitutional and devolution issues rather than focusing on immediate crises such as the cost of living, saying UK politics had been cursed for too long by short-term thinking.
“Whenever any politician sets out on the answer to the underlying issue, the medium and long term, every journalist says: ‘But I want an answer to what’s going to happen the next few weeks,’ and we go on and on.”
Such an approach would be going on “with a sticking plaster approach forever”, Starmer said. “We’ve been doing it for 12 years. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t got anywhere.”
Other recommendations in Brown’s commission on the UK’s future include “place-based, innovation-led R&D [research and development] programmes” to create new clusters of economic activity, and transferring 50,000 civil service jobs out of London.
Local government would be given more power to generate its own revenue, while the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be granted more say.
On political reform, as well as replacing the Lords with an elected “assembly of the nations and regions”, there would be a crackdown on MPs’ outside earnings, and laws “to eliminate foreign and corrupt money from UK politics”, enforced by a new anti-corruption commissioner.
Sources within Labour said Brown had categorically won arguments within the party, up to the 11th hour, which meant the reforms were on the boldest end of the spectrum of what was proposed. Even the night before the launch, Labour was cautious about promising full-scale Lords abolition, but in public on Monday Starmer was unequivocal.
He said the aim was to have as much possible ready before an election. These were, he said, “recommendations capable of being implemented within the first five years of a Labour government”.
In his introduction, Brown said half of the UK population lived in areas that were poorer than parts of eastern Europe, while polling showed there was a lack of trust in politicians to change anything.
“The United Kingdom that built the modern world was not a trickle-down nation, it was a country where innovation and growth rose up from ports, factories and warehouses across every part of the land,” the former prime minister wrote.
“To succeed in the modern world and to realise the United Kingdom’s vast potential, we must once again harness the talents, skills and resource of every nation, region, town and city in the land.”
Speaking at the launch event, Brown said the report was calling for “the biggest transfer of power out of Westminster and Whitehall to the localities and the biggest transfer of power that our country has seen”.
The overall aim was “ditching a century of centralisation”, and “ending the long era of the man in Whitehall somehow knowing best”, he added.