Labour has a radical new plan, but will Keir Starmer dare stick to it?

Leader wants to ‘return power to where it should be’ but some in his own team are reluctant to expend the political capital

At the launch of Labour’s sweeping plans for constitutional change, Keir Starmer was asked a question that has been troubling some of his own shadow cabinet for months: “After 12 years out of power, is handing it away really going to be the first thing you do?”

The Labour leader, despite some briefing over the weekend that sought to play down parts of the 155-page report, was categorical that if he does end up in office after the next election, there will be no time for delay.

“Yes,” he replied. “But I don’t see it as giving power away. I see it as returning power to where it should be.”

Evidence suggests that the closer the public are to power, the more they trust it. If Starmer is, as he claims, concerned about restoring faith in Britain’s broken politics, then boosting the nations and regions of the UK is one way of doing that. More people trust their local council, after all, more than they do the Westminster government.

Yet, after a decade of austerity in which local councils have been on the frontline of service cuts, there is deep scepticism about central government’s motives for decentralising power. If they come without the means of paying for them, then, people ask, what’s the point?

Labour’s report, titled A New Britain, suggests giving communities new powers over skills, transport, energy, housing and planning to drive growth. We have, frankly, heard that before. But Labour is also suggesting local authorities will get new fiscal powers to raise revenue, which could be a gamechanger.

The most eye-catching of the 40 proposals, put together by a commission headed by Gordon Brown, is to abolish the House of Lords, replacing it with an elected chamber. Previous attempts at reform, from New Labour to the coalition government, have tied up the legislative agenda and eventually been diluted or dropped.

But Brown has spent the last few months telling Labour MPs they have to be bold if they win power, reminding them that as Labour chancellor in 1997 he granted the Bank of England independence after just four days.

Starmer has indicated reform will happen in the first term, even though some of his own team are reluctant to expend the political capital on an issue that is not at the top of the political agenda – or, when you consider the economy, immigration, the NHS and other more pressing concerns, probably even in the top 10.

Yet there are advantages to Labour pursuing even a degree of Lords reform: it looks radical, without costing the country’s strained finances anything; and it looks like Starmer is cleaning up a system that has been abused by the Tories, with Boris Johnson’s resignation honours still be to be published, and which few are willing to defend.

Then there is Scotland. Brown lists a number of ideas to bolster a future Labour government’s devolution offer – which the party hopes could persuade enough Scottish voters that Britain could work for them, and that another future is available, beyond the bitter and binary debate around independence versus the status quo.

There would be – crucially – a consultation on increased borrowing powers for Holyrood. The SNP has long argued that its capacity to fully use the levers of power is hampered by fiscal constraints. Scotland could also get more powers to sign up to international arrangements such as the Erasmus scheme, a reflection of the fact it voted to stay within the EU.

Winning back seats in Scotland is the most direct route to a Labour majority – a huge task despite some of the assumptions doing the rounds at Westminster. This section of the report, and how it is received north of the border, could be key to Starmer’s hopes of making it to Downing Street.

He will now go away and review the report, working out which bits will be in the manifesto and which will be dropped as too complicated or controversial for a new Labour government that would inevitably have so many other pressing issues in its in-tray.

But at the Leeds launch, Starmer dismissed questions about whether it was out of touch to discuss broader constitutional and devolution issues rather than focusing on immediate crises, saying politics had been cursed for too long by a “sticking plaster” approach.

“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,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for 12 years. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t got anywhere.”


Pippa Crerar Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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