According to clause IV of its constitution, the Labour party “believes that by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone.” That principle has urgent contemporary relevance for the left. Rarely has the United Kingdom seemed as divided. On 23 June, two of the UK’s constituent parts, England and Wales, voted to leave the European Union. Two voted to remain: Northern Ireland and Scotland. These are not mere differences of opinion between our home nations. The divisions raise pressing questions that politicians have to answer.
In 2014, Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. But that was on the basis that the UK was an EU member. Now, Scotland has voted to remain, but the UK as a whole has voted to leave. There is the prospect of a second independence referendum, run on the basis not of a leap into the unknown, but of remaining within the EU. A border poll on a united Ireland may be a distant prospect, but we have to ensure that the 300-mile land border between north and south does not once again become a divisive frontier, as the outer edge of the EU.
These are some of the many practical issues that need to be addressed, yet a practical approach alone is inadequate. The challenge posed by the nationalist parties should not be seen only as anti-establishment. Rather, the politics of identity they represent should be reflected in our own approach. The distinct Welsh Labour brand has served the party well in the principality. The need to celebrate the diversity of the home nations whilst uniting them with progressive policies is the ultimate political challenge of the post-devolution age.
First, we should argue for entrenchment in our constitutional arrangements. Despite a growing complexity in our governance arrangements, we still have an uncodified constitution. We should seek to write one single document, rather than watch the Supreme Court continue to set out constitutional arrangements in piecemeal fashion in individual judgments, as it adjudicates between our Westminster government and the devolved bodies. New Scotland and Wales bills in this parliament will strengthen those devolved institutions, but constitutional reforms must not continue on a reactive basis. We need to be pro-active and create a long-term durability in our constitutional settlement. This could be done on an all-party basis through a constitutional convention, and one way of knitting the nations together could be through reform of the House of Lords. Like the US Senate, which contains representatives from all fifty states, representatives of the devolved nations could sit in the second chamber.
For many years, academics have puzzled over Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian question: how it was right that, with devolution, Scottish MPs could vote on English issues, but English MPs could not vote on Scottish issues. Devolution all round – that is, in England outside London as well as the rest of the UK – should be the answer to the West Lothian question, not the English Votes for English Laws method that the Conservatives have quietly pushed through parliament. If parliament is to remain a United Kingdom legislature, all MPs must have equal voting rights.
Next, we have to consider resource allocation across the UK. The Barnett formula was not meant to be permanent, though there was a promise made in 2014 to maintain it for Scotland. Now, with EU social funding set to be withdrawn once the UK leaves, there is a new context, providing an opportunity for a funding settlement based on need, that includes looking at deprived areas in England as well.
That the UK’s devolved bodies are all unique also provides opportunities, as each can be a laboratory of public policy. Every devolved institution has the capacity to innovate, and thus promote “best practice” across the UK. This should not be seen in any sense as trial and error, but rather the opportunity to improve policy outcomes in different ways whilst learning from the experience of other institutions.
Alongside these distinct approaches should be a coherent set of progressive policies from the UK Labour party. Non-devolved policy areas remain crucial, and the state of the UK economy is central to the monies available to devolved governments. Treasury issuing of long-term government gilts to fund investment on infrastructure – whether on transport or on digital – could not only kick-start our economy but also link the people of the UK together more than ever before.
It is because of our historic sense of the collective that we in the Labour party have so much to contribute to a post-referendum UK. Seizing the moment requires a vision of how the left sees the 2020s: a settled set of constitutional arrangements, a progressive vision across the whole of the UK, and a willingness to develop, and learn from, our devolved politics. We must meet this challenge collectively because we are, quite simply, better together.