Jeremy Corbyn’s Scotland spokeswoman has distanced herself from calls for a federal constitution, arguing that the priority for post-Brexit constitutional reform under a Labour government should be new powers for local government.
Lesley Laird said federalism was an “unhelpful” label and played down the prospects that a federal UK would be the final destination for a ‘people’s constitutional convention’ under Prime Minister Corbyn.
The comments will be seen as a blow to campaigners for federalism and the legacy of the ex-Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who argued strongly within her party for federalism to be part of the Labour platform.
Laird said councils and regions should benefit from a rebalancing after Brexit, with devolved administrations handing on new powers returning from Brussels to local government.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, the Shadow Scottish Secretary said: “If powers are coming back [from Brussels], they should go back to the devolved nations, but beyond that there is a wider debate about whether they should just rest there.”
She warned against raising expectations too high for constitutional reform under a Labour government. Asked about the party’s commitment to federalism, which has been strongly backed by the former prime minister, Gordon Brown, Laird said it was not the primary objective.
She added: “I think that labelling is unhelpful, because if you say to people, ‘what’s federalism?’ they will think about Germany, for example.
“It’s about what appeals to people, and I think a more simple, straightforward way to think about that is to have powers where they most logically sit, where the best decisions can be taken.”
Corbyn has been unenthusiastic about constitutional reform, questioning whether immigration and employment law could be devolved, and rejecting Dugdale’s call to revisit the Act of Union.
Labour’s general election manifesto committed to “considering the option of a more federalised country”, but a task force, unveiled in Cardiff in March to deliver a constitutional convention, has yet to start work.
Responsibility for constitutional reform remains with shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett, despite concern among Scottish Labour that his focus is on English regional government.
Several of Scottish Labour’s new MPs who are understood to sympathise with Dugdale’s proposals have spoken about wanting to “take it out of [Trickett’s] hands”, while another senior Scottish party figure described dealings with the Yorkshire MP on constitutional reform as “a waste of time”.
Supporters of federalism within Labour argue that a constitutional convention must be set up urgently, to build momentum while the party is in opposition and prepare proposals for government, in the same way as the Scottish Constitutional Convention did between 1989 and 1995.
A Labour source at Holyrood said: “If Labour runs away from federalism, no other large party will help deliver it.
“The Tories don’t care about the devolution settlement, and the SNP only cares about independence.
“The Scottish Labour conference voted last year to endorse federalism as party policy, and there is deep frustration within the party that Gordon Brown’s proposed constitutional convention has hit the buffers.
“Nothing has happened since a high-level summit was called in Cardiff. The convention is the key to resolving what can be delivered and what federalism looks like in reality for the UK.”