Gordon Brown's constitutional reform plans might just help Labour win enough seats to force Nicola Sturgeon's resignation – John McLellan

Our politics is broken, our economy is broken, our NHS is broken, but cometh the hour cometh Sir Keir Starmer with ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s blueprint to fix it all at the ready, promising an end to ‘sticking-plaster politics’.

Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks with current party leader Keir Starmer and other party members after a press conference about The Commission on the UK’s Future report (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks with current party leader Keir Starmer and other party members after a press conference about The Commission on the UK’s Future report (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The polls suggest the Labour leader just needs his party to avoid any gaffes over the next two years ─ no easy task when the Jeremy Corbyn fan club he is desperate to consign to history is still everywhere in his party ─ and he will get the chance to be the man who took British politics into the post-Elastoplast era. It is Christmas after all, with the annual return of Band Aid to the airwaves.

All those breakages certainly sound like they need surgical pinning, and at 155 pages with 40 recommendations, Gordon Brown’s report, ambitiously titled A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy, is a more than a first-aid kit, but not hugely so. There are plenty of big aims, each one needing a vast amount of work which would take up a parliamentary session on their own and are not explained in the paper. It’s the political equivalent of promising a cure for cancer in five years, with the detail left to the medics.

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From a UK perspective, the most eye-catching proposal is the abolition of the ‘indefensible’ House of Lords, but such a huge constitutional step comes down to three or four paragraphs and a vague demand for a new Assembly of the Nations and Regions, but with the composition, size, role and election method to be worked out through a consultation. Without government resources to organise a credible process, it’s hardly surprising Sir Keir is reluctant to guarantee Lords reform will be in the next Labour manifesto, and more likely is a commitment to carry out the consultation if he gets into Number 10, possibly through a Royal Commission which something with such huge implications for law-making must surely deserve.

If there is a lesson for Labour, it’s that rushing through constitutional change with the key aim of skewering nationalism doesn’t always work out the way they want it, and there is no more evidence for the Brown proposals settling the place of Scotland in the UK than the original devolution deal thrashed out in the first two years after the Labour landslide of 1997. And if the Brown Report’s accusation that “putting too much power and control in the hands of a few leads to bad decisions and bad outcomes” is aimed at Westminster, it is more than applicable to the tight group surrounding First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

As a result, one of the key proposals for UK reform, devolving more power to towns and cities and creating more directly elected mayors, is little more than a polite request to the SNP to follow suit and reverse the steady removal of responsibility and cash from local authorities. The SNP’s determination to press on with its national care service plan despite criticism from a Scottish Parliament committee chaired by one of its own MSPs, shows how unlikely they are to heed a Labour idea which would weaken central control.

Other proposals, like giving the Scottish Government the power to strike international deals “in relation to devolved matters” might get a few Labour politicians excited, but it’s hardly going to turn the average voter’s head, and the SNP would only see it as a demonstration vehicle for their argument that the whole kit and caboodle should be determined by a sovereign independent state. Similarly, giving MSPs the same legal privileges and protections as MPs is good news for Scottish politicians, and bad news for defamation lawyers, but matters not a jot to the vast majority. When it gets down to “strengthening the Sewel Convention and protecting it from amendment”, and a new “Council of the Nations and Regions” to replace joint ministerial committees, it’s well into the political anorak territory.

If it’s all breezy sound-bites for policy wonks then in some ways that’s all it needs to be to give Labour something to talk about which is neither the status quo nor full-blown independence; not enough detail to be taken apart, but just enough of the vision thing to get enough people to think twice about taking the plunge of separation who might otherwise give it a go.

Last week’s poll from Redfield & Wilton Strategies which put independence support at 52 per cent after don’t knows were excluded shows once again how small margins still matter on the big question, but challenged Ms Sturgeon’s wisdom in trying to turn the next General Election into a de facto referendum, with SNP support in the same sample down at 41 per cent and the Greens on just two. The flipside for Labour is that only 35 per cent approved of Starmer’s leadership performance compared to 49 per cent for Ms Sturgeon. Encouragingly for a Scottish poll, Rishi Sunak scored 31.

Evidence of deepening division is in scores for strong disapproval, which Ms Sturgeon leads on 26 per cent, followed by Mr Sunak on 19 and Sir Keir on ten. So if enough people think the House of Lords will definitely be scrapped and replaced by something which guarantees strong representation for Scotland then maybe that 41 per cent, already four per cent down on the 2019 election, becomes 39, and Labour sustains its gains from 31 per cent (a leap of 12 per cent) to, say, 33 per cent, then a lot more seats come into play, and the de facto referendum pledge instead becomes Ms Sturgeon’s resignation letter.

Whether the Brown blueprint does indeed bring about the end of “sticking plaster politics” remains to be seen, but it’s not so much about a cure as changing the national mood. And just like independence, it will take more than wishful thinking and industrial quantities of superglue and gaffer tape to work.

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