The Labour leader will today announce his party’s plans to reshape the British constitutional settlement across the UK. The long-awaited ‘constitutional commission’ will also attempt to woo so-called ‘middle Scotland’ – the third of Scotland who want change but are undecided on independence – and bring soft Yes supporters away from the SNP ahead of the next general election.
The pledges, which include reform of the House of Lords and the potential of additional borrowing powers for Scotland, will be published in a 155 page document with 40 recommendations. They will also be imposed on Scotland regardless of whether the SNP return a majority of Scottish MPs.
The SNP said the plans appear to undermine devolution rather than strengthen it.
Former Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, who chaired the ‘Commission on the Future of the UK’ since it was established by Sir Keir in 2020, said the report demonstrated the debate in Scotland was now “change within the UK through Labour, or change by leaving the UK through the SNP”.
However, Mr Brown appeared to back the idea that the next general election would be a test of the independence question, in line with Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a ‘de facto’ referendum at the poll. The report is also going to fail to set out the democratic route to independence for Scotland, despite the focus on the constitution.
This is a central point of contention from the SNP and many nationalist voters following the Supreme Court ruling last week that Holyrood could not legislate for a second independence referendum. That judgement effectively means only Westminster can decide when another referendum takes place, potentially blocking a vote indefinitely.
Asked why he and Labour had failed to provide a route, Mr Brown said this programme of “major constitutional, social, economic and political reform” provided the “answer to people's desire for change”.
However, in an apparent acceptance of Ms Sturgeon’s de facto referendum tactic, the former Labour leader suggested the next general election will provide voters with the opportunity to vote for Labour’s agenda for change, or the SNP’s vision of independence.
He said: "Nicola Sturgeon herself has said that the issue is now the next general election, so let's see what the difference is between what they want at the next general election and the social, economic, political, and constitutional reforms that are absolutely massive in their impact and in line with Scottish opinion.
"I believe that people in Scotland will want to support what we're doing, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it will be implemented immediately.
"The SNP were talking about a referendum a few weeks ago, now they're talking about a general election. We are also talking about a general election that can return a government that can deliver these reforms."
Alongside trailed reforms such as the abolition of the House of Lords in favour of an elected second chamber of nations and regions, the report will also implement a legal requirement for cooperation between devolved governments and Westminster, alongside enshrining national ‘missions’ such as reducing child poverty into the constitution.
Scotland will be given an “enhanced” role in the UK through the reforms, with additional representation in the new second chamber. This chamber, the report authors said, will be a “constitutional safeguarding institution” which will have the power to influence legislation which “seeks to breach certain constitutional requirements”, including the Sewel Convention which states Westminster should not normally legislate on devolved matters without the consent of Holyrood.
This second chamber, however, will be reformed while still “recognising the valuable work that Labour peers do in the current system”.
Labour will also pledge to bring in more directly elected mayors across the UK, with the Scottish Parliament given the power to bring them in for cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow. The party will also pledge to report on greater fiscal powers for Scotland around borrowing, but no detail on what would be considered in such a report was forthcoming.
A new council of the UK, chaired by the Prime Minister but attended by all the First Ministers will also supercede the Joint Ministerial Committee of devolved ministers which has effectively ceased working in recent years. Another new council, on of nations and regions, will also be created to focus on issues around economic development across the UK.
Scotland will also be given representation on UK national bodies such as the Foreign Office, the Bank of England, and Ofgem as a “matter of course” and “by right”. Labour are also set to pledge the devolution of the Job Centre Network and a major increase in business investment programmes through national business banks.
MSPs will also be given the same rights as MPs in Westminster around privilege, allowing them to avoid legal concerns when raising concerns in the Holyrood chamber. Scotland will also be given the power to join international agreements and bodies such as Erasmus, Unesco, and the Nordic Council.
All of the above will be underpinned by a new ‘British mission’ “enshrined in the constitution”, including the delivery of the NHS, free education, equality, protecting citizens from crime, and ending poverty among children and pensioners.
Mr Brown said Labour’s reforms to the Scottish devolution settlement will be imposed on Scotland regardless of the number of SNP or Labour MPs elected at the next general election, stating these plans are “going ahead if there is a Labour government”.
He said: “Keir Starmer...is determined to make these changes. The recommendations are very clear that this is not only a good thing to do, but it’s necessary for people to feel that they are part of doing something together. It is about creating a new sense that there’s a shared mission of the United Kingdom which includes eliminating poverty, and includes ensuring...a universal health service, free at the point of need, accessible to all.
"These are mission statements written into the future of the UK. Labour, whatever happens as long as it is in government and no matter how many MPs it has in different areas of the country will want to implement that.
"If you want this change, if you want change to happen and you want change to happen as quickly as we can do it if we are a Labour government, then there’s no point in voting SNP or Conservatives, it’s vote Labour to ensure the change takes place that will make the UK a better place.”
SNP deputy leader, Keith Brown, said the plans look set to undermine devolution despite claims it will strengthen it. He said: “After bigging up this report for months and months, this is yet another underwhelming constitutional reform plan from the Labour Party full of vague platitudes, empty promises, and what feels like the 10,000th time they have committed to reform the House of Lords.
“The fact is, Labour are now a pro-Brexit party with a pro-Brexit leader. They are completely at one with the Tories when it comes to ignoring Scotland’s vote to remain in the EU, and ignoring the democratic will of the people of Scotland to determine their own future – and nothing in these proposals changes that.
“Through independence, Scotland can build a genuine partnership of equals with other nations across these islands – not only protecting the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament, but allowing us to escape the failing Brexit-based UK economic model and build a fairer, more prosperous and sustainable Scotland.”