‘Slow crisis’ warning over lack of progress on constitutional reform
Baroness Bryan of Partick, who has been given a key role in developing constitutional policy for Labour in Scotland and across the UK, says Brexit creates an “urgency” for action after three years where the promise to deliver federalism has stalled.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, she set out her preferred vision for the Lords to be abolished and replaced with a second chamber of the “nations and regions” that would administer shared powers returning from the EU after Brexit and avoid claims of a “power grab” by Whitehall ministers.
Pauline Bryan, a socialist activist and writer who was elevated to the Lords last year, said the need to “move quickly” was now understood by the Labour leadership.
A year-long project to consult with Scottish politicians, activists and civil society on how to reform the constitution starts this week, with the appointment of a researcher based at Westminster dedicated to collecting views and examining federal systems from around the world.
Baroness Bryan will also publish a paper on constitutional reform ahead of this week’s Scottish Labour conference in Dundee.
The peer was appointed by the Labour leader with a specific brief to work with shadow cabinet member Jon Trickett on delivering a “people’s constitutional convention” that would shake up how the UK is run.
However, the lack of progress has dismayed Scottish Labour figures, who say work begun under Kezia Dugdale with the support of Gordon Brown has been abandoned since her departure.
“If you talk to Jon Trickett, he’d say that in 2015 there were good intentions,” Baroness Bryan said. “In 2016, the EU referendum, the coup against Jeremy, Brexit – every time he gets his head up to see if he can get back to this, something else gets in the way.
“There isn’t that immediate urgency that a crisis will happen if we don’t do it, but a slow crisis can happen if we don’t do it.
“That’s why, particularly around leaving the EU, we have to move quickly.”
Baroness Bryan admitted senior Labour figures believed a constitutional convention could only take place once the party was in power.
But she said she was putting pressure on the party leadership to act when the UK leaves the EU, so reforms are ready to be delivered – like in 1997, when referendums on devolution were among Labour’s first acts in government.
“I would like them to do it in opposition, so that they’re ready for power,” she said. “We’re making steps now.
“Whether you have to wait on the full constitutional convention that covers the whole constitution before you can make some progress, I think is a question.
“Assuming that we leave [the EU] in whatever way, I think that lends a certain urgency to it.”
Baroness Bryan – one of the figures behind the Red Paper Collective, a Scottish Labour group set up to respond to a 2011 SNP majority victory that included Richard Leonard and Neil Findlay – set out her vision for constitutional reform, where minimum standards are set at a UK level in areas like employment rights, pensions and corporation tax, but nations and regions would be able to “enhance” their offer.
If it had full control of all economic levers without UK-wide “solidarity”, she argued Scotland “as a standalone economy will struggle” and be forced to slash spending, standards and quality of life to hold on to global investment that is increasingly flowing back to the economies of the Far East.
Baroness Bryan said without parliamentary control of powers returning from the EU in areas such as environmental policy, Scottish and UK ministers would create decision-making “frameworks” that had little accountability or transparency.
“There is no justification for a second chamber that is unelected, that still has hereditary peers in it,” she said. “We have to make that change.
“And if we are making that change, we should be asking what that second chamber is for. Particularly if we’re coming out of the EU, I think as a matter of urgency we need somewhere the [Welsh] Assembly, [Scottish] Parliament and the regions can come together to take control of those powers that are coming back from Brussels and are cross-territorial.
“We’ve lived with the EU giving us those regulations, so we’ve not had to worry about that, but now we do.”