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Constitutional Reform, Labour’s “record”, and “direction”

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on August 6, 2010 at 7:25 pm

David Weber

There’s a surplus of inverted commas in today’s title, but not entirely without reason. I feel compelled to write a response to what is otherwise a very entertaining leader on Lib Dem Voice.  The issue is some ill-chosen words describing Labour’s record on Constitutional Reform.

I’m inclined to be sympathetic of damning indictments of the previous Labour government’s record — certainly it’s last two terms — on certain issues, which I won’t distract myself with here. But generally the one thing I felt Labour to be almost continually strong on was its approach to Constitutional reform. After all, any subject that Tony Blair describes as “boring” is bound to flourish far better outside of his interest.

It is possibly for this reason that Constitutional Reform stands as a refreshing contrast to public service reform, which seemed more than a little confused — enough so to have led to a policy, academies, being altenately lauded and derided simply based on which schools it was being applied to. So much for stability.

But it appears from the reading of Nick Lane’s article that this is precisely his problem with Constitutional Reform. He terms it “directionless”, and “minor”. I suspect that a Lawyer specialising in human rights cases might disagree. As would anyone living in Scotland and Wales, and I suspect virtually every other academic studying the constitution.

The last 13 years, in fact, have been a period of unprecedented constitutional change, with implications resounding so deep that it threatened to be politically unsustainable. Just witness the attitude of the Conservative party, who even up till May this year favoured watering down the Human Rights Act, a document far more modest than most constitutional protections of rights.

But perhaps this is a case which is unique to Britain. Perhaps by international standards, this is still far too weak. But even when I think of this argument, I believe I see an easy, and chilling counter-argument. It merely requires a cursory look at some of the less careful, and as a result far more damaging legislation of the last decade and so.

In fact, I will look at merely one example. What would constitutional reform look like if it were not considered “boring”, and if change was considered directionless if it did not take a leap into the dark? Very likely there would be far more legislation like the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, which allowed for the denial of jury trial for the first time in hundreds of years. This is an example of careless reform which has so much direction it drives a fundamentally important part of the constitution straight off of a cliff.

Simply put, arguing for politicians to be less careful and more radical assumes that they have both the principles and the understanding to make a good job of it. I am far from convinced that this is the case. In looking for consensus, Labour may have occasionally erred on the side of caution. But just imagine how much worse things would have been if it had erred on the other side.

One final point. Nick claims that Labour could “easily” have won a referendum on PR. What leads him to draw this conclusion? You cannot merely point to Labour’s long-lasting stay in government. This stay, at least up until 2003, was based on shrewd assessment of the mood of the electorate, and careful avoidance of unnecessary controversy. Had Labour behaved differently it might have had a very different recent history. The easiest thing to do is to look for modern comparisons, such as Australia and the USA, where governments have swept into power on a wave of popularity but enjoyed less sustained success. In politics, without consensus there is little evidence of anything being an easy victory.

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