Reed James makes the case for Labour to embrace a broader set of reforms beyond the Brown Report.
The recently released “Brown report”, as dubbed by the media, or by its longer title, the “Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future” is a fantastic document. If followed through by the Labour Party it promises to abolish the archaic House of Lords, give real devolution to England, enhance voter turnout with automatic registration and much more. However, it is deeply flawed in three major respects which prevent it from being an encompassing foundational document for a Labour Government to use to properly re-rebuild the UK’s democracy.
The first major problem is that the Brown report has little to say on Proportional Representation, which Gordon Brown confirmed was beyond the report’s scope. However, the report did recommend that the voting system for mayoral elections be switched from First Past the Post to Supplementary Vote as it was before the Conservatives changed it recently. This begs the important question, that if the report recognises that First Past the Post is inadequate for mayoral elections, why was it unable to state a position on if First Past the Post is still right for the Commons? Proportional Representation’s omission is not only odd considering it was passed by a historic vote at the last Labour Conference but also entirely misguided.
A key element of the Brown Report is the introduction of devolution to combat inequality, however as Labour For A New Democracy’s report, “Everything But the Commons” outlines, implementing devolution without the use of a Proportional voting system does little to reduce inequality as in the case of Canada or Australia. By comparison, countries that use Proportional Representation and have strong devolution like Germany have done far better at reducing inequality. It is clear to properly reduce inequality effectively; the House of Commons will need Proportional Representation which is not featured in the Brown Report despite its importance.
The second major problem is the lacklustre proposals regarding Wales. When it comes to furthering devolution England and Scotland get the lion’s share of the Brown reports text compared to Wales. Part of this makes sense because as the report highlights, the Welsh Government is currently conducting its own “Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales” so there is much less said, partly out of respect for that report. However, this excuse is inexcusable when it comes to the most significant suggestion of the report regarding Wales which proposes that the Welsh Government should be granted control over “youth justice and probation services.” This devolution offer however is far below what Welsh Labour has consistently advocated for years, full devolution of the criminal justice system.
The seeming lack of listening to Welsh Labour is concerning not only because the report has not taken into account their requests but because we know that things are done best when they are done locally, so there is a clear case for the full devolution of the criminal justice system that the report fails to recognise.
The third major problem is that the Brown Report suggests that the election timing for the House of Lord’s replacement, an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions should be between elections for the Commons, essentially making them midterm elections for the government. However, midterms are concerning because they almost always lead to the governing party losing as opposition parties typically do better in midterm elections. Although the proposed Senate would only have the power to suggest changes and not block legislation, there is still a serious chance that the Senate’s inherently hostile makeup could cause problems in enacting the government’s agenda which is the worst thing an elected Senate could become.
As democracy needs to be responsive, a government that has won an election needs to be able to show people that their trust was well-placed and that could be compromised to a degree through midterms. An elected Senate is a great idea, but it would be better if either the elections coincided on the same day as the Commons as they do in many elected Senates, or the explanation of further safeguards are outlined to prevent the potential problems that can come up with midterm elections from occurring if democracy is to work as effectively as it should.
The Brown Report is an incredibly strong document with some brave proposals; however, it has three clear weaknesses that must be addressed, where Labour needs to go further if it intends to achieve its goal of fixing the UK’s democracy as effectively as it intends to.