Monday 5 December 2022

Keir Starmer and State Modernisation

Some first impressions on Gordon Brown's long-awaited review of the UK constitution. In his speech at Leeds University, Keir Starmer said Brown's recommendations would now form the basis of a consultation so they're ready to be implemented during the first parliament of an incoming Labour government. What's in them, and what are the politics of the proposals?

1. There are continuities between these proposals and what was in the last three Labour Party manifestos. In 2019, for example, Labour pledged to adopt a community wealth building approach with Preston as its model to regenerate local economies. There was to be greater freedom for local authorities over planning, but the real emphasis was on making funds available to rebuild public services run into the ground by a decade of Tory cuts. While nodding toward inequalities and the baleful consequences of centralised government, the Brown plan is driven by a different approach. I.e. Rather than restitution, his proposals reset the relationship between the state and its localities. Constitution, in other words.

2. The report identified 280 economic clusters scattered about the country. Transforming them into drivers of growth requires stronger local government, who will be responsible for driving economic plans and raising its own cash. Financial autonomy independent of the Treasury is a sharp divorce from received custom and practice. This is in conjunction with moving 50,000 civil service jobs out of London to save money and help build up the resilience of local economies, and encouraging cooperative relations between local authorities instead of the pork barrel competition set up by and presided over by the Tories' levelling up funds.

3. This is in the context of wider reform to the constitution. The abolition of the Lords, already trailed a couple of weeks ago, was reiterated again. Its replacement would be an assembly of the nations and the regions, which would lose the Lords' scrutinising function but work as the voice of local and devolved governments and safeguard their powers. Local authorities would also win the right to initiate legislation pertaining to their localities in parliament. Meanwhile, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland would enjoy new freedoms. Some limited foreign affairs powers for Scotland, along with the same local government agenda as England and Wales (that would surely upset the SNP). There would be new crime and punishment powers for the Welsh Assembly, and all three of the nations would enjoy the same access to the new British Regional Investment Bank.

4. The Labour Party is promising a golden age for policy wonks. What Starmer is setting out is the rudiments of a new regime of capital accumulation. Rather than central government getting involved in picking winners and driving economic policy, pushing it down into the lower reaches of the state, on paper, creates a more benign and supportive environment for businesses to operate in. Though it does not say so in this report, going from Rachel Reeves's rebranded Green New Deal and Starmer's own pronouncements on trade unionism, their envisaged role of government is one that sets out the overall strategic priorities for economic development while stepping in as an honest broker between capital and labour where it comes to industrial relations. The document contributes to the blue print for a new model of British capitalism. One in which the state (the executive, its devolved and local government entities, and the public services run under their shared aegis), businesses, and labour know their place and have a clearly delineated framework for relating to one another.

5. This is an obvious improvement on the half-arsed and corrupt effort of Tory modernisation. It is more ambitious than the Blair/Brown efforts at revamping the British state because it goes further. Whereas New Labour retained the neoliberal settlement and significantly reinforced it, while implementing some mildly redistributive policies, Starmer is offering something new. Its ambition was only matched by the Corbyn years, but with significant differences. Corbynism was more than just reversing austerity and restoring public services, it pointed to a break with bourgeois politics. The championing of alternative forms of ownership and the promise of more workplace democracy implied a fundamental challenge to capital and its right to manage its assets. I.e. The means of production. The radicalism of the Brown plan departs from the received wisdom of British statecraft (and its centring on the City) only, and it does this not to enhance democracy but to save British capitalism from itself.

6. This nevertheless is big politics, and it proved too much for the reporters who quizzed Starmer about it following his speech. Beth Rigby asked Starmer how this would help people facing the pressures of the cost of living crisis. Another suggested talk of Lords reform was bewildering given the scale of our present economic problems. Aren't these just Westminster bubble issues? And tweeting away, Times Iain Martin hack ignorantly crowed about Labour's 40-point plan. It's almost as if a generation of journalists are incapable of comprehending anything but the most marginal of changes, or anything more abstract than the state taking money from one area and spending it in another. To be fair to Starmer, he deftly dealt with this small-minded line of questioning by pointing out how short-termism was one of the contributing reasons why the Tories have got the country into such a mess. It also spoke to people's desire to do things differently and stop politics from being a block on what they want to do. Getting the politics right is central to economic prosperity.

7. Again, the question of trust has to be raised. Why should we believe Starmer is going to deliver on this? Because, ultimately, it's the politics. The 2020 leadership pledges were mostly ditched or watered down because they are fundamentally at odds with his technocratic, managerial politics. The settlement set out in the Brown document doesn't challenges his authoritarian view of government in any tangible way. He has his job at the top, and the First Ministers, the metro mayors, and the council leaders have their own domains to attend to further down. Introducing more elections to replace the Lords and making local authority elections matter more are hardly a major difficulty where the supremacy of his administration are concerned. In short, he's offering a great deal of change so things can, fundamentally, stay the same.

Image Credit


Ken said...

Yet again the proposal to get rid of the House of Lords, which has been around for the last 100 years, is re-animated. The last time was 1997, and where are we? A much larger, and arguably, more corrupt and cronyist body is still there, on the red benches, unelected and picking up expenses. What odds would you give for seeing it disappear by 2029?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful summary and analysis, but the closing was a bit unfair. I'm no starmerite but it seems to me that in a highly centralised political, legal and economic landscape, the only place with the leverage to change that landscape is.. the centre. (Of power, not centrism as a thing)

Old Trot said...

In an ever-more globalised capitalist system - a global capitalism also nowadays trapped in a profound, systemic, crisis of stagnation and interrelated rate of profit long term decline, is ever more localised policy development really any sort of answer ? No it isn't . Regionalisation (or 'cantonisation') actually just sets each region, mayoral ruled city, or 'devolved nation' against each other to compete for the economic favours of globalised capital. Hence an ever more devolved Scotland, or Wales, will become like states like Delaware in the USA, ie, geared up to compete by being tax havens and low regulation hotspots within the USA, sucking the business and tax revenues out of the surrounding states - as Luxembourg or Ireland do in the EU. This, behind the 'democratic enlargement' narrative bullshit of the Labour neoliberal Starmerires ( with Blair and Mandelson pulling their strings, is actually another face of Sunak's 'freeport scam 'big idea'. ie destroying the key advantage of the nation state, any nation state, to stand up to the corrosive power of globalised capitalism - with a unified national economy and a all-nation comprehensive economic PLAN. Remember National Plans, you older Lefties ? Yep, a core strategy for all previous socialists as a transformational tool . Now utterly forgotten by a 'Left' more concerned with gender pronouns and general virtue signalling than pursuing traditional socialist strategies and objectives.

Starmer , for his Trilateral Commission pals, is offering a bogus 'spreading of decentralised economic power and decision-making purely to present an even more defenceless , fragmented UK marketplace and labour force to the predatory banditry of global monopoly capitalism. Starmer is not a 'managerialist social democrat'. He is an enabler of the rapacious asset stripping and destruction of all labour market protections by financialised global capitalism. And he, his corrupt Front Bench cronies, and Mandelson and Blair know it. Your analysis is very naive, Phil.

David Lindsay said...

In the midst of a winter of economic misery, the Government that had already failed to ban section 31 evictions could announce the abandonment of national housebuilding targets in the comfort knowledge that all that the Official Opposition could find to discuss was an Assembly of the Nations and Regions, not to be confused with the Council of the UK. You might have thought that both of those were already called the House of Commons, but apparently you would have been mistaken. Moving Civil Service jobs out of London would save money only if it were the pretext to pay civil servants less for the same jobs. Welcome to the Labour Party.

Resist at all costs the proposal to empower Nicola Sturgeon to contract international treaties. Gordon Brown must be going senile. This is devolution as we have known it for a quarter of a century, extending and formalising the power of the people who already had it, such as the Scottish academic and professional nomenklatura, which was once Nationalist through the Labour Party in the hope of securing from Westminster even more money and power than it already had, but which is now rather less Nationalist through the SNP, forever promising an impossible referendum, and thus running no risk of losing the money and power that it has cajoled out of successive British Governments in the name of enriching and empowering "Scotland".

In a very similar spirit has devolution benefited the crachach, and the Ulster Protestant hard men, and the IRA. To these are to be added the county set Tories, and the persons and entourages of right-wing Labour councillors. I say again that devolution merely extends and formalises the power of the people who already have it. And Brown, backed by Keir Starmer, proposes that those be given the power to confect a new second chamber, which would contain no shortage of Michelle Mones, with disputes between the two Houses to be resolved by a Supreme Court that would thus be made Supreme even over Parliament itself.

This is a regression to Victorian and Edwardian Liberalism. As it would be, since it is Liberal to see constitutional change as an end in itself, or even as a first order priority, and that is the double basis on which Labour intends to contest the next General Election. Before 1997, Labour Governments made very few changes to the Constitution, and even then only in furtherance of their bread and butter aims. The Blair and Brown Governments made a lot, but again only ever to ulterior purpose, successfully or otherwise. For good or ill, they did a lot of other things, too. Brown's record on child poverty is genuinely praiseworthy, and his response to the 2008 banking crisis did not attract from the public the ridicule that it did from David Cameron and George Osborne. There was no recession on the day of the 2010 General Election, which did not deliver a Conservative overall majority.

Peter Mandelson is murmuring about the abolition of the House of Lords, but that would make him neither any poorer nor any less influential. Not least alongside the rumoured return of David Miliband, and the forced toning down of what was in any case only ever rhetoric about private schools, this is a factional thing, like Tom Harris's dismissal of the whole business as irrelevant to daily life. It is, of course, like the words or deeds of anyone with nothing better to do with an egg than to throw it at the King, or with nothing better to do with soup than to throw it at the protective screen in front of a painting. But the Blairites are fundamentally on board with arrangements that would have made the Attlee Government's life extremely difficult, preventing any nationalisation of industry and forcing something such as Wes Streeting would favour rather than the National Health Service, and which would render impossible anything like a Corbyn Government.

Blissex said...

«This is a regression to Victorian and Edwardian Liberalism. As it would be, since it is Liberal to see constitutional change as an end in itself, or even as a first order priority,»

The neoliberalism of Thatcher, Blair, Osborne, Sunak, and Starmer is not quite just victorian liberalism as Tony Benn thought, because it is a liberalism that includes massive state intervention and spending in favour of property and finance interest rentiers. Literally trillions of pounds since 2009, between the BoE and the Treasury. It is tory-friendly liberalism.

Victorian liberals fought the Corn Laws and the rentier interests that benefited from them, did not protect and subsidize them massively as neoliberals have done.

Neoliberals are tory for the benefit the upper classes, libertarian for the "benefit" of the lower classes.

Anonymous said...

I agree entirely. Here is our country neatly parcelled up for finance capital. KS is saying "Can I be PM and then move to post at the IMF or NATO when its all over..." It is contemptible.

Anonymous said...

"Now utterly forgotten by a 'Left' more concerned with gender pronouns and general virtue signalling than pursuing traditional socialist strategies and objectives."

Being as I'm a part of that left, I can safely say we're really quite set on the traditional stuff as well as the newer stuff. Public ownership, workplace democracy, the works. Less cynicism and more solidarity, comrade.