New Labour’s Constitutional Odyssey – A Revolution by Sleepwalkers

Posted on June 7th, 2017 by Matt Flinders

In the sixth of a series of blogs marking the 20th anniversary of New Labour coming to power, Crick Director Professor Matt Flinders considers the legacy of New Labour’s approach to the constitution


Looking back so many features of the New Labour project seem forgotten, overtaken or simply diluted by the passage of time. It seems, to some extent, that all politicians and governments are destined to be remembered for their failures and indiscretions rather than their successes or achievements. Politics really is a brutal profession but my sense is that history may well be far kinder to Tony Blair and his governments than most commentators have so far been. But in terms of the history and the legacy where is the evidence of a continuing and long-term impact on British politics? Where is the undoubted Blair legacy? How does the New Labour shadow continue to shape British politics?


If pushed to identify one policy area where a set of very clear claims to ‘impact’, ‘legacy’ and ‘shadow’ can be made relates to the reform of the constitutional framework that unfolded with such haste in the weeks and months that followed the 1 May 1997. From devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through to reform of the House of Lords and from the creation of a Supreme Court to the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act – to mention just a few key policies – New Labour sought to design the British polity through the devolution of powers and the creation of new checks and balances.


Did this amount to ‘a constitutional revolution’?


With the benefit of hindsight and with two decades of subsequent constitutional policy to assess the answer is probably ‘no’. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of New Labour’s approach to the constitution was its willingness to devolve power but only within the increasingly frail parameters of a Westminster Model of politics that left ultimate powers in the hands of ministers. This became known as the ‘Blair paradox’ and was most obviously reflected in the creation of a Supreme Court that was not supreme.


A second element of the New Labour’s approach to the constitution was that it continued a particularly British predilection for ‘muddling through’. Specific reforms were announced ‘as if by magic’, often with little or no public consultation, announcements frequently seemed to surprise even other members of the government and if there was one central critique of Tony Blair’s leadership in this sphere it was that there was no clear vision for the constitution or blueprint. It was a muddled and mixed revolution of constitutional sleepwalkers who didn’t seem to know exactly where they were going or why.


The significance of this assessment is that it has been subsequent governments over the past two decades that have had to try and control the constitutional pressures and momentum that New Labour initiated.  The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government of 2010-2015 was established on a ‘Programme for Government’ that included a broad commitment to mend the ‘broken’ political system through ‘fundamental political reform’ but a major clash in constitutional values of each coalition partner significantly limited progress. A House of Lords Reform Bill was abolished, a referendum on reform of the electoral system was rejected, implementation of a boundary review of constituencies was delayed, further powers were devolved to Scotland and Wales and the introduction of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ was offered as a partial solution to the West Lothian Question. The coalition government ended with a surge of activity around English devolution and the establishment of a number of ‘devo deals’ to establish ‘metro mayors’ in a number of areas which flowed over into the post-2015 government of Theresa May.

Possibly the clearest legacy of New Labour’s constitutional ‘revolution’ was a constitutional mess in the sense of a collection of specific policies whose logic and values were clearly increasingly hard to reconcile with the power-hoarding zeal of the Westminster Model. This tension and the existence of constitutional momentum has been clearest in relation to the Scottish referendum but concerns regarding the ‘United’ or ‘Dis-United’ Kingdom are likely to grow in the context of Brexit. Whether Theresa May can emerge as a constitutional entrepreneur with a clear vision for the UK and the capacity to control a vast range of centripetal pressures in a post-Brexit world remains to be seen.


Matthew Flinders is Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield.

Notes: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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