Radical Federalism and the Future of the Union18 January 2021
‘We the people’
This week saw the launch of ‘Radical Federalism’, a new group with the aim of fostering debate on the constitutional future of the UK. Headlining an event to announce the new group and its accompanying document We the People: the Case for Radical Federalism, First Minister Mark Drakeford called for a “thoughtful” solution to combat the centralism of the Conservatives and the nationalism of Plaid Cymru. He also called for a new settlement to reinvigorate the UK as an “engine of redistribution”. Other speakers concurred, highlighting the benefits that devolution has brought to Wales.
While the group’s members are predominantly based in Wales, the focus is UK-wide. Pontypridd MS Mick Antoniw, a leading member of the group, wrote on LabourList that the group wants to “catalyse a debate in the Labour Party”, contributing to the discussion that has already begun with Keir Starmer’s commitment to launch a UK-wide Constitutional Commission.
Challenging the “current choice of least bad options” – the status quo or independence – the group offers a third-way: radical federalism.
Radical federalism is not a new idea. As discussed previously on this blog, the term has been used by a number of figures in the party from John McDonnell to Keir Starmer. So far, these references to radical federalism have not been supported by any concrete proposals for how it would work in practice. While questions remain over the feasibility of several of the report’s proposals, We the People does represent an attempt to sketch out some detail.
What does a radical federal UK look like?
The document outlines several proposals for constitutional reform. These include setting up people’s assemblies, the extension of devolution across the UK – including the regions of England – and the creation of a “voluntary union of nations”. Furthermore, the report also sets out a vision of local government reform to empower local communities, workplace democracy and actions to tackle climate change. Underpinning all of this is a commitment to the principles of “democracy, fairness, justice, climate stability and equality”.
The goal of reforming the UK does not just mean devolving more powers. In his contribution to the launch, former First Minister Carwyn Jones insisted that the task of reforming the UK is not simply a case of throwing powers to its constituent parts: it is much more fundamental and involves a system of pooled sovereignty and a complete rethink of the UK’s constitutional foundations. Invoking Aneurin Bevan, the group argues that power should be given to the people.
The document is short and more concrete details are needed, but for those who have been calling for new thinking on the future of the UK, this will likely be warmly received as an attempt to take the matter seriously – even if criticism remains. The involvement of Mark Drakeford suggests that those at the top of Welsh Labour are on board. It is also vital that Wales’ voice does not get lost in whatever vision the Labour Party’s Constitutional Commission conjures up for the UK.
Although it is to be welcomed, there are a number of issues raised by the report, its timing and its details. In fact, the question marks raised and considered below apply to the wider Labour Party debate on radical federalism.
Firstly, the implementation of these proposals relies on a Labour government at Westminster. Yet, this feels a long way off. The mountain that Starmer and his party needs to climb seems incredibly steep at the moment and even if he is able to win back lost constituencies in time for the next election, this will not be until 2024.
This leads us to a connected challenge: by the time Labour gets into government, Scotland may have already voted for independence, or may even have become an independent nation. Politics moves quickly, and if the SNP storms to the huge victory it is projected to achieve at the upcoming Scottish Parliament election in 2021 (whenever it takes place), then Nicola Sturgeon will see this as a mandate for another independence referendum.
Advocates of radical federalism will argue that these plans could appeal to those on the fence in the independence debate. Research suggests that substate national parties need to offer clarity when it comes to constitutional questions, while state-level leaders must seriously engage with the situation. A considered commitment to tackling the question could produce a viable alternative.
So far, however, the likelihood of that is not promising. Starmer’s dismissal of indyref2 calls threatens to alienate those voters who left Labour for the SNP at the previous general election, and who have shifted on the constitutional question. The plans for a ‘voluntary union’ are also betrayed by Starmer’s current stance on indyref2: if such a voluntary union was to be established, then surely the people of Scotland should be able to leave if they wish.
Compounding this point is that discussions about radical federalism do not seem to consider the very real prospect of a United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which might then be a further catalyst for the reunification of Ireland. Again, politics moves quickly: such radical upheaval cannot be dismissed as unlikely.
Thirdly, despite a declaration that England and its regions would benefit fully from these proposals, the people of England do not appear to be on board with regionalism. The failure of Labour leaders to understand the changing nature of Englishness and England as a political entity risks undermining the proposals for devolution across England’s regions. As Richard Wyn Jones and Jac Larner make clear, calls for regionalism in England based on the Welsh experience of devolution may be filled with hope, but “it is also hard to see how the conditions that made that Welsh journey possible can be replicated on any regional basis within England”.
Time to act?
Beyond the discussion of federalism, it is also important to note that some of these proposals can be implemented now. Why must plans to empower local communities wait until a constitutional convention has reported? The Welsh Government has the power to empower local government and expand democracy. It should not have to wait to implement these changes.
These major challenges are not tackled in the report and have not been fully appreciated in previous discussions of ‘radical federalism’ within the Labour Party. These questions must be answered if the Labour Party is to achieve its aim of keeping the union together.
A key message of the launch from the various speakers was that action is needed immediately. The future of the UK is uncertain, while Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic are changing the character of UK politics as we speak. Those demanding urgency are right to do so, and a genuine commitment to try and encourage thoughtful debate is welcome.
There is a sense, however, that the time for action might have already passed. The horse may have already bolted. If the union is to be saved, then this relies on Labour winning back lost support in Scotland, getting into government at Westminster and bringing about a devolution revolution. The Labour Party is a unionist party and will do all it can to ensure the UK ‘survives’. But is it all too little too late?