Labour's constitutional reforms are designed to devolve power. But to succeed they must first centralise itby Robert Hazell / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The last two Labour governments attempted major constitutional reform and came spectacularly unstuck. Dick Crossman’s 1968 bill to reform the House of Lords had to be abandoned after high level filibustering by Michael Foot and Enoch Powell. The following Labour government’s travails over devolution consumed two whole parliamentary sessions, and led eventually to Jim Callaghan’s downfall in 1979, when the government failed to deliver on devolution and the Scottish National party withdrew support. There are lessons to be learnt from these failures if a Blair government is not to risk the same fate with its “most extensive package of constitutional change ever proposed.”
Given the huge weight of expectation riding on a Labour administration, the new leader of the house will face a daunting task. There will be intense pressure of competing legislative priorities; but the total amount of legislative time any government has on the floor of the House of Commons is around 400 hours in each session. Previous constitutional bills have taken 100-200 hours on the floor. The Maastricht bill holds the record at 185 hours. Crossman’s bill to reform the Lords was abandoned after 85 hours; the Scotland Act (1978) took 160 hours, and the Wales Act (1978) 110 hours.
Labour will thus face a paradox. In order to get through its programme of constitutional reform, which is designed to devolve power and introduce more checks and balances into political life, the government must first remove one of the greatest checks against hasty constitutional change. This is the parliamentary convention that constitutional measures have to take their committee stage on the floor of the House of Commons. Only by breaking with this convention can the government avoid becoming embroiled in hundreds of hours of debate. This change needs to be accompanied by two others: the introduction of advance timetabling for all bills, so that opponents cannot frustrate a bill’s passage by endless filibustering; and an end to the rule that a bill cannot be carried over from one session to the next.
The stumbling block for a reforming Labour government is that parliament itself is responsible for procedural matters, not the government. The changes to procedure suggested above are about smoothing the path for the executive, and cannot be expected to find favour if proposed in isolation. The desire to secure the passage of a large legislative programme should therefore be taken as an opportunity to…