Constitutional reform, sustainable development and the political parties


© House of Lords 2017 / Photography by Roger Harris. This image is subject to parliamentary copyright.


Victor Anderson is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.

What do the election manifestos and Queen’s Speech tell us about the state of the constitutional reform debate in the UK and its relationship to sustainable development?

Constitutional reform remains part of the political debate, with PR for the Commons still a priority for reformers but not for either of the two main parties. The relatively new issue moving up the agenda is parliamentary control over trade deals, an issue that Brexit has placed firmly on the agenda (the Queen’s Speech announced a Brexit Trade Bill, which could be amended along those lines).

However, the connection between constitutional reform and sustainable development or future generations was unfortunately absent in all the manifestos.

From the Conservative point of view, one ambition in the area of constitutional change stands out above all others: returning to the UK the law-making powers that have been transferred to the EU. This was reflected in the Queen’s Speech, which provided for eight Brexit bills. The manifesto also envisaged Brexit involving “a significant increase” in powers for the devolved administrations (page 37).

“We will retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections” (page 43). That means no Supplementary Vote, i.e. first and second choices, which have enabled third- and fourth-placed parties (generally LibDems & Greens) to run effective mayoral campaigns. Outside the manifesto, the Conservative Party confirmed that this also means an end to the Additional Member System of PR in the London Assembly, which up to now has been the only way that LibDems and Greens have won seats there (see

“We will legislate for votes for life for British overseas electors” (page 42). Expats would never have to live here in order to have a say in how the country is run.

Following the decision to hold an early election, the Conservatives have also committed to “repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act” (page 43).

There is also a recognition that metro mayors, local enterprise partnerships, and local authorities have become a bit of a jumble: “we will consolidate our approach, providing clarity … so all authorities operate in a common framework” (page 32).

But following the election, none of these proposals was reflected in the Queen’s Speech. However, it is important to recognise that the Speech never covers the whole of the what is in a manifesto. Manifestos are written to cover a 5-year parliament. The Queen’s Speech usually covers just one year, and this case two. Measures excluded from it could be introduced in 2019 – provided there isn’t an early election of course.

The Tory manifesto is organised around the idea of “five giant challenges”. These are the economy, Brexit, social divisions, ageing, and technological change. Climate change and sustainability are not amongst the big five. Energy and transport are discussed under the heading ‘A Modern Industrial Strategy’, but primarily in the context of what they can do to help build ‘a strong economy’. In a section fitted in awkwardly just after ‘Stronger Communities from a Stronger Economy’, there are mentions of litter, recycling, and the countryside, together with a reaffirmation of the intention to “produce a comprehensive 25 Year Environment Plan” (page 26, with the Plan apparently provided for in the Queen’s Speech through the Brexit Agriculture Bill). The chapter primarily on Brexit includes mentions of climate change – “We will continue to lead international action” (page 38, also page 40) – and the Sustainable Development Goals, although the discussion of the SDGs is explicitly focused on how to spend the overseas aid budget (page 39) rather than difficult question such as how to tackle sustainable consumption and production (Goal 12).

However, there is a rare Burkean sustainability moment on page 9: “We respect the fact that society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born.”

The Labour manifesto also starts with the UK economy. The opening chapter includes a commitment to “ensure that 60 per cent of the UK’s energy comes from zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030” (page 14), apparently including nuclear (page 21). Company law will be amended to give company directors a duty to protect the environment (page 17).

The chapter on Brexit is keen to “guarantee that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal” (page 27). “Truly meaningful” is not defined (crucially: does it include the option of calling a second referendum?). Labour wants proper “parliamentary scrutiny of all future trade and investment deals” (page 30). It also supports “international negotiations towards an Environmental Goods Agreement at the WTO” (page 31). On the SDGs, “Labour will develop a cross-government strategy for ensuring the SDGs are implemented …” (page 122)

There is a chapter on constitutional reform. This includes a commitment to “establish a Constitutional Convention” (page102), a slow process of moving towards a democratically elected Second Chamber (page 102), opposition to a second Scottish independence referendum (page 104), and more devolved powers for Wales (page 105). There is nothing on electoral reform for the Commons. Labour commits to “a cabinet of at least 50 per cent women” (page 109).

Comparing these policies with what Labour governments achieved in the recent past – above all, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament with proportional representation and the attempt to set up regional assemblies across the whole of England (in practice that got no further than London) – it is fair to say that constitutional reform has moved down Labour’s agenda (in that sense Corbyn is less radical than Blair).

The same cannot be said of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, or the SNP but there are no examples which focus on better enabling long-term thinking, or taking into account future generations. A few highlights from their manifestos:

  • Votes at 16 (LibDems, Greens, SNP, Plaid)
  • PR for the Commons (Greens, LibDems, SNP); “reform the voting system” (Plaid)
  • PR for local government (Greens, LibDems, already exists in Scotland)
  • Lords reform: “proper democratic mandate” (LibDems), “elected second chamber” (Greens), abolition (SNP)
  • Constitutional Convention (LibDems)
  • “Give Parliament a vote on any new trade deals” (Greens, SNP similar); Give Welsh Assembly vote (Plaid)
  • “a 50/50 Parliament” (50% women MPs) (Greens)
  • Second referendum on Scottish independence (SNP)
  • More powers for the Welsh Assembly (Plaid)


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