Labour Reforms 1997-2010
The election of a Labour government in 1997, after 18 years in opposition, led to a range of constitutional reforms that were more far-reaching than anything attempted by governments for generations. Since the end of the Labour government some of these reforms have been developed further.
Why did this period see such extensive reform?
Pressure for reform in the 1990s
· Demands for modernisation: Tony Blair's New Labour Party was sympathetic to the idea of constitutional reform as part of its plan to modernise British institutions. Old Labour had adopted some political reforms, such as extending the vote to 18 year olds in 1969 and attempting to pass devolution for Scotland and Wales in 1979. However, it had been primarily concerned with economic and social issues. New Labour was more open to demands from pressure groups such as Charter 88 (later renamed Unlock Democracy), who wanted more open democracy and stronger guarantees of citizens' rights. Before winning a large independent majority in the 1997 election, Blair expected that he might need support from the Liberal Democrats, who were also committed to constitutional change — particularly reform of the firstpast-the-post electoral system.
· The experience of Conservative rule, 1979-97: The Conservative governments had refused to undertake constitutional reforms. This had helped to build up pressure for change, especially in Scotland, where the population felt ignored by a distant government in London. Scottish opinion rejected a number of Conservative policies. For example, the unpopular poll tax had been trialled there in 1989 before its introduction in England and Wales. Accusations of corruption or `sleaze' against many parliamentarians in the 19905 also helped to create a climate of opinion where the health and integrity of traditional institutions were questioned.
Changes under Labour, 1997-2010
The Labour governments focused on five major areas of reform.
· House of Lords reform: When the Labour government took office in 1997, the upper house was dominated by hereditary peers who owed their titles to inheritance. In what was intended as a transitional reform 2 years later, the government ended the right of all but 92 of these peers to sit in the Lords. House of Lords reform would reduce the influence of Labour's opponents within the political system, as the majority of hereditary peers supported Conservative governments. The removal of most hereditary peers also gave the Lords a more 'modern' appearance. The majority of its members were now life peers, who were supposed to have been appointed on grounds of merit, reflecting a wide variety of fields of activity, including politics, business, the trade union movement, the arts and the military. No political party now enjoyed a dominant position in the Lords. From 2000 a House of Lords Appointments Commission nominated a proportion of peers who were not linked with a party. However, the prime minister and other party leaders continued to make nominations on party political grounds, and no agreement was reached on making the Lords either wholly or partly elected, so it continued to lack democratic legitimacy.
· Electoral reform: Various forms of proportional representation were introduced for elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and European Parliament. However, although the government commissioned a report into the system used for Westminster, chaired by Roy Jenkins (former Labour Cabinet minister, subsequently a Liberal Democrat peer), no action was taken. Supporters of proportional representation concluded that, having won a crushing victory under the old system, Labour had no interest in changing arrangements for Westminster.
· Devolution: Devolved bodies were created for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland following referendums in 1997-98 in these parts of the UK. Labour's devolution reforms were a pragmatic package, designed to damp down support for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and to bring together the conflicting unionist and nationalist factions in Northern Ireland. Demand for devolution in Wales was always weaker and the Welsh Assembly did not gain comparable powers to those of the Scottish Parliament.
The government had no answer to the so-called 'West Lothian question': the anomaly that Scottish MPs at Westminster were able to vote on purely English matters, yet English MPs had no influence over issues devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Another source of grievance for England was the persistence of the Barnett formula, devised by Labour minister Joel Barnett in 1978, long before devolution. This determines relative levels of public spending for the component parts of the UK on the basis of population. It means that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receive more spending per head of population than England.
An attempt to set up elected regional assemblies in England was abandoned after the only area in which a referendum was held to test public opinion, the North-East, decisively rejected the idea in 2004.
· The Human Rights Act: This act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK statute law, enshrining rights such as those to a fair trial, freedom from slavery and degrading treatment, and respect for privacy and family life. All future legislation had to be compatible with the ECHR. Judges could not strike down laws that were incompatible with it but could highlight such legislation for amendment by Parliament. The limitations of the Human Rights Act were demonstrated by the government's decision to 'derogate from' (declare an exemption from) Article 5, which gave individuals the right to liberty and security, in cases of suspected terrorism. The introduction in 2005 of control orders, which allowed the authorities to limit the freedom of movement of such individuals, highlighted the unentrenched nature of the act.
· The creation of the Supreme Court: The 2005 Constitutional Reform Act led to the establishment, 4 years later, of a Supreme Court as the highest court of appeal in the UK for civil cases, and (except in Scotland) for criminal cases. Previously senior judges known as the Law Lords, sitting in the House of Lords, had performed this function. This development is an example of the separation of powers — the idea that the different branches of government (in this case law-making and judicial) should be independent of each other.