If Keir Starmer is serious about equality, Labour must start thinking in constitutional terms once again

by Sanjit Nagi

Since his seminal speech ‘A New Chapter for Britain’, Keir Starmer has made clear the fundamental value which drives his politics: equality. Or rather, Labour’s central aim under his leadership is to remedy the severe inequality that has stemmed from eleven years of deregulation, low pay, job insecurity, child poverty, inaccessible education, and health and racial disparities. Because of this, it is completely correct for him to say the very fabric and foundation of our polity has been severely damaged and needs repair.

Thus far Labour have been policy shy. But reading between the lines there has been some indication of how a Labour government would address inequality; all of which broadly hit the right note: better public services, racial parity, investment in skills and training, education reform, affordable homes, a care system that treats old age with dignity, and tackling the climate emergency.

But if Keir Starmer and the Labour Party want to secure Britain’s future and really entrench the value of equality across all walks of life, they have to start thinking in constitutional terms once again. By this, I mean there must be a commitment to a new settlement of socio-economic rights, guarantees, and responsibilities extended to all citizens.

Constitutional change in the form of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998) was a monumental moment in respect of liberty. Thanks to Labour, an era of individual rights began where we the people were entitled and able to enforce fundamental civil and political rights (located in the European Convention on Human Rights) domestically. Despite the Conservatives’ consistent attacks and threats to replace the HRA 1998, it has (so far) stood the test of time and delivered: key victories in areas of privacy and family life, fair trial, right to life, and freedom of religion; a duty on all public bodies to act in a way which is compatible with a person’s human rights; and increased executive accountability via judicial review. This piece of legislation is now so deep-rooted within our constitutional make-up, it is not controversial to say that taking it away from us would result in major political ramifications.

Labour should now commit itself to introducing a second Human Rights Act which guarantees the social and economic needs of citizens. The right to: health and social care, social housing, education, social security, disability protection, safety at work, parity between all genders, and the protection against poverty and social exclusion. It might also recognise and seek to protect the position of unpaid labour within the system e.g. parenting or those in the voluntary sector who are so often overlooked and underappreciated. The European Social Charter provides some indication of what this second Human Rights Act might look like.

The pandemic has shown what socio-economic guarantees we all need to survive. A commitment to codifying these key human interests could shift the constitutional terrain once again, providing for: new fundamental entitlements for citizens, a new duty on the state to meet basic standards, and greater accountability – via judicial review –  of things which are of relevance to us all.

Labour have already committed to a new Race Equality Act to tackle the structural racism present in modern day. Whilst this is most welcome and much needed, it would be even more effective if coupled with an enforceable regime of socio-economic rights. As there can be no real discussion about structural racism without understanding accessibility and discrimination within health, work, education and beyond. This is even more pressing in light of the Conservative government’s Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities downplaying and dismissing the extent of structural racism.

A new piece of constitutionally-significant legislation as described would seriously begin Labour’s task of building a fairer, more equal society. It would also clearly set Labour apart from the Conservatives in terms of narrative and principles: Labour believes in enshrining rights and protecting your interests.

The move towards a second Human Rights Act might be resisted with weak arguments such as its unviability or it skewing policy and resource allocation towards the courts. But like the HRA 1998 ensures greater government accountability whilst resisting judicial overreach, the design of a second Human Rights Act could do the same. A better argument against social and economic rights are their democratic legitimacy. Where new interests are created and affect everybody, everybody should have the greatest equal influence over them. This might be solved via multiple citizen assemblies; bringing together a representative cross-section of society – lay persons and experts – to decide on the shape of the socio-economic guarantees.

Moreover, Labour should supplement this second Human Rights Act by reviving Gordon Brown’s government proposal for an ethical framework of ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. The aim of this bill is to give practical expression to shared community values, foster civic responsibility and tolerance of others. For example, the Green Paper released identified a number of duties that we might all owe one another: respectful treatment of public sector workers i.e. NHS staff et al; civic participation in the form of voting and jury service; respecting our environment for future generations; obeying laws and paying taxes; and protecting the welfare of our children. These duties are not exhaustive and might be expanded on e.g. a greater emphasis on diversity and race or on our environmental obligations. There would be no physical enforcement of these obligations. A supplementary constitutional document of this kind simply seeks to codify the feeling of collective responsibility – that does exist in Britain and has been seen during the pandemic – and help to build a society that is both fairer and more cohesive.

The great social and economic advancements of all Labour governments – Attlee, Wilson, and Blair – were secured through political change and implemented through parliamentary legislation. But there has never been any form of constitutional protection of the NHS, public housing, state education and all the other socio-economic guarantees listed above. Nor has there been any real campaign or drive to do so. But we cannot fool ourselves in thinking these ordinary means are enough. We’ve seen how the Conservatives have left vital services in decay and have reduced access of large sections of society to the absolute basic minimums human beings require to live – causing gross inequality for a generation. We’ve seen how fragile our own lives are when we do not have shelter, are unable to eat or drink, are out of work, or have no support for loved ones who are either ill or elderly.

So, if Keir Starmer and Labour truly wish to rid Britain of its inequalities and insecurity, deep-rooted constitutional change – which will survive future governments – is an essential starting point.

Sanjit Nagi is a PhD Researcher and Visiting Lecturer

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14 Responses to “If Keir Starmer is serious about equality, Labour must start thinking in constitutional terms once again”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Despite the woke teaming up with Blairites to say the poor wont dare not vote Labour if we stop brexit we need to win back the votes we’ve just lost to the Libdems , 2 years ago
    Actually the student politics ones when left with Starmer as leader were more aware than Blairites that Starmer by his disenfranchising the working class with a wind referendum for remain has caused himself to never be able to win a election
    Than the New Labour lot who think its 97 again and Labour has to win the more middle class pro EU because of small businesses to win
    Not twigging it’s lost the working class

  2. Rocinante says:

    I swear this website is just trolling the monomaniacal brexit bores who dominate the comments. “Parity between all genders” is probably going to attract some flak. I mean, I’m as woke as the next member of the metropolitan remainer elite, but maybe fix the big stuff first?

  3. Ann Onnimus says:

    Keir Starmer isn’t serious about equality.

  4. Anne says:

    Bearing in mind when Kier Starmer inherited the leadership of The Labour Party the world was in the grips of the Covid pandemic and it is not over. What Starmer may have promised at the beginning will have been radically changed because of covid. The NHS has a massive backlog of work. Children have missed schooling. The pandemic has highlighted the holes in social care. People have lost their jobs. The effects of Brexit – Northern Ireland unrest. When Wilson and Blair came to power we were in different times with less pressures on the economy. Yes, while policies are required to enable the electorate to understand what the Labour Party stands for there has to be priorities. Yes, many groups and communities have been left behind, but what has been at the forefront of dealing with the pandemic is how community groups have risen to the challenge – food banks, litter picking groups, car groups set up to ferry people for vaccinations. Maybe it is a question of priorities- what is being advocated in this article is very idealistic- perhaps for better times.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Rocinante if Labour doesn’t want traditional working class votes the. Fine but look at the opinion polls

    As for gender equality
    Where I live firstly in 2002 then 2010 both a blairite then a corbynite middle class men broke the rules to win all women shortlists

  6. andy williams says:

    Has this been written by some fool with little experience of actual real life?

    This takes absolutely no account of devolution and it’s impacts at all. None. Amnateurish in the extreme.

    The NHS does not even exist – it is now 4 NHSs, with pPrlaiment only retaining control over one of them – NHS England, which in turn is in the process of being broken up and devolved as the English regions and metropolitan areas start to devolve. NHS Manchester and NHS London will leave NHS England totally obver the next few years, followed not long after by others.

    Likewise public housing. It is a devolved matter. And is even devolved within the polity of England. London’s housing is the reserve of the GLA.

    The quickest way for Labour to not win the next election is to demand things that will result in more government agencies, more public sector workers and more taxation. And to win and truy and undo parts of devolution is the quickest way to start a civil war.

  7. andy williams says:

    Anne The NHS has a massive backlog of work.

    Which will be dealt with exactly the same way as Blair did it – by contracting in the private hospitals to soak it up, and which you will all support (even though it will plough billions into the likes of BUPA) because it was a Labour idea to begin with.

    while policies are required to enable the electorate to understand what the Labour Party stands for

    And you still don’t listen, even though a reasonably brifght chimpanzee could understand it. Labour is rapidly becoming a middle class metropolitan liberal party, mostly inhabited by hal;f-witted intelligentsia and urban bourgoisie andthe public sector, infested with Rejoiners and other assorted journeymen clap-trap. You have set about deliberately destroying your own support base in the somewhat bizarre notion that like a beaten dogs, they would still remain loyal to you. Many of Labour’s original core traditional working class voter base is increasingly realising that a party whose senior members are happy to attend gender segregated meetings, bow to BLM marxist scum who wish to destroy the family and defund the police, have photo opportunities with gay-hating clergymen, whose leadership ‘takes the knee’ like a pair of drooling gorps, calls them “bigoted” for asking why they have allowed mass immigration and belittles them for being proud of their culture, history and flag is not the party that represents their interests. Now, do you understand or do I need to use shorter, simpler words and tap you on the head with a spoon as I say them to you.

  8. Tiptop says:

    Oh please please please. As a conservative supporter I would love nothing more than for labour to focus on this.
    And let the grown ups carry on with the governing.

  9. Dave Roberts says:

    All of this is a recipe for keeping the Tories in power for decades, particularly anything to do with race. There is no such thing as structural racism. There is a level playing field and the Common Law.

  10. Tafia says:

    Last week, Labour’s (about to lose) Hartlepool candidate Dr Paul Williams invited Jonathan Ashworth up to complain about a lack of hip operations in the town in what was a ‘media event’. While Williams accurately says this is the result of cuts, he failed to tell Ashworth who was responsible for them: Dr Paul Williams himself along with 3 other colleague Doctors.

    In 2013 Dr Williams was a commissioner and co-author of the report that decided services – including critical care – be removed from Hartlepool Hospital.

    The report:- https://www.scribd.com/document/503539841/04-09-13-Audit-and-Governance-Committee-Agenda

    The Tories have found out and have fully weaponised it using the slogan ‘Hospital Hypocrit’ in the by-election and Labour are now running scared there.

  11. John P Reid says:

    Reading a article in the independent the other day

    Peter Mandleson was saying- the 2017 election was A Re run
    On brexit with Labour being A Remain party and The Tories leave
    Yet if that’s the case then the 2019 election was a re run of Brexit, then Labour as the remain party got 32% of the vote if that how much of the public wanted remain in 2019

  12. John P Reid says:

    If Labour want to win
    Then A Williams comments should be used as bible

    Remainers shouldn’t be annoyed with leavers

    they should be angry with the EU who wouldn’t budge a inch
    Causing us who 6 months before the referendum had Cameron got a thing
    Would’ve said hold your nose and vote remain

  13. John P Reid says:

    So after a year of endless campaigning leading up to the 2001 general election when we lost Upminster by a 1100 votes , next Door John Cryer of Hornchurch At the election count on winning said his victory sent the message we( the party )should take this as a sign to going back to being good “old labour” now at the time I thought what a cheek,make no doubt about it this was the first time after a Labour Party had been in office for a full term and had a good enough result to be re-elected for a second full term and had won in England again
    (Attlee was re-elected in 1950 but with a small majority so was out a year later / Wilson was re-elected in 1966 after 16 months, then lost in 1970 but when re-elected in 1974 due to Heath misreading the mood in the 3day week) and got less votes than Heath in the first election of 1974 then spent a fortune 0n the public, to get himself re-elected in the 2nd election of that year he not only got less votes in England than the Tories{ winning by winning Scotland} but he won with 38% of the votes 11.4m votes which was a million votes Down on, When Gaitskell had lost for labour getting 12.4m votes in 1959)
    Any way Jon Cryers romantic view of old labour as the party of the working class and his opposition to the Iraq invasion would later win me over
    So I was more aligned with His old labour views, than the Dagenham support for blue labour, although they’re fairly close in views( consider myself liberal on some things ,so the socially Conservative stuff is a bit over the top)
    But the Contempt the liberal elite have for blue labour is ridiculous- it’s the culture war where the metropolitans sneering are the culturally Traditional view of life as common so where they lost the argument on feeling they know best how to tell the poor Joe to live their lives to them by just telling people who don’t follow them they’re too thick to know what’s best for them is the Wokes snobbery justifying their recent defeats by saying it’s a moral victory, to feel they’re better people then those who don’t follow their politically correct view of the world, without knowing
    What the pressure of moving in. Working class area are like
    With out realising it’s good will that holds a community together not the rule of law. Where there not a strict rule for their to be exact obedience of people following the letter of the law to the defined rules
    more a case of where blue labour has but disappeared as the Tories swung towards the left economically and apart from the occasional Twitter spat of someone calling Paul embery prejudiced, thinking this is enough to win support of the converted not twigging that identity politics doesn’t resonate with the working class in anymore than actual people in social housing areas would not tolerate the women’s rights they or their Daughters aunts , wives ,Mothers or Sisters, have being thrown away for the fear of not getting political correctness

  14. Anne says:

    Mr Williams.Nothing remains the same and no party has a right to exist, either in the form it first came into existence or though changes in a country’s fortunes. Events and circumstances influence change – you may even be correct in that The Labour Party may have become more ‘liberal’ than it once was, but also the term ‘working class’ may not mean the same as it did say 50 years ago. Yes, the Labour Party has to be clearer what it stands for – the centre ground is where parties win elections
    Regarding the NHS – there is a massive backlog – many consultants are undertaking weekend operations and on line consultations. It is only those who can afford to do so will use private insurance companies – certainly not the majority. It would be great if nurses were given an increase in pay. Sorting out social care would also be good. These are things that The Labour Party would prioritise. Bye the way – no need for physical violence.

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