• The Queen’s Speech – a waste of time?

     

    Labour Together’s editorials on the pressing issues of the day are based on the politics of Labour’s Covenant. In the next of Labour Together's editorials, Jon Cruddas MP takes us through why Labour must take care not to misread the Queen's Speech.

     

     

    The Queen’s speech has been described as a damp squib; reflecting a government that’s run out of ideas and energy – ‘a party without a project’ - to quote a recent weekend Guardian editorial.

    Labour Together believes such an interpretation has to be challenged. Focusing on party gate and the Gray report is the easy option and avoids the hard thinking Labour has to do to prepare for government.

    Simply seeing this Queen’s Speech as an incoherent, aimless collection of 38 bills, symptomatic of an inert, drifting government, misreads what is going on here. And it avoids the obligation to provide an alternative.

    Three key economic, constitutional and international interventions stand out.

    • Economically, obviously levelling up;
    • internationally, offloading retained EU law, and
    • constitutionally, axing the Human Rights Act.

    If successful they will dramatically reset the economic character of the country, and our strategic international position alongside the rights and freedoms afforded to British citizens.

    Sure this agenda could well derail the government and rip the Tories apart. But it also poses major challenges for Labour in terms of what the party stands for. The stakes are high. It is worth considering each of these three interventions.

     

    Levelling up

    Last autumn the Prime Minister argued that Britain needs a new economic model. In his Conference speech, he announced it was time to tackle the “long-term structural weaknesses” of the economy. After 11 years of Conservative rule, Johnson was planning a policy overhaul to a ‘high wage, high skill, high-productivity economy’.

     

    This is clearly a bit rich especially after decades of being told by the Tories that the early 1980s marked an economic watershed and delivered a productivity miracle. Johnson now says, "we are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity".

    Thatcherite thinktanks rejected this new economic thinking. The Adam Smith Institute called Johnson’s speech ‘economically illiterate’ and an ‘agenda for levelling down to a centrally planned, high tax, low productivity economy’.

     

    How should Labour respond to such a change in tone? Should we not welcome talk of the UK's ‘broken’ economic model – a dramatic political reversal? For years, Tory leaders have told us that their ‘long-term economic plan’ was working, that they were the only party that could be trusted with the economy, and that the Labour years failed to ‘fix the roof when the sun was shining’.

    Should we not go further and support the twelve ‘new missions’ across four broad areas contained within the White Paper? We can surely agree a desire to:

    • boost productivity and living standards;
    • spread opportunities and improve public services;
    • restore a sense of community, and,
    • empower local communities.

    We could welcome the White Paper as one of the most thoughtful government documents for many years. One which offers – especially the first couple of chapters – the possibility of radical economic change. One that also promises a statutory responsibility to report on progress and independent data body; a new devolution framework and a Levelling Up Advisory Council.

    The smart politics would be to acknowledge these possibilities whilst questioning the ability of the Government to deliver on the radical change promised in the Queens Speech. But will radical economic change emerge out of this Queens Speech? We already know the answer.

    • The Treasury is actively hostile and won’t allow the biggest challenge to its power since Labour’s Department of Economic Affairs in the late 1960s.

    • Blue Wall Tories certainly won’t allow the Midlands and North to financially benefit whilst it suffers ongoing councillor and byelection defeats. Already the agenda appears marginalised within government.

    • Meanwhile Brexit, Covid, and the cost of living crisis mean many of the indicators of levelling up are in real time getting significantly worse.

    • Finally, fundamentally, it will be rejected as logically it challenges the political and economic legacy of Margaret Thatcher – something the Tories will never do.

    In the early 1980s:

    • the government weakened or abolished the tripartite institutions to assist industries, improve the skills base, and help in low pay industries.

    • The Industrial Training Boards and Wages Councils were axed; the labour market dramatically deregulated.

    • Gas, water, electricity, telecommunications, the ports and shipbuilding, and many Local Authority services privatised.

    Manufacturing output and productive capacity fell sharply, as record bankruptcies scarred the industrial base while costing two million jobs.

    Output declined by a staggering 20 per cent between 1979-81 and did not surpass its 1974 level until 1989.

    Seven in every ten employees henceforth worked in services and we saw a threefold rise in unemployment in the first half of the 1980s.

    Sadly rather than bring forward a new economic model - the radical agenda of the Levelling Up White Paper is unlikely to survive – reduced to little more than undignified and unaccountable rounds of pork barrelling by Red Wall Conservatives – like over the Towns Fund.

    Yet such a failure should create opportunities for Labour to grasp the radicalism of the White Paper. But to do that we have to acknowledge the radical content of this Queens Speech.

     

    EU retained law

    An even more radical agenda is on offer over the question of EU retained law – another likely battle ground within Tories.

     

    Basically, the principle of the supremacy of EU law means that national law that conflicts with EU law must be disapplied. But an Act of Parliament made on or after 31 December 2020 takes precedence.

    These principles were included in the Withdrawal Agreement to maintain continuity and certainty until parliament decides otherwise.

     

    Currently retained EU law – which despite the name is domestic not EU law – is to be interpreted in accordance with retained case law and retained general principles. In turn UK courts are bound by European Court decisions pre 31st December 2020 when interpreting retained law. With only a few specific courts being able to depart from European court decisions.

     

    The government is looking to remove the supremacy of EU law - to ‘amend, replace or repeal all retained EU law’- in the belief that this will liberate our economy from unwanted regulations, impositions, and oversight

    At present it won’t tell us how it intends to do so.

    There are huge issues here.

     

    First, and most obviously, it means a bonfire of environmental, consumer and worker protections and promises made in the debates around the Withdrawal Agreement.

    Second, it means expanded executive power at the expense of parliament. When the Withdrawal Agreement was going through the then government said its broad Section 8 powers would use regulations only to make technical as opposed to substantive changes.

     

    How things change.

     

    In the January ‘Benefits of Brexit’ paper the government acknowledged that changing retained EU law will be by secondary legislation. It said ‘it is not a good use of finite parliamentary time to require primary legislation to amend all of these rules’

     

    So not only will retained laws be torched, the government will usher in a land grab by the executive at the expense of parliament. So much for taking back control.

     

    Thirdly, the future is hiding in plain sight. The battle lines are already drawn. The European Scrutiny Committee review of retained EU law evidence sessions regularly focus on the so called anomalous status of EU case law.

     

    Many witnesses - and the right of the Tory party - are already demanding the total rejection of the decisions of the European Court. Martin Howe QC told the committee, ‘they could go tomorrow’.

     

    The consequences of such changes will be dramatic. Sir Jonathan Jones QC told the committee:

    ‘If you allow individual tribunals to depart from pre-existing precedent, you end up with multiple conflicting lines of interpretation, which creates uncertainty, unless and until somebody takes the matter on appeal, ultimately to the supreme court’.

     

    So what lies ahead?

    • A rejection of the commitments made at the time of the Withdrawal Agreement.

    • A bonfire of rights and protections.

    • Uncertainty about the concrete application of the law in this country, and

    • a cynical concentration of powers within the executive.

    The challenge for Labour is immense. A likely response is to support the status quo ante by defending the position contained in the Withdrawal Agreement. This response will see the Brexit trap games and debates about sovereignty and national identity reappear almost overnight.

     

    Conversely, Labour might instead say that given the results in 2016 and 2019 the debate must move on. By accepting the desire to move on Labour can resolve the dilemmas over retained law and commit the extending domestic primary legislation to boost labour laws, environmental and consumer protections.

    The Queen’s Speech contains clutch strategic political decisions and dangerous trip wires for Labour. Yet we are not discussing such vital issues seemingly content that there was nothing in the Queens Speech.

     

    Human Rights

    The question of retained EU law, set against an international backdrop of war and authoritarianism, reveals how we are withdrawing from our international obligations and democratic oversight both abroad and at home.

     

    This is not an accident.

     

    Similar themes reappear in the desire to replace the Human Rights Act.

     

    The Government’s stated wish is to comply with the Human Rights Convention yet it seeks to mandate our judges to disregard some of its basic principles and protections.

     

    This includes so called ‘positive obligations’ to investigate crime and wrongdoing. These are precisely the methods which produced the

    • remedies for the victims of ‘black cab rapist’ John Worboys,

    • alongside a range of other cases providing justice for victims, most famously through the Hillsborough Inquiry,

    • and a series of cases of justice for soldiers including that of Deepcut

    This is likely to see more not less cases going to Strasbourg, and once again expand the powers of the executive, which will be freer still to rule by regulation, and restrict the interpretative power of the courts.

    Again, so much for taking back control.

     

    When Europe and the world are crying out for international leadership and solidarity, our government runs in the other direction.

     

    We might assume it was only the likes of Russia, Poland and Hungary who cynically remained in treaties such as the Human Rights Convention whilst corroding them from within.

     

    It is extraordinary to think that in 2023, the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was partly crafted by British lawyers, the government plans to axe the Human Rights Act, the direct descendant of the Convention that sought to unite countries following fascism, authoritarianism and genocide.

     

    Winston Churchill might be turning in his grave. In his opening speech to the Congress of Europe in May 1948, he said the new Europe:

    “must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law’’.

     

    That sounds highly contemporary and appropriate today. Yet this attempt to deny rights to the British people, wrapped up in the Orwellian language of a ‘new Bill of Rights’, offers to build a new political movement behind a genuinely radical new Bill of Rights which builds on the Human Right Act rather than dismantles it.

     

    One that might echo themes from FDRs vision for a Second Bill of Rights in 1944 which found its way into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right:

    • to work,

    • to free education,

    • to have access to public health,

    • to housing

    • to security and freedom from fear

    This could be part of Labour rethinking modern citizenship linked to radical levelling up programme:

    • a new fundamental economic and social rights for all;
    • a new democratic and economic covenant between the state and its citizens;  
    • one that is aligned with what administrations in Scotland and Wales are also seeking;
    • not only honouring the good Friday Agreement’s commitment to the Human Rights Convention’ but in keeping with the long term quest for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

    This offers a different type or radicalism to that of the Queens Speech with its desires to consolidate power within the executive and strip away access to justice.

     

    Labour’s choice

    The basic point is a simple one. This Queens Speech is no damp squib. Thinking that it is tacitly concedes too much ground and reinforces a political groupthink that underplays its radical potential:

    • to isolate us;

    • diminish our international standing;
    • consolidate long term economic weaknesses and enduring patterns of inequality, and hand over even greater powers to the executive.

    There is plenty to see here. The least it deserves is a radical alternative.