Blair's weak constitution
By Alex Callinicos
A BELLY laugh must have swelled up all round Britain on Wednesday last week as the news spread that the hapless Alun Michael had resigned as first secretary of Wales. Humiliated by William Hague in the House of Commons, Tony Blair could only look on as his wretched creature finally fell on his sword.
Michael was replaced by Rhodri Morgan-the man Blair had done everything to stop becoming leader of the Welsh Labour Party. The affair demonstrates how discontent with New Labour is growing. This is especially so in areas such as South Wales that have traditionally been Labour strongholds. But it also reflects the contradictions in Blair's entire programme of constitutional reform.
As Will Hutton put it in last Sunday's Observer, "The Blair administration must be the world's least convinced constitutional reformers, whose instincts are to recoil from democracy and qualify liberty-even as they launch the most substantive constitutional reform programme since women won the vote." Blair did not opt for devolution out of conviction. His success in 1994-5 in removing the Clause Four commitment to public ownership from the Labour Party constitution left a gaping hole.
If Labour did not stand for nationalisation, what did it stand for? Blair's solution was to cobble together a collection of democratic reforms. There was the commitment to devolution in Scotland and Wales he had inherited from John Smith, the longstanding promise of a Freedom of Information Act, proposals to make the European Convention on Human Rights enforceable by British courts, and so on. There was nothing particularly socialist about these proposals. But they could be presented as an attempt to limit the enormous powers enjoyed by a British prime minister with a secure majority in the House of Commons.
But Blair had no intention of surrendering these powers. So Jack Straw's Freedom of Information Bill is a caricature of the original proposals. Most hereditary peers have been removed from the House of Lords. Yet Blair has indicated that he wants keep an all-appointed chamber-even though, as their refusal to scrap Section 28 shows, the House of Lords is still a bunch of reactionary bigots. As for devolution, its impact could be limited if Labour dominated the new administrations in Scotland and Wales. But here a further complication emerged.
As Hutton puts it, "The Blairites do not trust the Labour Party. They fear its instincts for social justice, redistribution of income and dislike of capitalism could resurface and imperil the Blairite project." So Millbank ruthlessly vetted the Labour nominees for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and used all its black arts to stop Rhodri Morgan from defeating successive official leadership candidates.
Working class voters swung massively to Plaid Cymru in reaction. It won a swathe of traditional Labour seats in the South Wales Valleys. Michael had to form a minority administration. He boasted of his close links with Whitehall but was unable to persuade Gordon Brown to match the money allocated by the European Union for deprived areas in Wales. Michael's failure to deliver set the scene for his removal last week.
Morgan is the beneficiary. But in exchange for finally getting the Labour leadership in Wales he has proclaimed his loyalty to Blair. He is putting out feelers for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which, if Donald Dewar's scandal-ridden Lib-Lab administration in Scotland is anything to go by, is hardly likely to offer any real alternative to New Labour. Nevertheless, the genie is out of the bottle. Already since devolution politics in Scotland has developed a dynamic of its own.
Michael's fall suggests that the same process is developing in Wales. To rebuild Labour's base there Morgan will have to demonstrate his independence of London. Blair's broader promises of democratisation are also returning to haunt him. Straw's Freedom of Information Bill and his attempt to limit the right to trial by jury have provoked an angry reaction among precisely the kind of middle of the road liberals who support other aspects of the New Labour "project".
Blair saw constitutional reform as a substitute for genuine social and economic change. As his promises to create a more democratic Britain come unstuck, they are helping to feed a wider mood of anger at his failure to bring about fundamental change.