Progressive federalism - can it work?

By Paul Sutton

On 21 December last year, in a speech prefiguring the Labour Party campaign for the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021, Keir Starmer announced: “Labour will launch a UK–wide Constitutional Commission to consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level. This won’t be an exercise in shifting power from one parliament to another – of moving a few jobs out of London, or to devolve and forget. This will be the boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation.….It will consider all parts of the United Kingdom. And it will focus on delivering real - and lasting - political and economic devolution across our towns, our communities and to people across the country”. The Commission will be advised by Gordon Brown. His position was made clear in an article in The Observer (18/10/2020) when he wrote that as soon as the coronavirus pandemic was over: “the UK needs to be rethought and rebooted - starting with a convention engaging all nations and regions and built out of local citizens’ assemblies to discuss how, through joint working and the sharing of power, we manage practical challenges like disease control, social care, regeneration and employment”.

The strategy set out by Labour is to extend and deepen the existing devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These already give substantial powers to their respective governments even if, as in the case of Scotland, they have not been fully deployed, especially by the Scottish nationalist government which prefers instead to blame Westminster for its many problems. It also indirectly addresses the situation in England by proposing greater devolution to the English regions, though this is a complex problem on which there is no consensus nor much attempt so far to promote awareness or discussion of the issue. This strategy of further devolution is cautious and incremental, promising only limited change. As such, it has drawn criticism from some on the left of the Labour Party and by socialists who want something more fundamental. In recent years this has been variously advanced under the designation of ‘progressive federalism’.


The idea of progressive federalism was first developed by the Red Paper Collective in the opening skirmishes of the Scottish referendum on independence. Its members were drawn from the trade unions, politics and academia and they were opposed to both the Scottish National Party’s vision of independence and to those who were by and large content with the status quo. They initially set out their views in Scottish Left Review, November/December 2012. These argued that for socialists independence was meaningless unless it could “challenge the power of capitalism and bring markets under democratic control”. Independence by itself could not guarantee this and so, contrary to socialists in the Radical Independence Campaign, who argued that an independent Scotland was a first step to a socialist Scotland, the Red Paper Collective proposed staying within the United Kingdom but fundamentally changing the way it was governed.

Subsequent to this they have developed their views in several publications exploring the policies that would need to be adopted by a radical Scottish Parliament to bring fundamental socialist change. The most recent was released in January this year (Scotland United 1971-2021) and set out their arguments for a third option on the ballot paper on any future referendum on Scotland’s future. This would propose giving more powers to the Scottish Parliament through a programme of constitutional change throughout the UK that would also deliver increased powers to Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England. It would, in effect, constitute a ‘third way’ opening the route to radical constitutional reform.  The form that would take is set out in a lengthy report released this January entitled Remaking the British State: For the Many, Not the Few commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn in 2018 as Leader of the Labour party and completed in February 2020. 

The Report, authored by Sean Patrick Griffin, a constitutional lawyer, covers a lot of ground. It discusses some essential elements of the British Constitution; examines in detail the experience of the Scottish Parliament, especially in recent years; touches upon ‘the English question’; examines federalism, including progressive federalism; and sets out at length key elements of a new constitution, including detailed proposals for a Senate of the Nations and Regions

The main arguments for, and features of, progressive federalism are briefly set out in Chapter 7. It argues that fundamental change is needed now and that this requires a shift from “the doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament” to “a new constitutional model, where sovereignty rests with all of the peoples of the UK as embodied in their various institutions across the country” (p. 138). This requires that a new written constitution be enacted and provisions entrenched within it. Among these should be a constitutional commitment to socialism: “through the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange for the UK’s assets and key industries including the NHS; utilities including water, natural gas and electricity generation and supply; natural resources including oil and gas; essential transport structure including the railways; the National Investment Bank as the UK’s state investment bank and the Bank of England as the central bank; and the state education system” (p. 165). Additionally, workers should be given full protection of economic and social rights by the constitution along with the protection of “alternative models of economic ownership to rebalance the economy towards democratic principles rather than private profit” (p. 169).

The constitution should also promote greater democracy and better governance through the principles of ‘progressive federalism’ which recognise that the UK is “a multi-national state made up of four distinctive but unified nations” and that this would involve splitting sovereignty and “sharing it across the whole of the UK, diffusing power downwards to the nations, regions and local communities of the UK” (p. 145). This means promoting subsidiarity i.e. devolving decision-making downwards to “the lowest possible level of government closest to the people whom the decisions affect most directly” (p.145). Other key principles are promoting ‘solidarity’ between nations and regions through redistributing power and wealth throughout the UK, ensuring it is done in such a manner that it “fosters and reflects the economic and social solidarity between working class people across the UK who, although living in different parts of the country share the same class interests” (p.146); and ensuring ‘parity of esteem, tolerance and respect’ between the different national identities, ethnicities, cultures and institutions of the UK, including between the continuing central government Westminster and the various devolved administrations at national and regional level.


These wide-ranging proposals would, if enacted, amount to the greatest constitutional changes that England and Wales have seen since the English Civil war in the seventeenth century and Scotland since the Union in 1707. It is therefore appropriate to ask how and whether they could come about.

Regrettably the Report has almost nothing to say on this matter. Its final chapter entitled ‘The Process of Constitutional Transformation’ is less than three pages long. It simply notes it “will be very difficult to achieve” (p. 213). This is an understatement. Earlier in the Report it notes that winning a parliamentary majority in the House of Commons to take control of the commanding heights of the British state and economy fails “to appreciate the in-built reactionary and conservative bias of the sclerotic British state itself” and that the “capture of the British State by the British establishment and the interests of capital has been total” (p. 143). It also quotes Ralph Miliband to the effect that the Labour party is not a socialist party, even if it has always contained socialists within its ranks. It is instead “a political party committed to parliamentary democracy” (p. 143). In other words, would the Labour Party itself commit to a radical strategy when faced with substantial opposition to it in Parliament and out? It notes, for example that it would take more than “the avowedly socialist leadership” of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to achieve any socialist transformation.

Instead it concludes with the rather weak proposal that the Labour Party should develop its own clear vision on the constitution and promote a comprehensive and inclusive UK-wide constitutional convention, followed by the drafting of a constitution, which would then be put to a UK-wide referendum for approval.  It presumes a largely consensual process even though what is being proposed is momentous and so would be contested every inch of the way, not least by the ruling class who would appear to have everything to lose in such a process. That is why, in comparison to all other political parties throughout the UK, the Tories are least interested in real constitutional change. What have they to gain?

In spite of this, many in the Labour Party think they are onto a winner. Progressive federalism continues to gather support. The latest recruits are leading members of the Welsh Labour Party. In another paper released in January: We, the People: the case for Radical Federalism they claim: “Radical constitutional reform is no longer an option, it is an unavoidable necessity”. They repeat many of the ideas in the Report and affirm the need for debate throughout the UK, deploring the fact that “the only choice which seems to be on offer to the voters of Scotland and Wales is a strictly binary choice between an ill-defined ‘independence’ or the status quo. Further, no choice of any sort is being made available to voters in the cities and regions of England, ignoring the importance of constitutional reform in that country to us all, and the historic links and common interests we share across the nations of the UK” (p.5). This quotation draws attention to a major weakness of their arguments and those of the Report and, before them, the Red Paper Collective: what to do about England.

In the Report the discussion of England is brief (there is none on Wales, though Northern Ireland is examined). It concludes that dividing England into regions would not work and suggests as an alternative a “combined authorities model based on the current combined authorities in England” (p.100), of which there are now ten. The Combined Regional Authorities (CRAs) would be represented in the Senate of Nations and Regions. The Report also does not recommend a separate Parliament for England, but rather that the current arrangement of ‘English votes for English laws’ in the UK Parliament continues, albeit with greater local powers and in a reformed context. None of this is convincing. The Report notes that while CRAs “may be suitable for metropolitan and urban areas in England…. outside the major conurbations, for example in the shires, there may have to be different models available” (p.102). It does not specify these and even allows for the possibility that “local authorities that have decided not to combine into a CRA would essentially be excluded both from the local regional autonomy that the CRA offers and from the election of Senators to the Senate of the Nations and Regions” (p. 103). That is, they would be doubly disadvantaged, without local power and without a vote.

Less it be forgot, the heart of Tory voting power is the English shires and anything which compromises this will not in any way reach the agenda, let alone be considered. Equally, it should not be forgotten that some 85% of the UK population live in England compared to just 8% in Scotland and 4% in Wales. Unless English interests are put at the centre of any new constitutional debate any notion of federalism in the UK will fail, let alone progressive federalism.


Ultimately the idea of progressive federalism is driven by the prospect of Scottish independence and growing in the wings, Welsh independence. It offers a third way which keeps the UK together and at the same time opens the road to socialism. The latter, as with all roads to socialism, is paved with difficulties and in its progressive/radical federalism vision is a road too far for the current Labour leadership under Keir Starmer. His view of a third way is very different and addresses only the issue of the union in the UK. It focuses only on further devolution, not radical constitutional change. It is likely to proceed by reform within the system, rather than reform of the system. The model here is the one set out in the Fabian pamphlet Progressive federalism: a different way of looking at the UK (August 2019), authored by Professor Jim Gallagher, formerly the most senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office directing the process of devolution under New Labour. This new third way prioritises social justice through entrenching constitutional provisions and guaranteeing allocation of resources to fund it from across the UK. It would, for example, guarantee free education and health services so that if there was a right-wing government in the UK, a left-wing government in Scotland or Wales would still be able to maintain its social welfare programmes. This is equivalent in his words to “an ‘each way bet’ for progressive causes”.

Such a strategy builds on the approach to constitutional reform by New Labour which was to proceed through separate initiatives rather than any grand plan. It was modest and of course will be well known to Gordon Brown. The Third Way is thus reborn, now with a constitutional rather than an economic focus. The question is whether it is anywhere near radical enough to confront the nationalist challenges facing the UK. After all, it was another New Labour luminary, George Robertson, then Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, who declared ‘Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead’. Instead devolution nourished it. Is the Labour Party under Starmer about to do the same again?


Debating Chamber of the Scottish Parliament photo by Colin

The report presumes a largely consensual process even though what is being proposed is momentous and so would be contested every inch of the way, not least by the ruling class who would appear to have everything to lose in such a process.

Gordon Brown photo by Remy Steinegger