The most dangerous part of Labour’s manifesto is the bit no one will read

Labour's new manifesto for the 2024 general election
Labour's new manifesto for the 2024 general election - Phil Noble /Reuters

The Labour manifesto is out, and all eyes will be on the economics. But the constitutional stuff, the pages people skip through, is what actually matters. Labour can raise taxes; the Tories can get back in and lower them. But New Labour showed that if you tinker with the constitution cleverly enough, the Left will remain in power forever. Call it “the hidden hand of the administrative state”.

Start with the Lords. Labour’s first move is to boot out the hereditary peers and introduce a retirement age at 80 (meaning Joe Biden couldn’t serve in it). This will sacrifice good peers on the discriminatory grounds that they’re too old, while protecting peers appointed when they were ridiculously young and have zero life experience (Ken Clarke goes, Charlotte Owen stays).

The trend is towards professionalisation of democracy, including a ghastly-sounding “Modernisation Committee” to reform the Commons. Say farewell to “arcane procedures”, which make the place tolerable; hello to clapping. The crackdown on unethical MPs is less toothy than I expected (it looks like the PM still gets final say on firing a minister); the war on second jobs is limited to “paid advisory or consultancy roles”. One doesn’t want to put doctors and nurses off running for parliament.

In the long run, “Labour is committed to replacing the House of Lords with an alternative second chamber that is more representative of the regions and nations” – signalling that it intends to implement Gordon Brown’s 2022 proposals for constitutional reform.

These were big. They seek to swap the Lords for an elected senate described as an Assembly of the Nations and Regions – i.e. with representatives of devolved areas – embedding devolution so it can never be reversed and handing local power-brokers such as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan power to scrutinise and amend legislation. This body would be able to veto bills if they are deemed to contradict “constitutional statutes”, with input from the Supreme Court.

Brown pledges to retain the primacy of the Commons, but these plans rebalance power away from MPs and towards courts and regional assemblies: moves that would probably make radical legislation, such as Brexit, impossible. Historically, the motor for government in the UK has always been an executive in parliament, commanding a majority that can more-or-less do what it wants.

Labour’s plan is to replace this with a constitutional framework that guarantees social rights – healthcare, education – policed by judges and committees. I recently heard David Starkey amusingly refer to this as the kind of constitution you’d find in a post-Soviet nation experimenting with democracy for the first time.

There’s also a lot of talk in the manifesto about better collaboration with assemblies, the vibe being that decisions should be made closer to the areas they affect. This does not guarantee better government. Schools are better in non-devolved England than in Scotland; the NHS is at its worst in self-governing Wales.

All it means is that cadres of socialist politicians get new jobs and powers in a Federal State of Great Britain. Only a politician could say the answer to a failed politics is... more politics. You can look forward to a Council of the Nations and Regions, which sounds like the Harrods of talking shops.

The Tories deserve some blame for the coming nightmare. They’ve trashed the reputation of the Lords by packing it with cronies; they endorsed and promoted devolution, even as it became a springboard for Left-wing politicians promising a chicken in every pot.

Both parties can be accused of a form of gerrymandering – the Conservatives by introducing voting ID requirements, and Labour by now extending votes to 16-year-olds in a bid to tip things in their favour. The Tories did some good in clearing out New Labour’s quangos, but they failed to repeal legislation that, once in place, makes it very hard to depart from the social democratic model.

If Labour wins, they’ll expand Tony Blair’s constitutional revolution, and it’ll be difficult to overturn. Just as no one wants to come out against an Act with the word equality in it, it’s tricky to argue against local government (“what? don’t you trust the people?”). One would have to repeal this stuff the same way Thatcher painstakingly tore up the postwar economic order. The Tory party in its present form doesn’t have the will or wit to do it.

Just look at how reluctant it was to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights, or to institute a domestic bill of rights. Disraeli defined the Tories as the party of the English Constitution. Over a century later, their understanding and affection for it turns out to be skin-deep.