Labour embraces constitutional reform, especially if it keeps Scotland on board

<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Go out on to the streets of Leeds, Keir Starmer told the BBC’s Chris Mason. And what you will hear is that people have a passion for constitutional reform. Not sure that’s exactly what I overhear when I’m out and about. The conversations I eavesdrop tend to be rather more mundane. Why the buses and trains aren’t running on time. Hospital appointments being cancelled. The cost of living. What they are planning on eating that night.

But no one can accuse Labour of ducking the difficult issues. Where the Conservatives are out of ideas, running on fumes and trying not to collapse under the weight of the latest daily crisis – the political entropy of 12 years in government – Starmer is trying to think beyond daily survival.

To come up with changes that might go some way to making sticking-plaster solutions a thing of the past. To offer a future that feels like a future. Rather than a repetition of the past. At least that was the promise. Even if it was all a bit sketchy.

Two years ago, the Labour leader sent Gordon Brown away to head up a commission on constitutional change. On Monday that report was launched at an event at Leeds University.

After a brief introduction from the West Yorkshire mayor, Tracy Brabin, Brown opened the speeches. “Labour is not the old establishment in waiting,” he said. Though it looked quite like it. The former prime minister doing a warm-up turn for the man most likely to be the next UK leader.

No matter. Brown does know how to deliver a compelling speech and he quickly worked his way up through the gears.

Labour would ditch a century of centralisation that had imploded in on itself with Tory sleaze and scandal. It believed the regions – not Whitehall – knew best and had identified 288 economic clusters that would regenerate the country. How they would all operate, he forgot to mention. You just needed to believe.

The change wouldn’t be incremental. It would be transformational. No more second jobs for MPs. Fifty thousand civil service jobs transferred out of London. An end to an unelected House of Lords. A transfer of power to all those who felt left behind.

Take Scotland. The country would be allowed to do almost anything it wanted just so long as it didn’t carry on asking for independence. There were limits to devolution after all, apparently.

Then Brown handed over to Starmer. Who more or less repeated what Gordon had just said. Only making it sound less thrilling and more prosaic. The UK was the most centralised country in Europe and was no longer functioning properly.

Though he had voted to remain, he respected all those who had voted to leave the EU because they wanted more control over their lives. And he was going to give them that. Not that he really wanted to talk about Brexit. Probably just as well. His assertion on the Today programme that leaving the single market hadn’t cost the UK a penny hadn’t survived contact with reality.

Labour’s plans would not just change who governs but how the country was governed. For the many, by the many. Transport, housing and Jobcentre Plus would all become devolved powers. Proper levelling up, not the ersatz trickle down from the centre levelling up of the Tories.

The UK would almost be like a federal state though he would be careful not to call it that. Because the UK would never actually vote to become a federation. Best to try to imagine it as a more informal arrangement.

The questions were almost entirely respectful. Not so long ago, the end of a Starmer speech would be the cue for a pile-on. As if the price for having been made to sit through 15 minutes of promotional material was some awkward interrogation.

But something has changed. The media has read the room and looked at the polls. Reporters – even those from non-Labour-friendly organisations – can sense the Tories have nothing to offer and that Starmer is odds-on to be next prime minister. So they treat him with more seriousness. They don’t want to be squeezed out of the conversation.

So was Starmer really expecting to get all this done in his first five years in office? “Absolutely,” he insisted. Though the rest of his answers suggested otherwise. This was a consultation document, he stressed, so it was important that everyone went away and had a good consult.

Related: Will Labour really axe the Lords, that laughing stock of democracy? I’ll believe it when I see it | Simon Jenkins

Who knew what would happen after the consultation? Could be everything. Could be nothing very much.

Look, abolishing the House of Lords was a big deal and they were bound to cut up rough. And he couldn’t even say if the new assembly would be elected via proportional representation. It was hard to know what Labour would do. Though it was nice they were giving it some thought.

Over in the House of Lords, two new shiny baronesses were being sworn in. Take a bow Lady Moyo and Lady Lampard. One a graduate of Goldman Sachs, economist and married to a billionaire; the other a former barrister, holder of various nonexecutive directorships and a safe pair of hands for a quango.

The kind of people the Conservatives know they can trust. Establishment either born or thrust upon them. Hard to think of two less deserving people. Labour might be on to something.