the people’s charter – a charter for change?

by Chris Kane

Pick up any paper, listen to any news bulletin, and you will find reference to yet another redundancy announcement.

Unemployment is predicted to rise to two million by spring and three million in another year: indicators put it as the worse recession since 1980. Due to the rising cost of living and growing unemployment, arrears are mounting, repossessions are expected to rise to at least 75,000.

The unelected Business Secretary Lord Mandelson says that after the recession there will emerge “a renaissance in UK manufacturing and the expansion of the UK’s knowledge-based industries”. This promise of jam tomorrow is no more comforting than Brown’s job creation schemes, a drop in the ocean of the jobs cull underway.

The talk of how things will look after the recession is made even more ridiculous by the fact that things could get worse: much worse. Having poured £37 billion into the banks in October 2008, it never worked and has required another rescue package of up to £300 billion to shore up the financial system just three months later.

Capitalism is the problem

New Labour politicians who for decades gave the City a free reign now blame the banks for the ongoing crisis, when it’s not the banks: it is the global economy. The real cause arises from the capitalist system of production for profit. This tiny capitalist-class that owns and controls the economy simply decides when such methods as squeezing down costs such as wages can no longer restore the rate of profit for the capitalists: they simply begin shedding workers in an effort to increase their profit margin. Over the years various shades of politicians have tried and failed to prevent the recurring cycle of crises and all have failed because they believed in the system
and sought to perpetuate capitalism. Similarly today we cannot rely on the schemes of Brown or Obama to solve these problems.

The TUC and the captive bureaucrats

The employers and the government fully realise the scale of their predicament and are prepared to take drastic measures – in the interests of capital. The official labour movement however, as opposed to responding in kind, is too closely tied to the government and this system to put up even token resistance. The TUC, which is meant to represent the working class, has responded with an
‘emergency ten point plan to tackle unemployment’ but in the entire document there is not one word on stopping the job cuts. For the career bureaucrats at the TUC it is neither possible nor desirable to stand in the way of the employers’ efforts. Instead they call for “further interventions in the banking and financial systems” to get credit flowing, as series of ameliorative palliatives, extending
‘Train to Gain’, which the TUC benefits from, utilising union reps’ skills not to fight but as career advisors, increase redundancy pay and more job clubs. The TUC has a lot to say about training but very little about trade unionism.

The more radical trade unions have not yet mounted resistance to the recession on the industrial front on any substantial scale. The agreements made at the TUC for co-ordinated action ended ignominiously. In Royal Mail instead of the necessary industrial action in response to privatisation the CWU leadership is keeping the campaign within the parameters of a ‘political’ campaign, aimed at generating a backbench rebellion. There is however within the labour movement a major initiative in response to the recession arising from around the rail workers’ union RMT and the Fire Brigades Union.

The People’s Charter

The new People’s Charter (click here) was drawn up by a commission comprising leaders of the RMT, FBU, John McDonnell MP, representatives of Respect and the Communist Party of Britain along with prominent left individuals and community activists. There is no doubt ‘the People Charter – A Charter for Change’ has garnered significant forces for its launch, but this does not diminish the serious problem with the manner it has been constructed.

Today’s initiative has taken its name from the original People’s Charter of the 19th century which was initiated by the London Workingmen’s Association: its aim, initially, was electoral reform for the disenfranchised working class. The 1839 Charter was built on the back of mass meetings which elected delegates to The General Convention of the Industrious Classes to oversee the struggle.

The initiators of the 21st century People’s Charter have organised through invitation-only meetings with virtually no discussion in the ranks of the organisations represented. This is not unusual on the left or the labour movement, it is almost habitual – it is also the cause of many a failed project, no matter what the initiators’ original intentions.

One surprising feature of the new People’s Charter is the complete absence of even the words ‘capitalism’ or ‘working class’. No doubt the intention of this omission is that it will widen the charter’s appeal… but in fact poll after poll has confirmed the majority of people actually consider themselves to be working class! Furthermore any movement should also aim to educate as well as agitate and mobilise, to develop consciousness. Similarly at a time when the entire media openly talks of a crisis of capitalism the reluctance to name the cause of crisis clearly – capitalism itself – is self-defeating. Class politics are implicit in the new People’s Charter, which sets out an array of reforms which would ameliorate the conditions of the working class in the current crisis. This ranges from protecting and creating jobs, restoring “union rights to allow them the freedom to fight the crisis and to protect workers”, protecting housing and increasing provision, to stopping current wars and the re-allocation of resources.

But in many ways the new People’s Charter is at a lower level of politics than that reached by the Chartists of the 1840s. The new Charter calls for a “fair economy for a fairer Britain”: so does New Labour and the TUC, this can mean all things to all men. But in the Charter it translates to the financial sector being put “fully into democratic public ownership run for the benefit of all.” Whilst it may
well be possible to redistribute wealth in the interests of workers, as is argued by the call for restructuring the tax system, in a class divided society it is simply impossible to run an economic entity “for the benefit of all”. Nor is it clear what democratic public ownership means: in the case of the demand to “Regain control of the Bank of England” it can only mean ownership and control by the
state, which is who ran it before and is certainly not accountable to the people who will sign the petition.

“Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”, argued Karl Marx in support of socialists uniting around an “agreement for action against the common enemy” without compromising principles.

Getting even that level of unity has proved extremely difficult amongst the fragmented left in Britain today: the People’s Charter which has the support of several national unions, the Labour Representation Committee and a wide milieu of the traditional left could possibly amount to a real movement in the context of our own dire situation. In contrast to those plans put forward by sectarian
socialism purely for their own ends, this initiative could potentially coalesce significant forces around it into a movement with the potential for something new to emerge.

As such activists should not remain aloof from such a movement, but seek to develop it into one which is not only about mass mobilisations but also mass participation.

The new chartists aim to get one million signatures to “show we mean business”. This was done in the 19th century not only by gathering signatures but by building a movement: the real question became what to do after it was rejected by Parliament. In that situation, if it ever happens, for the 21st century charter to succeed it will have to move beyond the confines of its current ideas.

That is from a petition for change to recognising that in order to defend and advance the interests of the working class, there is no alternative to fighting the system. This was clear to the original chartists: criticising ‘Inadequate Remedies for Social Evils’, Chartist leader Julian Harney wrote:

“It is not the any amelioration of the condition of the most miserable that will satisfy us, it is justice to all we demand. It is not the mere improvement of social life of our class that we seek, but the abolition of all classes and the destruction of those wicked distinctions which have divided the human race into princes and paupers, landlords and labourers, masters and slaves. It is not any patching and cobbling of the system we aspire to accomplish; but the annihilation of that system, and the substitution in its stead of an order of things in which all shall labour and all enjoy and the happiness of each guarantee the welfare of the entire community.”