a guest piece by Steve Freeman
Last Saturday the organizers of the People’s Charter held a conference, at which about 150 people attended. It became clear the Charter is going to be used for agitation around the general election. It has the support of the Labour Representation Committee, various trade unions, and a section of the left in England. More worryingly it is endorsed by the TUC. The demands are sufficiently broad to span across the left and even go as far as New Labour.
I had the opportunity to speak and pointed out that although the original People’s Charter had six democratic demands this new Charter contains no democratic demands at all. We have a broken economy and a broken society. It was surely time for the left to recognize the broken democracy. The massive alienation from parliamentary democracy is both a threat and an opportunity.
The recent MPs’ expenses scandal and the growth of the BNP are symptomatic of the crisis of parliamentary democracy in Britain. The House of Commons needs radical reform. Far too much power is concentrated in the hands of the Crown. The old outdated constitution should be scrapped and replaced a new constitution in which sovereignty resides with the people not the so-called Crown-in-parliament. The people must win new democratic rights and freedoms.
Those with power under the current system will block any kind of radical change. The current MPs and House of Commons are a real barrier. MPs’ rights and privileges are tied to the status quo. None of the three main capitalist parties, or their corporate friends, has any interest in changing the present system. Public opinion might force limited change but these concessions would be cosmetic designed to silence critics.
The reform of parliament requires mass pressure and direct action from outside parliament. The working class, trade unions and progressive organizations must fight for it. We can take inspiration from the Chartists who mobilized mass extra-parliamentary action for democracy.
The Charter for a Democratic Republic proclaims the sovereignty of the people. To this end we seek the establishment of a democratic secular republic based on:
– A written constitution with a Bill of Rights
– Abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords
– Proportional representation
– Annual Parliaments
– MPs subject to recall by a vote of their electors
– Devolved power to community based local government.
The House of Commons is now widely seen as weak, feeble, corrupt and unrepresentative. Like the monarchy and House of Lords in the 19th century, the Commons is a ‘decorative’ assembly steeped in tradition. Its serves the function of trying to fool people into believing real democracy exists. The Commons remains a barrier to change whilst people still have illusions in it.
The MPs expenses scandal has done much to undermine these illusions. Widespread anger about cleaning moats and ‘flipping’ second homes has fueled wider concerns about parliamentary corruption. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. MPs make good money in pay, pensions, perks, holidays, expenses, foreign trips, cheap food and drinks. MPs have many business opportunities as company directors or lobby fodder for big business interests.
The whole system is geared up to ensure MPs don’t interfere in government and toe the party line. No wonder parliamentary ‘democracy’ is facing a serious crisis of confidence and credibility. The BNP is ready to exploit this by claiming to speak on behalf of those this corrupt system excludes or fails to represent.
At the 2005 election, 39% of the electorate did not think it was worth voting. Of those who voted, only 35% supported Labour. Labour gained a mere 22% of the eligible electorate. But the first-past-the-post voting system turned Labour’s minority support into a parliamentary majority of 67 seats. This is political corruption on a monumental scale; worthy of the most sleazy tyranny.
The Iraq war showed up many of parliament’s failings. Too much power is concentrated in the hands of the Crown – the Prime Minister, security chiefs, and a few top civil servants. Despite massive opposition to war, parliament was a rubber stamp for Blair’s spin. The Commons did not call the government to account. It allowed Blair to get away with his crimes. It took no action against a political crime which led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and British deaths.
In May 2003 Clare Short MP resigned from the government and criticised its working practices. She said that “There is no real collective responsibility because there is no collective, just diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy initiatives that come from on high. The consequences are serious…(it) leads to bad policy. In addition, under our constitutional arrangements, legal, political and financial responsibility flows through secretaries of state to parliament. Increasingly those who are wielding power are not accountable and not scrutinised”.
She continued “we have the powers of a presidential-type system with an automatic majority of a parliamentary system. My conclusion is that these arrangements are leading to increasingly poor policy initiatives, being rammed through parliament, straining and abusing party loyalty and undermining the people’s respect for our political system. These attitudes are causing increasing problems with reform of the public services.” (Independent 13 May 2003).
British liberal democracy with its unwritten constitution is degenerating. Michael Mansfield QC described Britain as “heading steadily towards a form of “elective dictatorship”. He pointed to government collusion in extraordinary rendition flights, use of evidence extracted by torture, approval for unlimited detention of foreign suspects without charge or trial. (Independent 6 May 2007). He highlighted the halting of the corruption investigation into BAE contracts with Saudi Arabia.
Over 150 years ago the People’s Charter mobilized millions of working people in a struggle for democracy. The Chartist movement failed but some of their demands were achieved. But real democracy has not yet been won. We need a new People’s Charter which like the old one raises up the spectre of ‘people power’.
The present top-down system of government must be replaced by democracy from below based on the “sovereignty of the people”. Our principle must be government of the people, by the people and for the people. Democratic rights and liberties must be embedded in a written constitution and bill of rights. The crown and all its power must be abolished so that ministers and civil servants are directly accountable to parliament. Parliament must be regularly elected by proportional representation and be accountable and recallable by the electors.
The problem with the new proposed People’s Charter is that it is missing precisely what needs to be built – a movement for parliamentary reform and radical democratic change. Without this crucial element we have a People’s Charter without the democratic essence of Chartism. Don’t be surprised if the TUC and even new Labour politicians back it. Without radical democratic change the old corrupt system will carry on and the BNP will make more gains from its obvious failings.