Use it how you want

Is it a petition or a draft manifesto? Nick Rogers attended the grandiosely titled 'convention' to discuss the vagaries of the People's Charter

A couple of hundred trade unionists and members of various left groups came together in the Camden Centre near London's King's Cross on Saturday November 21 to discuss the People's Charter. The three-and-a-half hour event was the usual mix of platform speeches and interventions from the floor.

As the first speaker, John Hendy QC - the labour lawyer and co-chair of the convention - explained, the People's Charter was drafted in October 2008 and launched in March of this year. In September it was endorsed (not without a struggle) at the TUC.

The charter is deliberately intended to resonate with the original people's charter of the 1830s and 40s that demanded the franchise for working class men. So, as with the document of 170 years ago, there are six points: A fair economy for a fairer Britain; more and better jobs; decent homes for all; save and improve our services; for fairness and justice; a better future starts now.

The trouble is that these demands are nowhere near as straightforward and incisive as the six demands formulated in February 1837: equal electoral districts; abolition of the property qualification for MPs; universal manhood suffrage; annual parliaments; vote by ballot; payment of MPs.

2009's six demands could easily be supported by any political party, up to and including the Conservatives - what serious politician would oppose any of them? Indeed, an anodyne slogan such as 'A better future starts now' might easily have adorned any conference platform of the New Labour era.

So each demand is supplemented with a paragraph of explanation to give the charter real political meat. These include sentences such as: 'We must own and control the main banks'; 'Protect existing jobs. Make a massive investment in new jobs'; 'Create three million new publicly owned homes'; 'Keep the post in public ownership'; 'Repeal the anti-union laws to fight poverty and inequality'; 'Bring the troops home. No more billions for nuclear weapons'.

Come to think of it, perhaps these quotes have the makings of a more specific and eye-catching set of demands - even if they eventually were to break the symbolic barrier of six.

A textual comparison between the content of the new multi-coloured leaflet available on Saturday (headed 'A people's Britain, not a bankers' Britain') and the charter still online[1] reveals that the wording of some of the six headline demands has subtly changed: eg, 'Save and improve our services' has replaced 'Protect and improve our public services - no cuts'. Certainly snappier - although the new version now contains no absolute opposition to cuts in public expenditure.

And some of the explanatory text has been moved from one heading to another. For instance, the defence of pensions has been shifted from the 'For fairness and justice' section to reside under 'A fair economy for a fairer Britain'. That points to the ambiguity of the headline demands - they simply are not sharply defined.

When it came to Saturday's event, there appeared to be an equivalent lack of clarity about the purpose of the day. The convention was not a decision-making body. There were no resolutions or statements before the meeting and no votes were taken. No-one was elected to anything. It emerged that individual trade unions that sign the charter (John Hendy reported that there were 21 of these, although the website only lists eight) are entitled to two representatives on the central decision-making body. It was not explained how anyone else got to be part of the leadership.

In effect the event was a rally (probably not that different from the launch meeting which I did not attend), albeit with a degree of space for audience participation and the expression of difference about the way forward.

The composition of the platform emphasised the trade union support that the charter has gathered: Mike Kirby (Unison Scotland and the Scottish TUC), Matt Wrack (FBU), Bob Crow (RMT), Bill Greenshields (Derbyshire NUT), Sean Vernell (UCU). No platform presence for the CWU and PCS, which have also backed the charter. Reference was made to the debate at the TUC, where an amendment was accepted stating that the purpose of the charter was to campaign for more progressive policies within the Labour Party.

Mike Kirby explained that, although Unison's executive was now supporting the charter (after initial resistance), the national delegate conference was still to approve it. Clearly all has not been plain sailing in winning for the charter the support of the union leaderships. Apparently it has been opposed on occasion for the bizarre reason that it 'restates union policies'. Mike Kirby made an oblique reference to trade union opposition being motivated not by the content of the charter, but by who was involved in it. One speaker from the floor suggested that the TUC had adopted the charter in order to derail it.

No best buddies

So who are the charter's principal political backers? Obviously the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain has been heavily promoting it.[2] There seemed to be a reasonably strong turnout from the CPB and Mary Davis of its executive chaired the session the before lunch. However, I did not spot any of the organisation's so-called big hitters.

The Socialist Party in England and Wales also supports the charter. But a leaflet distributed on the day and speakers from the floor (SPEW was awarded no platform speakers) focused on the futility of attempting to win the Labour Party to the demands of the charter. The first speaker from SPEW criticised the platform for failing to point any way forward. It was necessary to form a new party on the basis of the charter. Glenn Kelly said that without building a political voice for workers the charter would be an 'empty wish list'.

CPB and SPEW members hardly seemed best buddies, despite their joint experience in No2EU and their possible collaboration in a successor organisation. In the course of the day they presented strikingly different perspectives on the future of the charter. None of the CPB's speakers made any reference to No2EU or the possibility of building a political alternative to the Labour Party.

The Labour Representation Committee had a stall to the side of the hall between those of the CPB and the Green Party. John McDonnell made a flying visit from campaigning in his Hillingdon constituency to address the meeting on the depth of the public service cuts that will be carried out whether Labour or the Conservatives are elected. He pointed out that the proposed fiscal responsibility bill will commit Labour to reducing the deficit (which John McDonnell estimated could reach '190 billion) by 50% in four years, while the Conservatives are promising a 100% cut in five years.

But otherwise the LRC was not strongly represented in contributions from the floor. The only participant to identify herself as a member was Marie Lynham, who spoke of her experience of forming a local People's Charter group in north west London, which has so far attracted only four members.

The Socialist Workers Party and Workers Power sold their newspapers in the morning outside the venue, but appeared not to enter the hall and certainly did not contribute to the debate.

The United Socialist Party had a small presence and Steve Ballard (first speaker from the floor) questioned the limited demands. He argued that it was important to call for the confiscation of the most important industries. It was all very well attempting to build the broadest possible front, but not if its politics was doomed to failure. Later Dot Gibson (also USP) spoke on behalf of the National Pensioners Convention and advertised the 'Defend the welfare state' demonstration on April 10 2010.

Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group pointed to the glaring absence of any demands around democracy in the contemporary People's Charter - a marked contrast with the original. Comrade Freeman is promoting a six-point 'Charter for a democratic republic'.

A number of speakers from the floor expressed alarm at what they characterised as the overly 'theoretical' content of some of the early contributions: ie, the discussion of nationalisation, the need for a new workers' party, democracy. A member of the Bectu union advocated 'shopping-basket politics' that appealed to ordinary working people with 'practical things to do', while someone else advised those 'who want to discuss theory to go down the pub'.

Stephen Hall of Socialist Resistance, Respect and the Wigan People's Alliance said it was all very well to 'prattle on about a 'bold socialist programme'', but it was necessary to appeal not just to socialists and Marxists, but to those 'who do not understand what those words mean'.

Belle Harris of Tower Hamlets Labour Party said she had two mentors - Rosa Luxemburg because of her critique of 'democratic centralism'; and George Lansbury, because he believed in 'action as well as theory'.

Pauline Fraser, obviously from the pro-Labour Party wing of the CPB, thought it was ridiculous to raise the issue of a new party with the general election just a few months away. If the charter tied itself to a new party, it would lose the backing of the TUC and most individual trade unions. The demand was basically sectarian, she said.

The platform speakers outlined a vision for the People's Charter as the focus for a mass movement against neoliberalism and against the consensus view of the mainstream parties that severe cuts in public spending were needed to reduce the debt incurred fighting the financial collapse. They set a target of a million signatures.

Supporters were urged to build local groups and initiate local campaigns. John Hendy said that the leadership had 'neither the intention nor the will to dictate from the top', although he did admit that there would have to be elections to the leadership body - but not yet.

General election

The immediate priority of most platform speakers was to deploy the charter in the course of the forthcoming general election. Hendy suggested that all candidates (with the exception of the British National Party) should be asked if they support the six points. He said that in 1906 the TUC had endorsed any candidate who supported an eight-point programme and whose candidature was endorsed by an individual trade union. Thirty-one Labour Party MPs had been elected as a result. He suggested that the TUC next year should adopt a similar strategy.

Yet he insisted that it was not necessary to discuss immediately the choice between revitalising the Labour Party and founding an entirely new party. The charter could be used in the case of either approach. He advised that the position would become clearer after the election, but did not explain in what way the election of a Conservative government would clarify the issue of working class political representation.

Both Matt Wrack and Bob Crow made strong speeches. They emphasised that none of the mainstream political parties (including self-evidently the Labour Party) offered any alternative to the domination of the market. Bob Crow said that people will do what they want with the People's Charter, including using it as part of any new political initiative.

Bob Crow also made a number of pertinent points about the BNP. Given the dire alternatives on display, it was hardly surprising that the BNP was able to pick up grassroots working class support. If the Question time panellists had been asked about the postal workers' strike it was quite likely that Nick Griffin would have been the only one to express support for the strikers. Similarly, the BNP was for renationalisation of the railways. It was important not to condemn as racist everyone who voted for them.

It strikes me that the drafters of the People's Charter were torn between the quite different requirements of a petition (short, snappy, directed at a single target) and a draft manifesto (a comprehensive programme for government). Also, while the objective of making a sharp intervention in the forthcoming general election is entirely legitimate, it seems rather odd that the proposal appears to be to approach all candidates. A charter that had any possibility of receiving support from the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats would hardly be worth the paper it was written on.

We in the CPGB are discussing raising demands of Labour MPs around the emerging cuts agenda of the Labour Party (and possibly around the war in Afghanistan) in order to identify Labour candidates who still adhere to the politics of the working class.[3] We will also be supporting left candidates. Our objective will not be to identify the one candidate in each constituency who is more supportive of our demands than the others. If that were the case, we might end up supporting a Labour candidate who only wants to make cuts of, say, £20 billion a year rather than the Conservative who was proposing £35 billion: ie, the least anti-working class candidate. The supporters of the People's Charter need to clarify that they will not end up with this self-defeating tactic come May 2010.

As an alternative manifesto on the other hand (the declared interpretation of SPEW and quite possibly of the LRC), the charter is entirely inadequate. It is economistic (the absence of democratic demands starkly demonstrates how far the ambition of the British labour movement has regressed since the mid-19th century). It lacks an internationalist perspective (beyond non-explicit opposition to the Afghan war and a nod to cancelling the debts of the third world). And it fails to offer a positive agenda that goes beyond the social democratic consensus of the post-war period (demonstrating the inability of a political strategy that shies away from socialism in the interests of 'broadness' to offer a perspective that can really enthuse potential supporters).

But ultimately no political initiative is going to succeed in advancing independent working class politics that does not recognise the urgent need for a united Communist Party. It goes without saying that the People's Charter is not intended to advance that project.


  1. The website of the People’s Charter is at www.thepeoplescharter.com/index.php
  2. See P Manson, ‘Towards an election coalition’ Weekly Worker November 12 for John Foster’s comments at the RMT ’s conference on working class political representation.
  3. M Sabbagh, ‘Looking to 2010’ Weekly Worker October 29.