Poisoned or shot – or not

The People’s Charter is a real alternative to current politics. Pat Sikorski argues that we can create an effective coalition for resistance.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in October 2008 about sixty people met in a palatial drawing room of a solicitor’s firm in Lincolns Inn Fields. They came to participate in a discussion started by John McDonnell MP, Matt Wrack, the General Secretary of the FBU and Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT. The crash had just started and everybody was still having fun guessing who was collapsing next (and wondering if they should still have their money paid into a bank.) Present were some leaders from other unions, political activists and campaign organisers. And everybody agreed that the left had to make a move. Two things came up in the easy flow of talk. (Most people managed to say something.) The crash would mean a new and bitter battle between the classes. And the BNP could establish a longer term and resilient base inside the white working class. Somebody recalled that when Le Pen got through to the second round in the previous French presidential elections and every voice that could make itself heard in the French-speaking world hurled the taunt of ‘Nazi’ at him; he still secured 12% of the French voters; nearly 4.5 million people. You can do a lot with 4.5 million people.

The main issue for everybody was finding an alternative. The bankers and their political and economic supporters had failed the country and their system was about to attack us to save itself. The speakers and others from the floor proposed we set up a Charter – a new Peoples Charter. We would not start at the beginning. There were already several versions of a charter circulating. We could bring them all together, in one place and one campaign. A panel was agreed to draw it together and a recall meeting set up to decide the result. Along the way the target of one million signatures was set, a commission mainly representing the supporting unions was established to run it, a launch took place at the House of Commons early in the new year and a movement in the unions was started to get the Charter adopted as union policy across as many unions as possible. Less than a year later every left union and the British TUC has backed the People’s Charter.

The original charter in the early nineteenth century won huge support for its list of six political reforms because the political system had failed the new working class. The 1832 Reform Act gave the vote to the middle classes. But the Charter represented far more than the need for parliamentary reform to go deeper. It called together, for the first time, a whole new class of society precisely as the gathering force of the new industrial and social conditions was creating that class. The Charter gave political and thereby social shape to a new actor on the stage of history as the industrial revolution started its momentous advance. The elementary stage that society’s development had reached when the Charter started is shown by the fact that the majority of people in Britain still lived in the countryside until the late 1870s. In the 1820s and 30s much of the ‘new’ working class worked at home as weavers in villages and hamlets. Others migrated between cities and country. Family units mined coal. The truly mass unions of dockers, of gas workers, of transport workers were seventy years away. Radical ideas were borrowed from the American Declaration of Independence via Tom Paine, the Jacobin strand and Babouf’s ‘conspiracy of equals’ from the French Revolution and some shreds of memory of the English Diggers and Levellers. The colours of the first Charter were blue – for the sky – and green – for the land.

But now we have the vote. And now the working class movement, as an organised movement, represents less than one third of the economically active population in Britain. Millions who only have their labour to sell are tangled up in the struggle for survival between state benefits and the unregulated economy. The Labour Party, whether you believe it is possible to reform it in the future or not, no longer provides a coherent political identity to a fractured working class.

With these realities in mind left leaders who promoted the new Peoples Charter were also launching two key messages. First, the economic system that has been built in this country is a failure. The New Labour dream was that if the markets were let rip enough tax would emerge in the backwash to pay for remodelling welfare. The ‘zest’ of the market inside the welfare state would build up a state- dependent fresh crop of capital at the same time. (What will Price Waterhouse Coopers do now?) This model has completely collapsed. It has left us with the prospect, pushed by all the main parties, of the biggest single shift of wealth from those who are depending or have depended on their labour power (by hand or by brain) to survive, towards capitalist business and the banks. It is as big a bill for the British people as WW2 was. The new Peoples Charter says that all the banks should be nationalised and taxation made fair. We should own what we are paying for – and not at arms length. We need a society-wide debate about what we want the banks to do and then we should decide. Do we want major support for green technology, for energy development, for public transport? Yes we do.

Thatcher used to say that ‘there is no alternative’ when people protested at her cuts. Today all the main parties leaderships say ‘there is no alternative’ when it comes to the people paying the bill for the banker’s crash. The only differences between them are over timing. We should be asked – Would you prefer to be poisoned or shot? But there is an alternative. Planning is an alternative. As power has leaked away over fifty years from the House of Commons to the corporations and the banks, the new Peoples Charter says we need reforms to our economy as radical as the reforms to our politics framed by the original chartists. If power has shifted from politics to the ‘generals’ who run the economy then we need our voice to be represented in the economy. We need economic reforms. Can we get them? Despite their battle the original Chartists did not get their political reforms. Our prospects are brighter. The Attlee government set up the welfare state in the 1940s and took 40% of the economy out of private hands (albeit that it was then run on ‘private’ principles and for the benefit of the 60% that was left in private hands.) It did that when saddled with war debt. It did that in the face of US nuclear rearmament. Last month three hundred thousand Icelanders struck, marched, protested and campaigned and prevented £4 billion being lifted out of their pockets to pay Icelandic bank debts. There is an alternative and the new Peoples Charter lays out the themes of that alternative in a popular and straightforward way.

Second (and once more) the Peoples Charter is linked to the creation of a class. Arthur Scargill set up the SLP when New Labour ditched Clause 4. Whatever was wrong about the SLP he had a point. It had been, even then, a long time since Labour had done anything about Clause 4. But the significance of Clause 4 was that it stood for the idea, the most powerful idea, that working class people had the right to have a distinct set of ideas about the way society should be run and for whose benefit it should be run. The implosion of the USSR in 1989 seemed to be living proof that the working class ideal had failed. The Labour Party and its programme ceased to be a starting point for millions who had the first inklings that their world was unjust and that a new one was needed. It ceased to gather working class people for action in the political sphere. It ceased to seek to be part of working class identity. It accepted – even encouraged the idea that the working class was draining away out of society, away from political commitment. New Labour formed a political pact with the Thatcher legacy and focussed on the social layers that still think they have enough of a stake in society to vote. Whatever view one might hold about New Labour’s future (or even if it has one) calling together once again the actually existing working class, as a class, based on its distinct social and political identity, is a fundamental task for all those who wish to do more that dream about a radical transformation of the future. The new Peoples Charter is designed to help in that call.

Now we face a momentous battle. Economic and political think-tanks dicker over whether social provision should be cut by ten or fifteen or twenty percent; over whether wages should be frozen or cut, whether we should work longer or have our pension entitlements slashed. Already unions find themselves fighting across the board attempts by the employers to make hay while the storm rages. The economic collapse is a turning point in this country’s history. Politics is now speeding up to catch up with the economic crisis. The media is full of discussion about a hung parliament and the first voices can be heard extolling the virtue of a future ‘national’ government in the face of the mess. The new Peoples Charter’s role in all this is simple. The new Chartists stand together with all those who have to fight back now to protect jobs and services and with all those preparing to fight back in the future. The coming election is about preparing that fight back – whoever is elected. Some people who will work hard for the Labour Party support the Peoples Charter. Others supporting independent or socialist candidates will do likewise. Preparing the fight back is all. The Peoples Charter is not affiliated to any party. It is a movement. It embraces all those prepared to support this movement. While it is based on a wide-ranging independent political and economic identity of a class, it is not itself a party political programme.

For myself, it is my view that the next period will both pose us with both the demise of New Labour (and it remains to be seen what will be left of the old Labour Party) and the necessity to create a new party which can honestly claim to represent the working class. My best guess would be that such an organism would arise from the impulse for it created by the social battles to come and the unions at the head of some of those battles. That will certainly test out where the remnants of the Labour Party stand. In fact the social consequences of the shift of such a significant part of the public wealth into private hands will rapidly spill over from the industrial framework and into the city streets. It will be a part of the equation that is needed for a new mass party as to whether the organised sector of the working class movement will be able to give a positive lead and momentum to that part of the working class which takes up the struggle in different ways. The Peoples Charter could be a critical part of that equation- bridging that potential gap.