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People's Charter - a step towards workers' political representation?
The first convention of the People's Charter took place on Saturday 21 November. Speakers included Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, and John McDonnell MP. The Charter has the support of eight national trade unions and of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
The Socialist Party supports the demands outlined in the People's Charter. The Charter's demands include restructuring the tax system so big business pays more and the working class less; stopping house repossessions; increasing the minimum wage; bringing the privatised utilities back into public ownership - demands that all socialists should support and which are popular with the vast majority of working class people.
It is the popularity of the demands which pushed the biggest trade unions, including Unison, to back it at the TUC congress. However, as Unison speaker Mike Kirby made clear at Saturday's convention, Unison's leadership has reservations even about the very limited nationalisation that the Charter demands. Incredibly Mike Kirby suggested that, instead of renationalisation, privatised companies could be controlled by the population via the pension funds that invest in them.
The Charter, while too left wing for the Unison leadership, stops someway short of raising a socialist programme. Nationalisation - under democratic workers' control - of the major companies that dominate Britain's economy, is not raised. The programme does not, therefore, begin to answer the question of how the demands outlined in it could be achieved. This in itself, however, does not necessarily prevent the Charter from playing a positive role.
Around 120 people attended the convention. This relatively modest turnout reflected a lack of clarity about how the Charter can be used as a campaigning tool. The Charter's promoters are aiming for one million people to sign up to it. However, gaining signatories, no matter how successful, will not result in the Charter's demands being implemented. A political vehicle that fights for the demands is needed.
Of the trade unions that back the Charter only one is affiliated to the Labour Party. It would be a mistake if the Charter is used by some as a means to avoid a discussion on political representation for trade unionists, and specifically, to avoid a discussion on standing trade union candidates independently of New Labour.
At the convention it was clear that some did want to avoid discussion on this issue. In the morning session platform speakers emphasised that the debate on transforming Labour or on a new workers' party was not for discussion 'today', argued that it was important that the Charter has an impact on the general election, and proposed that all candidates be asked to endorse it.
However, Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, put a very different position when he opened the afternoon session. He agreed that Labour MPs should be asked to support the Charter, but pointed out that even where they do so, they would be standing on New Labour's manifesto. He added that in any case, "the vast majority of Labour MPs will not support the Charter".
Bob Crow also explained what had happened at the TUC congress, when the RMT moved the motion in support of the Charter. The leadership of Unite, having previously opposed the Charter, moved an amendment to the RMT's motion calling for the Charter to be used to 'promote progressive policies in the Labour Party'. The RMT had accepted the amendment but had said: "Well give it a go, but there are no resolutions allowed in Labour these days, there is no democracy".
Bob Crow went on to say to the convention: "The Labour Party is dead in my opinion; we have to build something new". He outlined the discussions that are taking place on standing a coalition in the general election against cabinet ministers and in some other seats.
The theme of standing independent candidates in the general election featured in the afternoon session. Glenn Kelly, from the Socialist Party, along with a speaker from the Wigan People's Alliance, put the case for standing candidates in local and national elections.
Despite attempts to prevent it by some, discussion on the People's Charter cannot avoid the issue of political representation for the working class. On the one hand, the pro-New Labour union leaders are demanding that it acts as little more than a begging bowl to Brown.
It will never be possible to mobilise a significant layer of workers on this basis, who would rightly see such a project as utopian. The Labour Party has been transformed from a 'capitalist workers' party' (pro-capitalist leaders but with a democratic structure that allowed its working class base to fight for its interests) into the capitalist New Labour.
While many trade unionists may feel compelled in the general election to vote for New Labour as the 'lesser evil', to try to prevent a Tory victory, this does not mean that they look to New Labour as a means to fight for their interests.
On the contrary, after twelve years of neoliberal, anti-working class policies New Labour is hated by many workers. There is widespread disillusionment with the 'strategy' of a majority of trade union leaders of pleading with New Labour.
A glimpse of the depth of the anger amongst some sections of workers is indicated by London CWU's indicative vote on their political fund, where an incredible 98% voted to break the link with New Labour.
However, on the other hand, for Bob Crow and others the Charter is not about orientating towards Labour but about campaigning to popularise a left programme, including by standing in elections. This is the basis on which the Socialist Party supports it.
In The Socialist 25 November 2009:
Socialist Party editorial
Marxist analysis: history
Environment and socialism
War and occupation
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news
Socialist Party review