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A Convention for democracy

When communities come up against the New Labour steamroller they don’t back off – they get angry. That’s what brought people together on a hot Saturday afternoon to discuss what to do if, as is likely, the government presses ahead with plans to expand Heathrow in the face of the overwhelming case against a third runway.

While the aviation minister Jim Fitzpatrick has announced a delay in the decision, no one should think that this is because the government is necessarily looking for a way out. There is the small matter of the Planning Bill, which is on its way to becoming law. Once on the statute book, local concerns could be safely ignored.

A new unelected, unaccountable planning quango is to be set up – the Infrastructure Planning Commission – which could bypass local opposition and fast-track the proposed expansion. The government's plans will mean hundreds of people will lose their homes and tens of thousands more will have their lives blighted by noise and air pollution. Higher carbon emissions will add to climate chaos.

The frustration was clearly felt at the conference in Hayes organised by Hacan-Clear Skies, the No Third Runway Action Group (NoTrag) and the Climate Camp, who pitched their tents at Heathrow last year to bring attention to these ruinous proposals.

John Stewart from Hacan explained how even the business community was retreating from unconditional support for Heathrow expansion. The rail union RMT has published a new study compiled by John Stewart which found that investment in high-speed rail could be a viable alternative to the expansion of Heathrow. The report, Who Says There Is No Alternative?, also established that tens of thousands of new jobs would be created if planned investment at Heathrow airport was switched to new high speed rail lines.

If rational argument alone could win the day, then New Labour’s plans would have been consigned to the dustbin a long time ago. But ministers are pressing on regardless. As Christine Taylor of NoTrag told the conference, they simply do not care when they are told that thousands of children would have their lessons ruined by expansion. You could go on adding zeros to the numbers affected and it would still make no difference, she said. The conference discussed various forms of direct action and protest activities to keep the campaign in the media spotlight.

Yet there is a common theme that unites Heathrow campaigners with people opposed to new nuclear power stations, privatised polyclinics, hospital closures, so-called “eco-towns”, persecution of migrants, green belt erosion, rail and Tube fair rises and a host of other issues.

What potentially brings these campaigns together is the fact that the government, which has created an undemocratic business state, just dumps decisions on local communities regardless. “Consultation” is a farce because the ultimate decision is always a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, official propaganda is designed to confuse and divide opponents. The gap between the state, the government and the mass of the people grows on a daily basis. The overwhelming majority in Britain are disenfranchised, their views ignored and their voices silenced.

That is why going beyond direct action to raise the essential questions about democracy and who rules Britain is critical. Community action groups, while maintaining their own campaigns, could come together in a permanent Convention to work on overriding issues of power and democracy.

How do the aspirations of the powerless majority not only get heard but acted upon? As the present political set-up is undemocratic and authoritarian, shouldn’t ordinary people themselves discuss and propose alternatives? A national initiative along the line of a Convention on democracy would be a tremendous step forward.

On October 18, A World to Win is sponsoring the Stand Up for Your Rights festival. We want to reconnect with historic struggles for rights in Britain towards building a movement that can take control of our lives away from New Labour, the state and the corporations. That’s obviously an ambitious goal but one we should start working towards today.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
28 July 2008

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