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The Manchester Convention and 'ulterior measures'

Revolutionary, at times insurrectionary, movements against the state have a significant place in the history of the struggle for rights in Britain in the late 18th century and in the first half of the 19th. They used the device of a “Convention” to advance their cause, borrowing the term from the name of the revolutionary legislative and constitutional assembly which sat in France from 1792-95.

Which brings us to the Convention of the Left being held in Manchester in September. A World to Win supports this Convention as a timely opportunity to discuss the crisis of political leadership in Britain and how to go forward. The Convention is called not so much as to coincide with the New Labour “conference” being held in Manchester at the same time, but as a result of a decade of Blair and Brown governments and what they have done to the party.

Before New Labour, the Labour Party was the main political leadership in Britain of working people and those generally hostile to capitalism, and had been so since the 1920s. This is patently no longer the case. The reasons for this are worth rehearsing yet again because they can help explain the dilemma facing all those who will be at the Manchester Convention.

Put simply, the era of being able to deliver even modest reforms of capitalism has evaporated with the onset of the corporate-driven, transnational market economy, aka as globalisation. This is the process that produced New Labour, which has transformed Labour into a party that champions corporate and financial power. The evidence is stark, and includes the massive transfer of wealth to the private sector (see yesterday’s blog).

Moreover, New Labour has refashioned the capitalist state to make it fit for purpose. Every sector, from prisons, to housing and education, is driven by the mantra of markets and choice. This unholy alliance between capital, the state and New Labour cannot be undone in favour of some earlier political and economic period. It has to be shattered and scattered.

The conditions for achieving this are maturing. The growing hostility to New Labour coincides with and is driven by the raging financial crisis, which is taking a rapid toll of jobs, homes and living standards. Yesterday’s sudden takeover of the troubled Alliance & Leicester by Santander and the US government’s attempt to rescue the country’s big two home loan banks are striking indications of a profound crisis.

With the government intent on offloading the crisis on to the backs of ordinary people, and bankrupt of any other ideas, its future is limited. In fact, it would be difficult to envisage New Labour surviving a banking collapse. A weakness of the Manchester Convention’s agenda is the absence of major discussion on the global economic and financial crisis and what the response should be.

Another gap is to do with political perspective. With the reformist agenda in ruins, and the parliamentary state both paralysed and increasingly authoritarian, the question of a new, alternative political power is posed in an insistent way. Conventions called by the Radical movement in the 1790s and the Chartists in the late 1830s challenged the emerging capitalist state. The Chartists, especially, understood the relationship between political and economic power - driven as they were by opposition to the hated New Poor Law - and that they needed a plan B if the state refused to concede to their demands.

The Birmingham Chartists Convention of 1839 drew up a “Manifesto of Ulterior Measures”, which included proposals for a general strike and the arming of the people. It asked its fellow Chartists: ”Whether by all and every means in their power they will perseveringly contend for the great objects of the People's Charter, and resolve that no counter agitation for a less measure of justice shall divert them from their righteous object?” Attempts at insurrection were carried through, with an armed uprising in Newport the high point.

The most militant of the demands were drawn up by the revolutionary and socialist, Bronterre O’Brien. He was the delegate to the Convention from Manchester. September's conference could do worse than draw up a modern version of the Manifesto of Ulterior Measures.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
15 July 2008

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