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Winning economic and social rights

The call by a cross-party committee of MPs and peers yesterday for a wide-ranging Bill of Rights that would cover housing, education, standards of living and a healthy environment as well as civil liberties like the right to a jury trial, leaves open as many questions as it answers.

Parliament’s joint committee on human rights report acknowledges that both major parties are lukewarm about the idea, so the chances of the Bill becoming law are tiny. Secondly, the economic and social rights outlined by the committee would not be enforceable in law – they would be a statement of rights and no more.

Both New Labour and the Tories have revealed their hand in relation to the European Union’s social rights chapter. The Tories under Thatcher opted out of its modest provisions, and successive Blair/Brown governments have not only reaffirmed this position but gone further. New Labour has opposed any reference to collective trade union rights in recent EU treaties and secured other opt-outs in relation to the working week. They have, of course, retained Tory anti-union legislation.

Both parties agree with each other that the market, not society, should remain the main determinant when it comes to “rights”, especially in relation to housing and a standard of living. Clearly, on the issue of climate change, there is no way the state is going to acknowledge a social right that might challenge business interests, even if it is non-enforceable.

Economic and social rights were first talked about in the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and were conceived of as an antidote, or a rival pole of attraction by some capitalist democracies. The idea was that if workers had these rights, there would be no need for them to follow Russia’s example and overthrow capitalism.

In the decades that followed, these rights remained dead letters. The slump of the 1930s produced mass unemployment and poverty, leading to the destruction and death of World War II. In the Soviet Union, however, economic and social rights were written into the 1936 constitution and were generally applied. At the same time, basic democratic rights were suppressed in the Stalinist terror that was going on at exactly the same time.

After World War II, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) embraced economic and social rights but were non binding. They are still awaiting implementation because the fact is that they are incompatible with capitalism and therefore, by extension, with the capitalist state itself.

When gains have been made in some areas in terms of rights, they are relative and subject to removal at a later stage. The right to housing was established in practice after World War II and most people who wanted council accommodation could get it. Local authorities were encouraged to build affordable homes to national standards. That right has disappeared.

Today there are 1.3 million households on council waiting lists and the total is more or less constant. This is because for over 20 years, councils have been forced to sell off homes or transfer their stock and barred from building new flats and houses. Successive government have encouraged people to become owner-occupiers instead, saddling them with massive debts and standing by as repossessions mount, as they are now doing, when the market slumps.

Recent surveys show that more than 75% of those questioned favoured a Bill of Rights, with massive majorities in favour of the right to privacy, to a fair trial, trade union rights, hospital treatment and housing. The market state that has replaced the parliamentary state has no interest in enshrining these principles, let alone making them enforceable.

Under these conditions, the struggle to establish permanent democratic, social and economic rights can only succeed in the context of a new, democratic state that reflects the aspirations of the presently powerless majority. How to achieve this aim is one of the key themes of our Stand Up for Your Rights festival on October 18.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
11 August 2008

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