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Wanted: A Chartism for our times

As Labour prepares to terminate its historic relationship with the very trade unions that founded the party, the questions of democracy and representation assume an even greater importance.

Ending the special relationship that allows automatic transfer of funds from trade unionists to the party, firmly shuts the door on the age of parliamentary-based reformist policies and politics.

In Britain, for the last 100 years or so, that has taken the form of unions mobilising to return a Labour government that would carry out a reformist programme in parliament. In practical terms, of course, that hasn’t happened for a very long time.

That’s why there’s a harking back to the 1945 Labour government that introduced the welfare state and the National Health Service. More recently, the Blairite governments of 1997-2010 were 100% pro-business and indifferent to the demands of the trade unions.

The reasons for all this are not hard to fathom. Corporate-driven globalisation created a world economy dominated by transnational companies and financial institutions. Nation-state powers were consequently reduced to facilitating the market economy. Reformist politics was ejected into the far reaches of the galaxy.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has effectively acknowledged this change, abandoning traditional state intervention in favour of encouraging a kind of “responsible capitalism”. In his dreams!

The Agreement of the People for the 21st Century campaign brings the broken political system out into the open and focuses on the need for a constitutional transformation. Drawing its name from the inspirational struggle of the Levellers during the English Revolution, the Agreement seeks to re-enfranchise a powerless electorate.

In the first part of the 19th century, the Levellers’ fight for democracy was taken up by the Chartists which was the first independent workers’ movement. The Chartists had six demands that won the support of millions of people throughout Britain. It was the eventual winning of the vote and parliamentary reform that made Labour a possibility at all.
Representative democracy has arguably had its day, however. Labour doesn’t even claim to represent working people’s interests and democracy is noticeable by its absence at all levels of society but in particular in the workings of the state which holds the power.

So, taking our cue from the Levellers and the Chartists, we should draw up a contemporary set of demands. Our modern charter could say :

We declare that the present state is a barrier to the real democratic control of society and has effectively disenfranchised the 99%. The right to vote, won in centuries of struggle, has been undermined. We propose the transformation of the present political system along democratic lines. We favour a transition from representation without power to a popular sovereignty through an Agreement of the People. Our demands are:

  1. a people’s convention to develop a democratic constitution for the 21st century that transfers economic power away from the corporations and political power away from the state.
  2. building a new, nation-wide democratic tradition from the ground up through, for example, Peoples’ Assemblies.
  3. rights to justice, transparency and accountability; the rule of law; the right to self-determination within and without Britain and the promotion of equality and diversity globally.
  4. human and social rights, including to associate, demonstrate and strike independently of the state; the right of minority communities to equality in all areas of social life; the right to affordable housing; to free continuing education and training and to free health care at all levels.
  5. the right to co-operative ownership in place of shareholder control; to democracy and self-management in all areas/activities of the workplace; to common land ownership in towns and rural areas.
  6. the right to live in a sustainable environment shaped by ecological care and not profits; the right of nature, including human beings, to exist free from abuse and despoliation.

In the 19th century, the reformist wing of the Chartists prevailed over the revolutionary or “physical force” wing of the movement which wanted to overthrow capitalism altogether. The physical-force Chartists weren’t wrong – they were just ahead of their time.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
30 July 2013

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