People’s Charter launched

Paul Feldman reports on a new initiative aimed at mobilising people against government policies around a six-point set of demands.

People's Charter
Bob Crow signs the Charter, held by Matt Wrack and John McDonnell

Trade unions, Labour MPs, lawyers and community campaigners have joined forces to launch the People’s Charter for Change, with the aim of getting one million signatures for a six-point programme demanding economic and social change.

As they invited support, an opinion poll commissioned by the campaign revealed widespread rejection of government policies for dealing with the economic crisis and a growing sense of political alienation.

A staggering 87% of those questioned said the higher priority was projecting jobs rather than supporting banks or bankers, with just 9% backing New Labour’s bail-outs. Two-thirds favoured bringing water, gas, electricity, transport and communications back into public ownership, while more than seven out of ten said they would support a programme of building three million affordable homes to deal with the housing crisis.

Three-quarters of those polled then said they felt politicians were not listening to ordinary people in the economic crisis, which former Labour MP and minister Tony Benn said reflected a “crisis of representation”. Benn, who has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the case for an organised political alternative to New Labour, nevertheless admitted that the People’s Charter had to mark the “end of protest and the beginning of demands”.

People's Charter

The question of how the People’s Charter for Change demands can be implemented is left unstated in the six points, which, in a shortened version say:  

A fair economy for a fairer Britain
Progressive taxes without loopholes or tax-havens. We must own and control the main banks. Guarantee all pensions, mortgages and savings. Tie pensions and benefits to wages. Give Pensioners free transport and heating. Increase the minimum wage..
More and better jobs
Protect existing jobs. Reduce hours, not pay, to create more jobs. Make a massive investment in new jobs, particularly in green technology, for our children's sake..

Decent homes for all
Create 3 million new publicly owned homes. Stop the repossessions. Control rents.

Save and improve our services
Energy, Telecommunications, Post, Water and Transport to be owned by all of us. Remove profit making from the NHS and schools. Support our public service staff..

For Fairness and Justice
Equality for all. Together against all racism and discrimination. Equal pay for women. End child poverty. Give young people a future. Free child and youth facilities, education and training for all. Repeal the anti-union laws to fight poverty and inequality..

A better future starts now
No more blood and money for war. Bring the troops home. No more billions for nuclear weapons. We want massive investment for a greener, safer world. Get rid of the debt economy in Britain and cancel the debts of the poor of the planet.

The “crisis of political representation” theme ran through the launch, with Labour MP John McDonnell saying that Britain was moving towards its own “velvet revolution”, with people taking to the streets to voice their demands. He described the People’s Charter as the launch of a “potentially important social movement” and acknowledged that protest was not enough to change the situation.

Rahila Gupta from Southall Black Sisters warned about the deep and growing inequality in society and the dangers of campaigns like British Jobs for British Workers taking hold. She said: “It’s time to target our anger at a system which undermines hard-won rights, and which the government is trying to rescue.”

Three major unions are committed to the Charter – the PCS public service union, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the RMT rail union. While the PCS has never been affiliated to the Labour Party, the other two have broken their historic links in recent years.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said the Charter was “timely and necessary” because “we live in very, very dangerous times” when people need an alternative vision. He warned that scapegoating of migrants was a real possibility.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, described Parliament as a “cosy club” and added: “There is huge anger in society, which is fully justified.” He denounced the government for failing to provide resources for firefighters to tackle the consequences of climate change while pouring billions into the banks.

Bob Crow, leader of the RMT, was the only speaker at the launch to use the C word, describing the situation as a “fundamental break-down of capitalism”. He slammed the leaders of the Trades Union Congress for accepting unemployment as inevitable and for simply issuing pamphlets about dealing with the “pain of redundancy”. Crow warned: “The fact is that unless we put an alternative to a bankers’ Britain, the likes of the BNP will fill the vacuum.”

The People’s Charter for Change is an important campaign which has to stimulate a debate about achieving these and other demands in the context of a broken political system that has abandoned any pretence at representing or reflecting the views of ordinary people.

What are clearly needed are new forms of democracy in a radically altered political and social framework. We have to move beyond the extremely limited forms of representative, parliamentary democracy wrested from capitalism but which themselves are now undermined.

Extending democracy has to embrace popular ownership and control of the major corporations and banks and provide a direct say in how society works and makes decisions at all levels. The present state system is absolutely set against this and is, in fact, moving in the opposite direction to establish authoritarian rule.

Our People’s Charter for Democracy, launched by A World to Win last autumn, approaches these issues in a way that the People’s Charter for Change sidesteps. Nevertheless, its launch is significant and should be supported.

Together, the two Charters can be used to mobilise working people to transform society and government and answer the crisis of capitalism in a positive fashion. In doing that we can reconnect with the great Chartist movement of the 19th century, which was the first in Britain to organise workers with the aim of securing political and social change.

You can sign the People’s Charter for Change here and support A World to Win’s People’s Charter for Democracy here.

11 March 2009

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