What's wrong with the People's Charter

Submitted by cathy n on 23 June, 2009 - 4:46 Author: Sacha Ismail

Many trade unionists will have had, or will shortly have, a discussion at their branch about the "People's Charter".

The origins of this document are in the rump-Stalinist Communist Party of Britain, which launched the Charter at the Toldpuddle festival last July. Since then it has received the backing of the Labour Representation Committee, the RMT, the FBU and a wide variety of trade union bureaucrats.

The Charter is by no means worthless. In fact, it is significantly better than the utterly minimal “People Before Profit Charter” which was at one point being promoted by the SWP. Nonetheless, it is deeply flawed, shaped by the cross-class "people's" politics of the CPB, not the class-struggle socialist politics the working class needs in this crisis.

In the first place, it contains no clear conception of class struggle. The populist name, which was defended at the by the CPB’s Mary Davis at the 10 January RMT conference on working-class representation on the laughable grounds that many workers are unemployed, is in fact a throwback to the cross-class politics of “popular fronts”, and a telling one. This is reflected in the preamble to the document, which poses things in terms of “bankers and speculators” versus “the people”, not the working class versus capital. (Cringe-worthily, this introduction concludes with “Can we do it? Yes, we can!”)

The Charter is not a tool for rebuilding independent working-class politics, even if some of its backers think it is.

Secondly, and flowing from this, the demands are pretty limited — though some of them, for instance “democratic public ownership” of finance and cutting the working week without loss of pay to create jobs, lean in the right direction. Most of the framework is mildly social-democratic — “keep interests rates low... Tightly regulate the City markets... Restructure the tax system so big business and the wealth pay more... Public and private investment must create new jobs... Cancel the debts of the poor of the planet”. There are many important things missing – the rise of the BNP, for instance – but the overall failings are equally significant.

Lastly, and most importantly, it is not clear at all what the People’s Charter is for.

It is quite clear from the way the text is written that this is not an action plan for the working class; there is no discussion of strikes or other forms of direct action, let alone of how to rebuild the labour movement so that it is fit to fight. That is bad enough. But we may also ask: since this is purely a list of policies for a government to carry out, what kind of government do the authors envision doing it?

On the CPB website, Anita Halpin describes the Charter as the basis of a “change of direction” by the Labour government, i.e. a proposal for the Brown government to alter its policies. The same thing is implied by the preamble, which declares that the organisers “need one million signatures to show we mean business” — suggesting that this is essentially a glorified petition from the trade union bureaucracy to the Brown government.

The reality is that Brown and co. are not going to carry out anything like the Charter, because they lead a down-the-line bosses’ government 100% committed to neo-liberalism (now in a modified version, with much more state intervention than before the crisis). In order to get pro-working-class demands implemented, we need to mobilise workers against Brown, and fight for a different kind of government — in which case shouldn’t we aim for a workers’ government, based on, accountable to and serving the working class, rather than a pale-pink version of Old Labour?

The main authors of the Charter oppose both independent working-class candidates against Labour and using what remains of the Labour-union link to confront Brown. Their agenda is one of lobbying for more crumbs, not building working-class political representation.

We need to rally the labour movement to confront the bosses and fight militantly for working-class interests at every level of society, from the workplace to Parliament. To given this struggle shape and purpose, we need to link every battle, no matter how small, to the overall goal of working-class power, in the first instance the goal of a workers’ government. If the circulation of the People’s Charter helps develop the discussion about how to fight, good. But the Charter itself is not the kind of programme we need.