The People's Charter, a document launched mainly by people around the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star, has succeeded in securing the backing of a substantial section of the labour movement bureaucracy; indeed, it has now been officially endorsed by the TUC.
Workers' Liberty has already explained many of our criticisms of the Charter; we think its demands are timid and limiting, and we think the entire conception of a "People's", rather than workers', charter undermines the very necessary and immediate tasks of reasserting the notion of the working class acting in politics as a distinct and independent force. (See "The workers or 'the people'?" here.)
We have also criticised the conception held by some of the Charter's supporters that it should be used as a kind of kite-mark for parliamentary candidates in the upcoming elections. They argue that if a candidate - of whatever party - is prepared to sign up to the Charter, workers should vote for them. We think this is deeply problematic; working-class political representation is not about voting for individuals who personally agree with a few social-democratic platitudes, but rather about candidacies which are directly accountable to, and controllable by, local and national workers' organisations and which see their role as fighting for the interests of those organisations in national politics.
This can hardly be said of some of the Charter's current backers, which include three Liberal Democrat MPs and, perhaps even more shockingly, Bob Spink.
We asked Bob why he'd signed the Early Day Motion in support of the People's Charter, given that his own political background differs somewhat from those of the Charter's architects.
Bob told us that "pigeon-holing politicians left and right is more difficult these days, especially one who is independent by choice and therefore able to make up his own mind on each issue as it is seen. (Sometimes I get it right sometimes not, but I work for the people not a party).
"I am right wing on issues like foreign policy, defence, economy, and law and order and left wing on social justice, education, health, environment, development, etc.
"Show me an injustice and I will try to fight it. Show me political correctness and I will rebel. I have been fighting for pensions on many fronts for many years as I have for our independence in Europe. All this is why I voted against the Tory whip so many times when I still hung on, sadly believing I could change them from within, I was wrong, they are getting worse not better!
"I see nothing wrong in working for a fairer society, some take far too much: bankers, footballers, stars, while others get too little. Society has got the distribution of wealth out of balance at the moment and with the inevitable Tory Government in a few months things will only get worse. I still want to encourage and reward hard work and contribution of course, but we really must care better for those who genuinely need our help.
"I was a union member in my earlier working days and, please forgive me for saying so, but I sincerely guess I come from a greater ‘poverty and problem’ background than most people have ever known. I do think it was a sound motion, moving in the right direction, though not totally right, it was worth signing."
At first glance, this may seem reasonably unobjectionable; perhaps Spink merely belongs to that well-established tradition of soft-right populism whose adherents have often come into political contact with the labour movement. This, frankly, would be bad enough. But it's worth doing a little digging into Spink's political background.
For those who do not know, Spink is a maverick far-right MP (and former corporate fat-cat of almost caricature proportions) who was first elected as a Tory MP in 1992. In 2005, he took out an advertisement about immigration in a local paper in his Essex constituency which read "which bit of 'send them back' don't you understand, Mr. Blair?" He is on record as a strong opponent of abortion (so much for being "left wing on [issues like] health") and a strong supporter of the reintroduction of the death penalty.
When the Tories withdrew the whip from Spink (or when he left the party, depending on whose side of the story you believe), he joined UKIP, only to leave them some months later. The "union background" he refers to in his interview with us is hard to find any details of, but his time spent as a Management Consultant and Director for various large corporations, including Bournemouth Airport (for whom he was a non-executive director from 1989-1993) is a matter of public record.
So what does the support of this reactionary tell us about the People's Charter? Clearly, the majority of its backers are not right-wingers like Spink and it would be wrong to generalise from the support of one maverick an assessment of the character of the whole Charter. But the fact that Spink felt that it was at all possible for him to support to Charter project must surely indicate some weaknesses with the approach. If we are to be told that we should back even politicians like Spink, then the terms "left" and "right" surely have been emptied of meaning and the idea of class politics is in in worse health than we thought.
What is needed is not a series of soft-left platitudes that even bigots like Spink can support, but a positive project for working-class political representation that works within the unions to get them to assert their collective strength in order to found a new party of labour capable of drawing a clear class line in politics between genuine workers' representatives and the likes of the Charter's Liberal and right-wing supporters.
Clearly the other possible criterion for supporting socialist candidates in elections is that they stand for an independent working-class, ie communist, program (or something like it).
But Ira isn't wrong: what is needed for genuinely independent class politics is for both criteria to be combined, ie the creation of a mass working-class socialist party with both a clear program and real influence in the labour movement and working-class communities, that can stand candidates accountable to itself. Our current campaign in Camberwell and Peckham is a small contribution to building such a party.
Arthur, I think the key phrase here is "in the past". In the past, there was a living link between the trade unions and the Labour Party that reflected itself in its reformist programme. There were also local parties with a lively internal life and a large left-wing in both the constituency and parliamentary parties. That was the context in which the AWL's predecessors criticised the electoral stunts of the WRP and others, because of their sectarianism to a living political labour movement. None of those things are true today.
There is an analogy here between the development of New Labour and the situation at the end of the nineteenth century where unions like the Miners' Federation sponsored individual Liberal MP's but had no collective, independent voice in politics. Marxists in the SDF stood for election as local councillors, for school boards etc. against Liberals. Would you echo the criticism of the middle-class Fabians of them as sectarian splitters despite what they did helping the emergence of the Labour Party as an independent force rather than as a prop for the Liberals?
Standing candidates against New Labour fits with that tradition: acting as 'pathfinders', making a small contribution to the wider task of recreating that independent working-class political representation.
"Even were that true, and I'd like to see how you think that flows just from one single sect standing its own candidate, it is, of course, the same excuse the CP, WRP and others put forward in the past to justify their own similar adventures. In the past Marxists, including the AWL's predecessors saw through the thin veil of that excuse, and described such adventures for what they were."
As if nothing has changed in the Labour Party!!
See 'New Labour, the trade unions and working-class representation':
"Even at the beginning of the 1980s, when the Labour Party was wide open to socialists, the Labour Party in the country had been bitterly at odds with the recent Labour Government, and virtually everything we needed to do could be done openly and through the Labour Party — even then we never argued that it would be wrong in principle to stand candidates against the Labour Party."
Arthur, yes I am younger than you and I agree we shouldn't idealise 'Old Labour' but neither, as Sacha says, should we pretend nothing has changed.
I joined the Labour Party during the 1987 General Election. A couple of years later, I became a student in Stoke and a delegate from the poly Labour Club to Stoke Central CLP.
Monthly meetings had about forty people, the AGM up to a hundred, a high proportion of them TU delegates - miners, potters - who put the 'soft left' MP on the spot if they thought he wasn't putting forward their views in Parliament.
Speaking to the ex-CLP (and local NUM branch) secretary a while ago, he told me that none of those people are still in the party. There are also few if any TU delegates, the closure of the local pits and most of the potteries having been overseen by first the Tories and then New Labour.
When I lived in Stoke in the early 90's and was a contact of Socialist Organiser, one of the things that impressed me about it was that it took LP work seriously, regarded it as an arena for working-class struggle in contrast to the SWP and related it to wider strugles, bringing striking pottery workers and miners whose pit was faced with closure in 1992 to CLP meetings, the latter leading to the setting up of the North Staffs Miners' Support Group.
The point I am making is that the Labour Party in the city was both a forum for working-class political debate and an organising centre in industrial struggles. It would have been sectarian - and we said this to the SWP and to the Militant who were pulling out of the LP at the time - not to have been involved. Can you honestly say the same today?