Bob Spink MP on the People's Charter

Author: 

Ira Berkovic

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.

Workers' Liberty speaks to ex-Tory and ex-UKIP maverick MP Bob Spink about his reasons for supporting "the People's Charter".

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Comments

Accountability

You say,

"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."

But, the only REAL "local and national workers' organisations" i.e. those which in any way are really implanted in, and representative of the working class are the LP and Trade Unions. That certainly cannot be claimed by individual Left sects, or even temporary combinations of those sects. In the very unlikely event that a candidate put up by any of these sects, including the AWL, were elected, they certainly would not be accountable to the working class, because no mechanism exists for such accountability outside those mass organisations. They would inevitably be accountable first and foremost if not entirely to the sect. In fact, we've seen the same thing in relation to "revolutioanries" who have won positions to union leading bodies, who find themselves having to toe the party line or resign.

Arthur Bough

Independent working-class politics

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.

Sacha Ismail

Really?

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

Arthur Bough

sectarian adventure?

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.

The Real World

Matthew,

I think I'm quite a bit older than you. Rather than listening to what other people tell me the past was like, or reading about it in a book, I actually lived it. This idea of the LP in the past being "normally" some mass party, with loads of active, radicalised members, and a vibrant link between the Party and Unions is a complete myth. Only in very small periods of time has anything like that been the case. The period from the late seventies to the mid-eighties being one of them. Of course, it was during that period that most revolutionaries formally committed to an Entrist tactic, actually began to spend any amount of time in the LP, and that colours their impression of what "normal" LP life is like.

Moreover, there have been frequent occasions when like now, it has been the Trade Unions which stood to the left of the CLP's. Until, the 1980's, many CLP's were run like fiefdoms by right-wing MP's, who controlled who could join, and who could not be unseated, because no right of deselection of sitting MP's existed. In many ways, the Party today remains far more open and demcoratic than it was when I first joined in 1974.

And, the idea that the link between the unions and the Party today somehow does not exist is a fantasy. The last Conference shows that the link remains, and that the unions can utilise it if they so choose. If they choose not to that is a problem that has to be remedied within the Trade Unions, not within the LP.

Even were it true, Marxists deal in relatives not absolutes. What relationship is there between the Trade Unions, and other Labour Movement bodies and the AWL compared with that which still exists with the LP? Is the AWL, now proposing to allow the Trade Unions the same kind of access to determining AWL policy that it says no longer exists with the LP? Would that not result in the AWL then having the same programme that those Trade Unions help keep in place in the LP? If not then doesn't that just confirm what I said above, that if an AWL MP were elected, they would not at all be accountable to the working class, but only to the AWL, just as revolutionaries elected to union leaading bodies are expected to put defence of the Party line above the instructions of the members who elected them? Why would I want as an elector to elect someone who was accountable to an organisation of 100 people rather than the working class people of the Constituency?

The fact is that even in its current condition the LP has more activists in a single Constituency than the AWL has in the whole country! Most of them at Branch level remain ordinary workers living and breathing the life of the other ordinary workers in their community, continuing as best they can to deal with those workers problems. That is one reason the LP will continue to recieve the votes and support of those workers, and the sects who parachute in from time to time in an attempt to keep up their small numbers are ignored.

As far as the SDF and the formation of the LP is concerned, I think your history is somewhat off-beam. Engels himself had little time for the sectarianism of the SDF, and if we are looking for people to associate with for guilt purposes I will stick with the Marxist Engels, and leave you with the sectarian Hyndman. In reality the formation of the LP had next to nothing to do with the SDF, or even the ILP come to that. The formation of the LP came down almost exclusively to decisions made by the Trade Unions themselves at the 1905 TUC Congress here in Stoke, as I've written about in the past.

I can see why you would want to big-up that role, however, to support your argument. But, there are significant differences. The Liberals were not predominantly a working-class Party. The LP is. The Trade Unions did not have any mechanism by which the Trade Unions, and other Labour Movement bodies could influence their decisions, the LP does.

But, in reality the argument you make is the political equivalent of the Butterfly Theory. The Butterfly Theory basically says that as a result of a butterfly in South America flapping its wings, it creates an air movement, which then through a series of other contingent events, ultimately results in a snow storm in New York. You can traces the causal effects back from the snow storm in theory to the Butterfly flapping its wings, but in reality the two events are so separated in space and time, so intemediated that their is absolutely no correlation between them. The correlation between the AWL standing a candidate in the elections, and the formation at some point in the future of a mass working class party is as great as that between the Butterfly and the snow storm!

Moreover, elsewhere you have critcised others who have recently or are currently considering standing candidates with what presumably they too beleive to be "independent working class programmes" - incidentally as Engels wrote to the American socialists there is a huge difference between an independent working class programme and a Communist Programme, but then Engels recognised the need to take workers and their Parties as they were not as he would have wanted them to be. They too argue that in doing so they are trying to provide the basis for creating a new working class party. Odd that you recognise the sectarian, adventurist nature of their efforts, but do not recognise it in your own.

Arthur Bough

Addenda

Just one other thought on the comparison with the Liberals. When working class candidates were standing against Liberals at the end of the 19th century, there was already a large body of working class support for such an alternative. These candidates got large votes asa result. Where is the working class clamour for a new Workers party today, where is the working class support for such candidates when they do stand, compared with that which the SDF and ILP recieved? Not only are the votes received by the left sects limited to normally less than 1% - which is probably made up of the current and past members of Left sects, and their periphery - but they are frequently totally eclipsed by the votes of the fascists, which serves only to demonstrate in the eyes of the working class how weak and irrelevant those sects are.

Arthur Bough

Standing against Labour

"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."

Sacha Ismail

Labour Party myths

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?

But What Has Changed and From When

Of course things have changed in the LP from the situation in the 1980's. My point is that things in the 1980's had changed from the 1960's and 1970's! But, what is it exactly that has changed, and on what basis do those changes cause a fundamental change of attitude to the LP? I've tried to actually deaal with that question objectively in my blog Why The Sectarian Left Really Hate The LP.

Look back at what SO was saying for example in 1979 when we set up the SCLV - Why We Need A Socialist Campaign For A Labour Victory. Look at the demands such as "No More Wage Curbs! No More strike-breaking by Labour", "Start improving the social services rather than cutting them. Stop cutting jobs in the public sector", and the demands for democratising the LP. look at the headlines about labour's suppor for the Shah of Iran. why do you think it was necessary to establish the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy around that time, why do you think there were major battles simply to try to ditch right-wing MP's like Reg Prentice.

Back then Labour was slashing Public Spending and holding down wages through the Social Contract in constrast to the establishment of the Minimum Wage, and the tripling of spending on the NHS, and massive expansion of Public Spending on Education and otehr Public Services! Yes, there certainly has been a change. And as I set out some of the organisational changes such as the establishment of the Policy Forum, are only what revolutionary organisations have done long befoe in establishing Commissions on various areas of work, and who can doubt that doing so makes possible (at least in theory) a far more democratic, far more rational discussion of topics, than a few delegates at Annual conferene making policy in rushed debates, especially when those casting the votes rarely did so on the basis of those who sent them to vote having themselves had a detailed debate on those topics?

But, what you have said above only confirms the argument I have put forward there. The left sects have always seen political activity in terms of "political debates", of passing resolutions, and attempts to caapture the leading positions. In contrast it has seen the real political work of working alongside ordinary workers in their communties through the LP Branches as "routinism". Its the fact that those channels of political point scoring at CLP meetings and Conferences have been cut off leaving only real political activity through the Branches that really pisses off the sectarian Left. The CLP's werre always the places where the politicos, including the more politicised TU militants, concentrated their attention, whilst the ordinary workers focussed their attention in the Branches. That continues to be the case. So yes, I can say the same today. If you want to talk to ordinary workers and begin to develop them, relate to their immediate concerns etc. rather than simply keep talking to the very small number of already converted, then you have to be active in the LP Branches. Moreover, if you really want those workers to take you seriously then you have to show that you genuinely seek to help them devwelop THEIR party, rather than that you are simply using them and their Party to build your own organisation. You can't do that if you at the same time stand candidates against them.

My points above also still stand. This is not 1906 or the years before it. Unlike then there is no demand within the working class for a new Workers Party, and the abysmal votes of sectarians standing against the LP demonstrates it. There is not even any demand for such a Party within the ranks of those unions that have left the LP, and the leaders of those unions like the RMT only get away with supporting adventures like No2EU, by taking such decisions over the heads of the membership! And if you were to set up such a new Party, my question remains will the AWL do what it criticises the LP for not doing - innaccurately - will it allow the Trade Unions to affiliate to it, and thereby determine its policy? And given that those Trade Unions as you state above have given their approval for the people's Charter how would you expect that to turn out?

In a different thread Sean says that the only way the CP's in France and Italy could have come to power is if they had become something completely different. given that those Parties had already travelled the road to reformism they did not have much furher to travel. The AWL could become a new Workers Party in exactly the same way. All it would need to do would be to become New Labour! In that way it might win the support of those Trade Unions that back Labour, and all those millions of workers votes who continue to give them to Brown and Co. But, in general I have found that given the chocie between the real thing and a counterfeit you are generally better choosing the real thing.

Arthur Bough