Leaders of two major unions laid down a significant challenge at the weekend by calling for a mass campaign for a new People’s Charter, echoing the spirit of the great struggle for representation and political power waged by the 19th century Chartist movement.
Bob Crow of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) workers joined with Brian Paton of the Prison Officers Association (POA) to open a debate on a new course that goes beyond parliamentary politics. Speaking at a conference called by the RMT, Crow explained how his union had been expelled from New Labour after making the decision “to give money to organisations which support the working class more than the Labour Party”. New Labour “stands for privatisation, the continuation of anti-union laws and a European super state”, as did the Liberal and Tory parties.
The RMT leader also condemned the Trades Union Congress for providing “no leadership whatsoever as tens of thousands, if not millions, now face redundancy” and rightly insisted: “The people with real power are the global capitalists who dictate what the government does”.
It was urgent to work together in a better way and a campaign for a People’s Charter would provide “an alternative to what was taking place” and to involve millions in signing and debating. Nothing would be achieved, he stressed, by protesting outside conferences in Blackpool or Brighton. “It was better to sit on the runway”.
Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers Union, which in 2007 held an illegal strike for higher pay, warned that the far right would fill “the political vacuum” if an alternative movement was not built. The main political parties provided no real choice at all, he told the gathering.
“A People’s Charter is a good first step, based on objectives which we all share. We want trade union and human rights and we won’t get them from this government. We want liberty, justice and peace. I want to see the shackles that currently tie us down broken.” His next union conference will invite a range of left parties together to work for an alternative in the spirit of this approach.
Mary Davis, of the London Metropolitan University's Centre for Trade Union Studies, added a historic dimension to the call for a Charter. The Chartist movement of the 19th century had created the first political party of the working class, but explained that “our real history is hidden from us”.
The conditions for going beyond electoral politics were also raised by MP John McDonnell, chair of the Labour Representation Committee . He told the conference: “Electoral politics may not be where it’s at in the coming period. Not asking people for votes but organising for direct action. We may see forms of mobilisation on a mass scale which we haven’t seen for generations.”
Perhaps he had in mind possible reactions to the imminent government approval for a third runway at Heathrow, despite massive local opposition to the plans. McDonnell welcomed the concept of a Charter – whether it was a People’s Charter or a Workers Charter – to provide an alternative political analysis. Discussions and collaboration, recognising and appreciating each others’ differences would make a more sophisticated debate possible.
A World to Win unreservedly welcomes this powerful new call for a People’s Charter. In October, A World to Win launched its own People's Charter for Democracy to raise the question of a revolutionary alternative to the political and economic status quo.
As a speaker from the Wirral asked at Saturday’s conference: “Who is going to implement this Charter?” Our Charter does not appeal to the existing government or the state behind it. Rather, it suggests new ways in which the unrepresented masses can achieve new forms of representation and organise a transfer of power itself out of the hands of corporations and the capitalist state. We submit AWTW’s Charter as a contribution to this crucial debate to which the RMT and POA have given a tremendous boost.
A World to Win secretary