Friday, February 08, 2013

Real democracy needs a new constitution

Watching the impressive Steven Spielberg film Lincoln brought home how important a constitution is to a country and the momentous, often historic, struggle it takes to bring it into line with contemporary social circumstances.

The original US constitution gave effect to the American revolution that threw off British colonial rule. Lincoln’s 13th amendment, which is the subject of the movie, put in writing what had happened on the battlefields of the Civil War by outlawing slavery which the original constitution ignored.

What the amendment also did was to create the conditions for a rapid development of US capitalism by creating a new workforce of African-Americans who were free to sell their labour in factories and on the farms. A federal state strengthened by the outcome of the Civil War supported and facilitated this process – then and now.

What has this got to do with us in Britain, you may ask? As ordinary Americans have discovered, their existing constitution is predominantly the shield for a state that reinforces the status quo of corporate and financial power.    

In Britain, although there is no codified constitution unlike the US, a variety of laws and conventions give rise to the same situation. Power, real decision making power, is held by a set of state institutions that exist to serve not the people but the so-called corporate masters of the universe.

We don’t live under a true democracy but, in practice, a corporatocracy. A horrible word to be sure, but one that nicely sums up the effective coincidence of politics and big business.

Which is why a number of organisations have launched an appeal to win support for a project which they have called “Towards an Agreement of the People for the 21st Century”. This connects with the historic struggle of the Levellers who championed democratic rights during the civil war between the Crown and Parliament.

They say: “Today increasing numbers of people are disillusioned and alienated by a political process which is impoverishing millions through austerity, inequality and privilege. The struggle for democracy, begun by the Levellers in the 1647 Agreement of the People and taken forward by the Chartists and Suffragettes, continues. But advances in democratic rights and civil liberties are being undermined.

“The concentration of bureaucratic, financial and corporate power has led to the transition from a welfare state to a market-driven state which deregulates, outsources and privatises services. Parliaments in Westminster, Cardiff and Edinburgh are totally inadequate as a means of popular representation, democratic control and accountability.”
They are calling for a “new constitutional settlement” to “advance democracy and place power firmly in the hands of the majority” and are inviting individuals and groups to support the project in principle.

Supporters of the project so far include John McDonnell MP, A World to Win, Real Democracy working group of Occupy London and the National Community Activists Network.

A draft Agreement of the People for the 21st century is also being circulated for comment, amendment and revision. The draft proposes that a new constitution should set out new human and social, economic, environmental and indigenous rights.

These include the right to co-operative ownership in place of shareholder control and to democracy and self-management in all areas/activities of the workplace,  the right to live in an environment shaped by ecological care and not profits and the right to hold and use land held in common.

To help achieve these aims, the draft adds, we should “encourage the building of a new, nation-wide democratic tradition from the ground up through, for example, diverse Peoples’ Assemblies, as a means of transforming the state”.

That political and social change that we need to end austerity, create a real democracy and establish effective control over the decisions that shape our lives absolutely requires a new constitution as a framework. Mobilising people, organisations and communities to achieve an Agreement of the People for the 21st century is a real priority. You can email your support for the project to

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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