Paul Anderson, Sanity column, June 1990

For a couple of weeks this spring, the liberal media were swamped by supporters of Charter 88, the constitutional reform pressure group. Clearly in better health than the magazine that spawned it, New Statesman & Society, Charter launched a prospectus outlining an ambitious programme for the nineties. The list of demands included a written constitution incorporating a bill of rights, a freedom of information act, proportional representation, reform of the House of Lords, parliaments for Scotland and Wales. Lord Scarman predicted a written constitution by the end of the decade; Salman Rushdie gave his blessing to Charter 88 in a Today interview, the first since he went into hiding. The Guardian ran a series of feature articles by big-name Charter 88 writers.

But not everyone was completely convinced. Notably, in a biting piece in the Sunday Correspondent, David Blake trashed Charter 88’s prospectus as ‘a reminder of the depths of despair and nonsense being plumbed by people who do not like Mrs Thatcher but who do not believe that the Labour Party can be made into a sensible party of government. The document could thus achieve cult status, the political equivalent of watching Baywatch on television and saying how dreadful it is.’ He described the supporters of the Charter as ‘an odd mishmash of people who were excited by the Alliance, and people around the fringes of the Labour left – what some might call a bloc of Rightists and Trotskyists’.

The echoes of Stalinist denunciation in Blake’s turn of phrase are a particularly nice touch: Kinnock loyalism in today’s Labour Party has a strong resemblance to the cult of the leader found in the old Comintern parties. He does, however, have a serious point. Charter 88’s most prominent supporters are either members of the ‘great and good’ centre-left establishment or forty-somethings who were part of the far left of the sixties and seventies. And they do share an antipathy to boring old mainstream Labourism, one upshot of which is that they are unenthusiastic about (and peculiarly inept at) organising in the Labour Party and its milieu (unlike, for example, CND).

In return, the Labour leadership, along with many ordinary party members, sees Charter 88 as no more than a front for proportional representation in which the usual self-interested liberals, nationalists, greens and social democrats are joined by a group of madcap Leninist intellectuals who want to start a ‘proper’ electoral socialist party to the left of Labour but realise that it wouldn’t stand a chance under the present system.

This is, of course, something of a malicious caricature. There are good democratic arguments for introducing proportional representation and for proliferation of parties, and there is a very strong case for freedom-of-information legislation, reform of the Lords and devolution of power. (The case for a written constitution which sets out our rights is much weaker – it could easily result in an increase in the power of the judiciary, God preserve us.) What’s more, most of the far-leftists now hanging around Charter 88 have long renounced the sins of their Leninist pasts (at least in private). And nobody admits to having once supported the Social Democratic Party these days.

But the fact that so many of its leading lights are compromised in Labour leadership eyes by their past associations (however unfairly) puts Charter 88 in a near-impossible situation. On one hand, it doesn’t have a hope of persuading Labour to adopt its programme this side of a general election. On the other hand, there is no chance of a government implementing its programme unless it converts Labour. In short, in the nasty world of realpolitik, Charter 88 would seem to be wasting its breath unless it is banking on a Tory victory in 1992, forcing Labour to rethink its position.

This doesn’t mean that Charter 88 can’t influence public opinion or that Labour is impossible to budge with patient work. But Charter 88’s predicament does provide an important lesson for the peace movement and every other social movement that wants a government to legislate change. Devoting effort and resources to the slow, boring and often frustrating work of keeping up pressure within the Labour Party is not an optional extra, and it can’t be abandoned when the going gets tough. It’s absolutely essential, even when Labour seems intent on moving in precisely the wrong direction. Sticking two fingers up at the Labour Party – which has seemed very tempting for CNDers in the past year or so – solves nothing at all.

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