New Times, June 1999

Paul Anderson talks to Pam Giddy, the new director of Charter 88

Pam Giddy is a girl who has gone back to her first love.

Nearly 10 years ago, straight out of university, she got a job with Charter 88, the constitutional reform pressure group, working as a dogsbody in its offices in Panther House near Holborn – one of the scuzziest low-rent blocks in London, notorious as a home for lost radical causes. She stuck it for four years, moving up the Charter hierarchy to run its publications and events [ch] as the organisation grew (and moved to more salubrious premises). In 1994 she split for the greener pastures of Cosmpolitan and then went to Newsnight, where she worked as a producer for four years.

Now, just 31, she is back with Charter 88 as its director, taking a big pay cut to run one of the biggest and best-organised pressure groups in Britain. ‘It’s really good to be here again,’ she says. ‘It’s an exciting time.’

Charter 88 was set up in a different political era. Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was rampant, Labour appeared unelectable and constitutional reform was the last hope of a beleaguered centre-left intelligentsia. Today, Labour is in power, and much of the original Charter 88 agenda – a freedom of information act, devolution, proportional representation, Lords reform – is either on the statute book or promised.

So what’s the point of Charter 88 any more? Giddy laughs. ‘That’s what they asked me at my interview. What I said then, and it’s true, is that there’s as much to do now as ever before. The point about Charter originally was that the rules of the political game needed to be changed. We now have a government now that is at least open to change. But the rules have not yet changed. New Labour’s attitude to change is either begrudging or half-hearted.’

She praises the government’s introduction of devolution, she is enthusiastic about the proposals of the Jenkins commission on electoral reform and she acknowledges the importance of new Labour’s moves towards getting rid of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. But, she says, there is no sense of an overall settlement in the government’s actions. ‘It’s simply not joined-up. We need to work out what sort of Britain we want. And at the moment the government is not being much help.’

She is particularly critical of Labour’s decision to go for an appointed second chamber. ‘A new second chamber has got to be wholly democratic — in other words, it’s got to be directly elected. It’s almost as if the government is afraid of the people. I’m all in favour of the old-fashioned idea that, if people are making laws, we should be able to vote them in and vote them out. It’s that simple.’

On the prospects for proportional representation for general elections, however, she is optimistic. She says that the proposals of the Jenkins commission for a mix of constituency MPs elected by the alternative vote and ‘top-up’ MPs elected by city or county is not perfect – but it is at least a ‘clever piece of work’ that could secure widespread support across the political spectrum. ‘PR for local government is the key to unlocking PR for the Commons,’ she says. ‘There’s a real mood in local government, particularly among Labour councils that have had no opposition, that PR could be a way of revitalising local democracy.’

Nevertheless, she goes on, supporters of PR need to get their act together to push their case. ‘The media have not understood that PR is about a new type of politics: we saw the journalists talking about Labour “winning” the Scottish parliament elections, which is a ridiculous misunderstanding of what PR is all about.’

Giddy is scathing about the government’s delay in implementing the introduction into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights. ‘If too many of our laws are in contravention of the convention, let’s deal with them at once,’ she says. ‘What’s the excuse? The legislation is there to be implemented. Why not start a huge campaign of public education to make sure that people can take ownership of their rights?’

Charter 88 is in good shape. It now has 80,000 signatories. More important, there are some 6,000 to 7,000 activists out there pledged to put their efforts into democratic transformation of the British polity – and as new Labour has appeared to shy away from a radical constitutional agenda on PR and Lords reform, they have been stirring again. ‘Our message is simple,’ says Giddy. ‘We need to put more power in more hands. We need to take power out of the hands of the executive and spread it around. Insofar as the government doesn’t want to let that happen, we are the opposition. We’re not going to be oppositionist, we’re going to work constructively. But we’ve got to join it all up.’

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