Assembling for democracy: part 2, the Chartists and us

Democracy arrived in the UK thanks to popular movements which pressured a reluctant Parliament into democratic change. Part 2 of this article picks up the story beginning with the Chartists.

Peter Evans
25 March 2015

The Reform Act was not met with universal acclaim in 1832. The majority of people were still excluded from the franchise, and indeed they were so dissatisfied with this situation that they soon mobilised the largest mass movement in British history in response. This was the Chartist movement, named after their 1838 People’s Charter, which was the most famous iteration of their many petitions. It demanded the “Six Points”, still taught in schools today:

  1. A vote for every man over 21 years of age.

  2. Secret ballot (instead of the system for voting in public).

  3. MPs do not have to own property.

  4. MPs will be paid.

  5. Equal voting constituencies.

  6. An election every year for Parliament.

Albeit that suffrage has now been extended to women as well as men, and over the age of 18 rather than 21, five out of six of these demands are foundational to British democracy. In the 1830s however, Parliament’s response was to accuse the Chartists of sedition, and they fought the People’s Charter every step of the way. Indeed the Chartists are conventionally understood to have failed, as they did not achieve their demands at the time.

Chartism was the logical direction for Victorian Radicals to take after the Great Reform Act. Radicals had coalesced around the cause of Parliamentary reform, taking their name from their collective desire that such reform be radical, and the Chartists’ aim remained securing meaningful representation for the people in Parliament via Universal Manhood Suffrage. The Chartist movement was also a response to a new criticism however: that under the existing system MPs could largely ignore their constituents. This was because once elected, MPs and governments were safely entrenched in office, and therefore free to pass whatever unpopular and unwanted legislation they liked (such as the hated Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834). Furthermore, with the the two-party system already in evidence (albeit being reformulated, as it sometimes is, from Whig vs. Tory to Liberal vs. Conservative), the Chartists also argued that the only viable option the system offered was to let the other lot in – whereupon the whole process of unaccountable law-making, let alone corruption, could simply be repeated.

 Given that these two problems remain with us (I am yet to be convinced that our system will no longer be dominated by two major parties), we could perhaps stand to learn something from Chartist views of democracy. Their alternative vision, proposed as a solution to these problems, was that MPs should be delegates rather than simply representatives. This would require that MPs could actually be held to account directly by the people who elected them. In short, it required that MPs could be recalled by their constituents. We should not underestimate how radical this idea was, and remains. In 1993, the historian Miles Taylor wrote that ‘Arguably, the greatest threat posed by the Chartists in constitutional terms, was not universal suffrage, but the mandatory theory of representation’. This claim stacks up – given the power to compel Parliamentarians to submit to their instructions, and to relieve them of their positions if they failed to do so, people would undoubtedly exercise it.

This idea frightens most parliamentarians – only last October Parliament shot down an attempt to work towards creating genuine accountability of MPs by rejecting a proposal that the right to recall should be exercised by the constituents of the relevant MP. Instead, they plumped for a version of recall controlled by themselves. After all, if it makes perfect sense that the banks know their business best and must therefore regulate themselves (with such memorable results for the rest of us), this logic must surely also hold for Parliament also! The people couldn’t possibly be trusted with the role of judging the performance of their representatives outside of the election cycle! After all, as my MP wrote to me at the time, real recall might expose MPs to politically motivated attack! (What else would it be for?)

Mark this well, because it is the perennial cry of those who support the exclusion and disenfranchisement of the majority to argue that the people are too ignorant, too stupid, too lacking in reasoned maturity, to make decisions. It is the perennial cry of opponents of democracy that people cannot be trusted with power. Yet there is only one alternative to this – that the people must therefore have someone else to exercise power for them. But without meaningful power ourselves, all we can do is trust that those with power exercise it properly on our behalf – and, as we are increasingly aware these days, without meaningful mechanisms by which to hold our representatives to account, precisely because we lack meaningful power of our own, that trust is frequently broken.

The majority, it is said, should trust a minority class of representatives to exercise authority over them. Now, historically this was argued on the basis that only this elite had the wisdom, independence of mind and character, and removal from petty sectional interests, to both know and pursue the common good. This minority, furthermore, must supposedly be given inalienable power, power that cannot be taken away from them, lest the ignorant mob seize hold of it. We are never allowed to have the power we give those representatives back. We can only ever transfer it, at certain allotted times, to another minority – and when they get in we’re just supposed to trust them as well. The “tyranny of the majority” by contrast would apparently create endless dissension. The people don’t know what they want, and so they must be told. In other words, power should not reside with the people, but with only a subset of those people – and they’ll see us right, don’t worry.

This is the line that has been spun out to the disenfranchised in Britain since at least the Putney Debates in 1647, when Cromwell and his generals were contested by the Levellers, who represented the opinion of the ordinary soldiers in the New Model Army. The generals prevailed, and property requirements for voting remained. When the Diggers decided they had had enough of being led, and attempted to take matters into their own hands in an attempt to build a new egalitarian society, they were ruthlessly suppressed.

This was also the line spun out to those denied the vote before 1928; and since 1928 it has been the line spun out to us as to why we need to concentrate power – to vest it in hierarchies, leave it to the experts, and limit people’s participation to penning an occasional “X” in a box.

The argument that the people cannot be trusted was also the line spun out to the colonised peoples of Britain’s empire. The natives were supposedly too immature to be trusted to govern themselves; apparently needed the guidance of British elites to become civilized; and would supposedly be granted independence when they had “matured”. To that end the Empire claimed to be educating the natives to govern themselves – yet in Africa black people were excluded from joining the central colonial state, and until such a time as Britain could no longer sustain the effort required, rebellions were ruthlessly crushed.

Independence for the colonies was only gained in the aftermath of the Second World War, when maintaining the Empire became untenable. India and Pakistan for example broke away as soon as Britain lacked the material power and domestic political will to reassert control. Nationalist movements sprung up all over the Empire during the 1940s-50s. When the British government’s proposals to “democratise” Ghana in 1949 restricted the vote by including property qualifications for example, a People’s Assembly was founded in response with mass support, pushing for Universal Suffrage. The rejection of this movement led to the civil disobedience, boycotts, and strikes that resulted in independence. Though America’s role and the Cold War context can’t be ignored, decolonisation was in large part driven by pressure for change “from below”, exercised by nationalist movements – and whilst independence may not have turned out not to be all it seemed, the processes that achieved it remain testament to what people can achieve when they organise to demand democratic change.

But what about Britain? We all know how the people mobilised to defend democracy against foreign aggression in the Second World War, and, if the current government’s recent bout of propaganda is to be believed, the First as well. But if the First World War was a crusade for democracy then it was certainly a strange one. Legislation for Universal male Suffrage in Britain was only granted after the war (the legislation passed in 1917), and even then it was not extended to all women until 1928. In the rhetoric of the time, Parliament was quick to claim that Universal Suffrage was a reward for the sacrifice and ability displayed by the disenfranchised during the war – a coming of age demonstrating their newfound maturity. But this actually just gives the lie to Parliament’s longstanding position on the franchise before the war, which was that it should be limited precisely because the people could not be trusted with it. In reality, Universal male Suffrage was given lest the people demand something more, and it would not have been gained without the war. It is no coincidence that the vote was granted after the people had become empowered by their experience of mass organisation, and disillusioned by a system in which their predetermined role was to be used as cannon fodder. One only has to consider how quickly the Army was demobilised (in 1815 and 1945 as well) to see how wary the government was.

Yet last year, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we were sold the story of how people willingly laid down their lives for democracy – in fact, a democracy that did not yet exist at the start of the war, and which was reluctantly conceded as its result. It also makes a curious crusade for democracy that ended up extending imperial authority, Britain gaining conquered territories in Iraq, Transjordan, Tanzania, Namibia, and a number of islands in the Pacific from Germany. Technically these were governed as “mandates”, but just as with Britain’s other colonies, the justification was that these areas required British rule until such a time as they could be trusted with independence – which, as we have seen, was only gained when power was reclaimed by organised movements. It was the same in Britain.

Before 1918 a common argument in favour of denying disenfranchised people the vote was that they lacked the maturity to be trusted with it. It was said that dependents such as women, children, servants, and men without independent property of their own, would be too easily swayed to vote by the people that they were dependent upon. This meant therefore that they could not be trusted to make impartial judgements, and so could not be entrusted with deciding the common good. Yet under this system dependents were claimed to have “virtual” representation – women and servants explicitly being said to be represented by the votes of their husbands/masters acting in their role as head of household (indeed this conceptualisation of the vote was why many women supported the Chartist demands for Manhood Suffrage). However, under this system of “virtual” representation, people were clearly being denied the vote on the basis that they would be too easily influenced by the people they depended on, at the same time that they were said to be represented by the vote of that very person!

Though naïvely optimistic to the point of utopianism, virtual representation has ever been used cynically as a smokescreen to obscure and excuse disenfranchisement. But the real intention seems clear enough – the far more numerous class of “dependents” in Britain were excluded, not only from exercising their own votes, but also by being folded into the single vote of their masters. It didn’t matter if you had one dependent or fifty, they were all subsumed into a single vote. Thus virtual representation was exclusive and disenfranchising. This glaring absurdity was only put to an end, at least formally, in 1928.

But what glaring inconsistencies have persisted since then?

 I would argue that virtual representation is still in force – albeit via a different means – in that those who do not successfully elect an MP in their constituency give completely dead votes. Under our system of electing MPs, 49% of a given seat may vote for one candidate, but if 49.01% voted for another, then that group will win the seat. All of the votes except those for the winner of each seat count for absolutely nothing. In 2010, MPs were usually elected with around 30-50% of the vote in their constituency (47.7% mean average), and about 2/3rds won with less than 50% of votes. By this means the majority of the electorate is essentially disenfranchised. After factoring in turnout (65% in 2010), only 31% of the electorate actually chose our current MPs, who are supposed to represent everyone. The remainder of the electorate are apparently represented well enough by these candidates, presumably on the same basis as argued historically, that they have the ability to rise above petty interests and represent us all. But if this were really the case, why would it even matter who we voted for at all? Presumably anyone would do! By this means the majority of the electorate is essentially disenfranchised, because their vote for a local representative is statistically most likely to count for nothing at all in a Parliament that is organised at a national scale.

In these contexts, is it any wonder that they renege on their manifesto pledges? MPs of course claim that they need to be given latitude by their constituents in order that they can make up their own minds about the issues that face them, especially if the situation changes in the future. This  sounds plausible, except that in the vast majority of cases, MPs voting decisions are given to them by their leaderships via the Party whips – and going against the whip can have serious consequences for one’s political career. After all, the future of their career and job depends a lot more on the Party’s good will than that of the electorate. If such MPs displease their leaders, they can simply be deselected as candidates at the next election – a power which has shifted from local parties to central leaderships over the past two decades. Then there’s the carrot and stick of being offered or denied public office on the basis of voting behaviour. Thus the average backbenchers in the main parties “toe the party line”. Rather than subordinate themselves to the people they represent – rather than actually act as representatives – such MPs sell themselves the Party system of rewards and punishments.

Of course, the constituents of a deselected or hamstrung MP’s constituents could always return them to Parliament again, but how many people really vote on that basis? Most people vote along national lines of party or leader – Conservative or Labour, Cameron or Miliband - and indeed are encouraged to do so. There is a fundamental disconnect between the way many voters conceive their vote, and the reality of voting in Britain.

Historically, the rhetoric around the franchise – concomitant to denying it to “dependents” – revolved around notions of “manly independence”, which most people were said to lack. MPs, and the limited electorate were supposed to enshrine these qualities, which included the abilities to have reasoned impartiality, and to be able make one’s own mind up (which was, after all, why dependents were denied the vote). But have you ever seen such a timid lackey as an MP who slavishly “toes the party line”? Such MPs are dependents, but cannot be bound to what their constituents tell them to do, because they are already spoken for. This is the real objection to real recall: MPs must be free from having us tell them what to do, because they must remain free to be told what to do by their Party leaders! Whipped is a good word for it!

The people of this country have again been left facing the fact that they have no meaningful methods of exerting pressure on Parliament. But all this means is that we must therefore begin again the process of building such pressure. This is simply part of the cyclical history of British politics. The Blanketeers and the Chartists are often said to have been unsuccessful, but this is untrue. To see their success you have to know not only where to look, but how to look – without the context of the pressure created by organisations of people dedicated to achieving democracy in this country, one would be liable to believe that radical reform and meaningful democratic power was given to us out of the kindness of politicians’ hearts, or handed out as some kind of reward. It wasn’t, and at each step Parliament gave the least ground it could. It was only by assembling for democracy that changes were made to happen.

Today, we don’t even have a representative democracy. That is not what the system was originally constructed for, nor what it has become. Today we, like the Scottish martyrs, are faced with a government more interested in gagging acts than addressing corruption. Like the Blanketeers our role (at least between elections) is essentially limited to petitions. Like the Chartists, we are still unable to really hold MPs to account between elections, and our choice during them is severely limited by the realities of the system. Like the Suffragettes and Suffragists, we’re also still faced with a system based on virtual representation, whereby the choice of a minority whose votes matter are said to be good enough to represent everyone. Finally, like all of them, we’re asked simply to trust those with power, whilst being told that we ourselves cannot be trusted with power, lest we abuse it. In times such as these!

The time to organise has come again. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of time and energy to contribute to such a movement, or a little. What matters is that we collectively commit to building a democratic movement, driven “from below” by people power. That we not only cast our vote as an “X” in a box, as we are allowed to do once every five years, but act in favour of a genuinely alternative politics – that we establish a different way of doing things that will place power in our hands.


M. Taylor, ‘The Six Points’ in O. Ashton, et al. (eds.), The Chartist Legacy, (Merlin Press 1999), 2.

A theory of virtual representation was also put forward as an argument against giving the Thirteen Colonies representation in Parliament, on the basis that MPs inherently represented their interests already.

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