The East Lancashire Clarion Choir on Blackstone Edge, 2 May 2015.The Chartists of the mid-19th century were the most advanced democrats of their time, and the Chartist Movement was the greatest British mass movement of the last 200 years. It was rooted in the towns and villages, mines and mills, of the North of England, as well as the central belt of Scotland, South Wales, the Midlands and London.
Their charismatic leader, Feargus O’Connor, set up the hugely popular Chartist newspaper The Northern Star, which was published in Leeds and read in every hamlet, village and town across the industrial North. Their ‘six points’ (first produced in 1837) would have amounted to a major extension of democracy in Britain and Ireland at the time. These were their core objectives:
- A vote for every man over 21 years of age.
- Secret ballot (instead of the system for voting in public).
- MPs do not have to own property.
- MPs will be paid.
- Equal voting constituencies.
- An election every year for Parliament.
Many Chartists supported the right of women to have the vote. We need to learn from their struggle for democracy, recognising that we have slipped back from being one of the most advanced democracies to being stuck with a highly centralised state, an archaic electoral system and structural inequality that is out of control.
The Colne Valley of Yorkshire was always at the head of democratic struggles – including working class emancipation, co-operation, Chartism, the fight for women’s votes and trade unionism. This is a draft of what a ‘People’s Charter’ for 2015 could look like, and ideas and comments are encouraged. It was outlined to the annual Chartist Gathering on Blackstone Edge on a cold rainy Saturday, 2 May 2015.
This event celebrated the original Chartist Gathering on Blackstone Edge in August 1846, which attracted 30,000 people from Yorkshire and Lancashire. Several good suggestions were made, which I’ve added to my original ‘six points’ – so now there are 10. We need a series of ‘citizen’s conventions’ to debate how we build a new democracy and come up with agreed ways forward. Hopefully, these suggestions will get people thinking. Please comment!
A 10-Point People’s Charter: for a new democracy and a United Commonwealth
- A new democracy of active citizens not passive subjects: The UK is broken, with a highly centralised state and a disaffected Scotland that is likely to go independent. We need a new federal democracy based on an agreement between the nations and regions of Britain and Ireland, which guarantees equal treatment and genuine democratic devolution within a modern, reformed Europe. A United Commonwealth of citizens, not a United Kingdom of subjects. Power must be devolved to the most local level that is appropriate. We want to see engaged and active communities, with new forms of democratic engagement right down to neighbourhood level.
- A fair voting system: The British voting system is widely discredited and must be reformed based on an agreed form of proportional representation, with new forms of voting (e.g. online) introduced. The Lords should become an elected senate of the nations and regions. The voting age should be reduced to 16. Referenda should be used in guiding key decisions.
- A fair and equal society: Gender inequality must be challenged, with radical steps to reduce the gap between male and female earnings and massively increased representation of women in politics and business. Discrimination on grounds of race, disability, sexuality or class should form no part of our society. Good education for all is key to achieving a fair and equal society, together with access to quality health care and a free press not dominated by big private semi-monopolies, allowing people to reach balanced judgements on political issues.
- Bring democracy to the workplace: Democracy is a mere token unless it extends to the workplace. All large companies should have employee representation at board level and steps should be taken to encourage mutual and co-operative enterprise including a ‘right to mutualise’ larger companies. Employers must pay a fair, living wage of at least £10 an hour. All employees must have the right to join a trade union and take industrial action if they have to.
- Democratic representation and recall: All political representatives (local, regional and national) must be subject to recall and should account for their work at regular open meetings and discussions. MPs should only take the national average wage and not be allowed to take other paid employment. Women should not form less than 40% of all elected representatives.
- Good homes for all: The right to good, affordable housing is essential in a modern democracy. More homes must be built as part of healthy and joyful communities, with easy access to services and facilities.
- The right to health: Everyone has a right to live in a healthy environment with good quality healthcare that is free and accessible to everyone.
- The right to a clean and green society: Climate change is the biggest threat facing the world and action is needed locally, regionally, nationally and internationally to combat it. We need to invest in green technologies and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
- The right to a peaceful world: There should be no place for weapons of mass destruction in a fair and just society. We need a modern defence system which responds to the challenges and threats we face but also a politics that addresses the underlying causes of terrorism and war.
- Responsibilities as well as rights: As a rich society we have a responsibility to people across the world suffering from hunger, poverty, poor sanitation and war. The new ‘United Commonwealth’ we envisage should play a positive and progressive role around the world, using our resources (including our armed forces) to promote sustainable development and self-reliance, working with our European and international partners.
Blackstone Edge, 2 May 2015
This article was originally published at the website of Paul Salveson.