200 years since the Peterloo Massacre, Labour must fight for democratic equality

"Only through greater democracy can we transform society," write Labour MPs Jonathan Reynolds and Rupa Huq.

[Clause IV] commits us to putting power and wealth in the hands of the many, not the few. I cannot think of a better slogan for us than to demand an electoral system that puts power in the hands of the many voters and not the few” – Robin Cook, 2005

The Peterloo Massacre is one of the most overlooked events in British history. 16 August 1819 set the scene for the coming century of struggle for democracy in the UK.

At the time, the meeting of 60,000 protestors at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, was the largest in our history. In an era when England’s second town sent no MPs to Westminster, ordinary working people, primarily the spinners and weavers of Manchester’s surrounding towns, turned out to demand representation in Parliament. The authorities responded with violence. Indeed, among those who were killed was 19-year-old Joseph Whitworth, from Hyde, which is today in one of our constituencies.

Although their aims were not met for many years, the brutal suppression of the marchers caused a huge shift in public opinion which set the wheels in motion for gradual reform that culminated in universal male suffrage and the first votes for women in 1918, and full equal suffrage in 1928. Peterloo is also significant because it showed that working people understood that economic liberation could not take place without democratic representation.

At the time, industrial Manchester’s already wretched working and living conditions were compounded by a deep economic depression. The protestors recognised that they could not alleviate this suffering while Parliament represented only the elite. Why would Parliament care about Manchester while it was not represented by even a single MP?

With reform in the 20th century this idea was gradually realised. Each of the Reform Acts were followed by corresponding policy changes as newly enfranchised classes asserted themselves. After the 1832 Great Reform Act, industrialists and merchants gained greater representation. By 1846, they used this power to repeal the Corn Laws which had existed to protect the wealth of rich landowners. Following further extensions of the franchise to some working men in urban areas (in 1867) and rural areas (in 1884), Parliament turned its attention to social reforms demanded by the working class. This culminated in the People’s Budget of 1909, which placed new taxes on the rich with which to “wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness”.

When the first women finally won the vote in 1918, it was followed by a slew of bills aiming to deal with ‘women’s issues’. And although it took many years, universal suffrage allowed working people to build the Labour Party, win representation in Parliament, and fundamentally reform the state to address the interests of the many.

But today, the UK remains one of the most economically unequal societies in the developed world, with the 6th worst income equality of the 36 OECD nations and the 2nd worst of those in Europe. This report makes the case that democratic inequality, arising from a long outdated electoral system, has been a substantial barrier to reducing economic inequality, creating an egalitarian society, and addressing issues of social justice. By adopting Proportional Representation (PR) we can instead create a democracy in which all voters have equal access to representation and political power.

A new report from Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform draws on substantial academic evidence showing why this is far more likely to lead to the kind of society that we in the Labour Party want to create: one with, for example, lower economic inequality, greater economic democracy, and an effective response to the climate crisis.

Let us be clear: these policies must be fought for whatever the electoral system. But there is increasing evidence that workers, trade unions, activists and political parties are better placed to fight for them under systems in which all votes count equally.

By adopting PR, we can significantly shift the balance of power in the UK, from the few, to the many. Labour remains the only socialist party in the developed world to support the use of First Past the Post for general elections. It is time for us to learn from our sister parties and embrace fair votes.

Indeed, this is already happening. One third of Labour MPs have come out in favour of PR. At the time of writing, 69 Constituency Labour Parties have passed pro-PR motions since 2017, with dozens more debates scheduled. Two affiliated unions now support PR as policy, and one of the two unions with policy against PR is reviewing its position following calls from its membership.

200 years on from the Peterloo Massacre, we should remember and celebrate those who fought for democracy before us. We should take inspiration from their understanding that only through greater democracy can we transform society.

Read “Peterloo 200: The path to Proportional Representation” which is out today.

Jonathan Reynolds is Labour and Co-operative MP for Stalybridge and Hyde and Shadow Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Rupa Huq is Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton.

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7 Responses to “200 years since the Peterloo Massacre, Labour must fight for democratic equality”

  1. Dave Roberts

    Hanging on the wall in my home is a contemporaneous print on linen of the event. It far more descriptive than any of the other cartoons and paintings and was lent to the Guardian for the 190th anniversary of the founding of the paper.
    If there is to a serious celebration of this momentous event it can be lent with suitable guarantees as there are only two others as far as I know. The Museum of Working Class History has one and Tony Benn had another and it is very rare. I’ll see if I can get a link sent to the site or if someone wants to send me an email I can send it to that.

  2. Patrick Newman

    No bloodshed these days but the working class and downtrodden masses are cut down by swords of austerity!

  3. Dave Roberts

    Yeh, Ok, whatever!

  4. Tom Sacold

    Many Labour MPs have no interest in real socialist reform. They look only to try to ‘manage’ capitalism.

    We need real socialists elected to Parliament to enact effective socialist reforms to enable the workers to control industry through either state ownership or cooperatives.

  5. Dave Roberts

    Reminds of the Beatles’ ” Back in The USSR”. How did that experiment in socialism go by the way?

  6. Charlie Browne

    In addition to PR, perhaps decisions made on our (?) behalf’s by our so-called representatives in Parliament, at County Hall, and in local councils could be run past every member of the electorate for final approval before implementation?

    Could now be done online; with terminals provided in libraries for those without tec
    Otherwise we will still have a Parliamentocracy rather than Democracy

    Employee’s democratic control of the workplace also overdue?
    -someone did mention it a few years ago; I wonder if they have forgotten?

  7. Michael Burt

    The problem is many of the MP’s who claim to be Labour are Not, they are just like the Tories they are representing their own interests and are protecting their well paid jobs, not representing the interest of the people. We had a so called Labour government for 13 years they put the millstone of Private Finance Initiatives around the neck of the NHS and allowed things to go on as thought the Tories were still in power. This included taking us to war at great expense and ignoring the health of our troops when they come home. The Labour Mp’s do nothing about the shortage of homes and homelessness or seeking changes to the NHS they are letting it be privatised.
    Many Labour MP’s could not care less about democracy or the people.
    they spend much of their time attacking our leader for their own selfish reasons.

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