200 years from the Peterloo Massacre, we need a new movement for real democracy

Jon Narcross reflects on the legacy of the mass gathering for political representation, which was brutally shut down by the military and police.

May 15, 2019 · 5 min read

In August 1819, 60,000 working people gathered peacefully in St Peters Field in Manchester to hear a speech by orator Henry Hunt. Hunt, a well-known radical, was a leading figure in the movement for parliamentary reform. Together they assembled with one simple demand – political representation.

An attempt by local magistrates to shut down the meeting saw an army of 60 cavalrymen charge on the crowd leaving 18 people dead and more than six hundred injured. Papers of the day shared the horror felt by those who witnessed the tragedy and public opinion shifted behind the protesters and the reform cause.

Historians recognise Peterloo a key moment in the history of the suffrage movement. The change that followed wasn’t immediate, but the massacre began a long process for democratic reform and helped an increasingly politicised working class find their voice.

One of the legacies of Peterloo is the reminder that democracy is not static. It takes the power of people to change politics and Peterloo serves as a reminder that Britain’s journey to democracy was the product of people in the streets not simply the legacy of reformers in Westminster.

200 years on, our democracy is once again crying out for change.Popular support for our politics is crumbling. Recent research by the Hansard Society found that two-thirds of people believe our system of governing needs ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement. Most worryingly, over half of people asked believe that Britain needs ‘a strong ruler willing to break the rules’ showing an increasing willingness to welcome the idea of authoritarian leadership. When support for our politics is so low, it comes as no surprise that the call to be heard is getting louder.

It’s just this sense of disillusionment that Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party have grabbed onto in their anti-establishment campaign for the European Elections: cloaking their push for a right-wing Brexit in the language of a movement for democracy. But we cannot allow the narrative of popular democracy to become the property of the far right and their reactionary agenda.

There is a historic duty for Labour and the left to re-claim the cause of democratic reform as their own and make the case for radical reform to Westminster’s creaking establishment. For too long power in this country has been centred in the hands of a small ruling class. Even under previous Labour governments the call to give power back to the people has gone unheard or reforms stifled by establishment interests.

Now, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has a chance to shift the balance of power today. The solutions to the problems we face as a society are rooted in a re-vamped democratic system – where people here their voice is heard, where ideas can be tested and debated on a level playing field, and where our institutions – local and national – are responsive and accessible to the many and not just the few.

Throughout history the labour and trade union movements have been on the forefront of demanding progressive change to address the big challenges of the era. Once again it must be our movement to lead this call and make the case for democratic reform today.

Those who marched at Peterloo did so to demand representation, but 200 years later many remain without a voice in our political system. Millions are left off the electoral register. The government is trying to make it harder to vote, through mandatory ID. The House of Lords remains a private members’ club, devoid of accountability. And the majority do not feel their vote counts.

As we mark this important anniversary, we must not just celebrate their achievements but push forward our own calls for reforms to bring our democracy into the 21st century. This August, campaigners, trade unionists and politicans will unite to set out that vision for ‘real democracy’, at a major conference in Manchester marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

‘This is What Democracy Looks Like’, hosted by the Politics for the Many campaign, will bring campaigners together to argue the struggle for a better democracy must continue today. Speakers at the bicentenary conference will make a progressive case for building a new democratic settlement today. They include Hillary Wainwright, Red Pepper editor, journalist Paul Mason and leading trade unionists and activists.

Jon Narcross works with the Politics for the Many campaign

Sign up here for “This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Building a Politics For The Many” and find out more about Politics for the Many, the trade union campaign for political reform.


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