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Great Britain

Peterloo led eventually to electoral democracy – but there’s one big bit of unfinished business

The Massacre of Peterloo, cartoon by George Cruikshank

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Public Domain

Today marks the bicentenary of one of the most overlooked events in British history – and the starting flag for over a century of democratic struggle.

The meeting that turned into the Peterloo Massacre saw 60,000 protestors gather at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester – the largest meeting in British history, at that point. Ordinary working people turned out en masse to demand representation in Parliament. The peaceful assembly, largely made up of working-class families that had marched to Manchester from the surrounding towns, was met with brutal suppression. In one of the most explicit examples of class conflict in British history, a militia formed by the local gentry charged into the crowd, wreaking havoc. All in all, around 700 people were injured and 18 died.

Peterloo showed how working people understood that economic liberation could not take place without democratic representation. Manchester was suffering from a deep economic depression at the time, exacerbated by the Corn Laws. The Corn Laws placed tariffs on imported corn, greatly increasing food prices for workers whilst enriching the landed elite that dominated Parliament. At St. Peter’s field, banners reading Election by Ballot and Equal Representation or Death stood proudly next to those reading No Corn Laws and Labour is the Source of Wealth. The protestors recognised that they could not alleviate their suffering while they were unrepresented in Parliament.

Developments in democracy during the 19th century bore out this idea. Each of the Reform Acts was 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. For the first time, a budget was written with the express intent of redistributing wealth to the poorest. 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.

Yet despite universal suffrage, the UK remains one of the most economically unequal societies in the developed world. We have the 6th worst income equality of the 36 OECD nations. Part of the reason for this failure is in our outdated electoral system.

This is the argument of a new report published by Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. Drawing on the work of prominent academics, we find that significant evidence that First Past the Post is a substantial barrier to reducing economic inequality, creating an egalitarian society, and addressing issues of social justice.

At the core of this issue is voter inequality. First Past the Post means that votes vary wildly in value, based on how you vote and where you live. In 2015 the number of votes per MP elected for each party varied hugely, with one party needing 23,033 votes per MP and another needing 3,881,099. And politicians use increasingly sophisticated techniques to map and ruthlessly target the privileged voters in marginal constituencies, while ignoring the majority whose votes carry little value.

Voter inequality leads to Parliaments that consistently fail to represent how people have voted, with both Labour and the Conservatives previously winning a majority of seats with the support of less than 37 per cent of voters. But these distortions in the make-up of Parliament do not ‘balance out’ in the long run. Instead, there is consensus among experts that “First Past the Post has a pronounced conservative bias”, producing (along with other winner-takes-all electoral systems) significantly more right-wing governments than proportional systems.

By adopting Proportional Representation (PR) we can instead level the playing field and create a democracy in which all voters have equal access to representation and political power. Our report draws on substantial academic evidence showing that PR countries around the world tend to have lower income inequality, higher levels of economic democracy and more effective responses to the climate crisis. This makes perfect sense: when everyone has equal access to political power, they create a more egalitarian society.

The report adds impetus to a growing movement on the left towards supporting electoral reform. Within the Labour Party, a significant shift is already underway. 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 formally support PR, 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 also reflect on their motivation - the understanding that democracy and equality are deeply linked - and their methods. In the 21st century, we can shift the balance of power in the UK, from the few to the many, by adopting PR.

Make Votes Matter’s Peterloo 200 report will be launched at an event in Albert Square Chop House, Manchester on 18 August, from 4pm to 7pm. To find out more, visit www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/news/peterloo

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