The Chartists

Great Reform Act

Britain’s Great Reform Act of 1832 significantly improved the electoral system throughout the country by abolishing the infamous ‘Rotten Boroughs’ (where some electorates consisted of merely a handful of voters) and by giving the vote to the great middle class. However as an improvement as the reforms were, they still fell short of anywhere near true democracy. The vote was still qualified to those of a certain degree of wealth, it was not secret and thus subject to influence by interested parties, and the electorates were far from equal in population. The reason for the later anomaly was to facilitate different interests (such as industrial, commercial, agriculture and educational) being represented rather than just the people themselves. Also electoral terms were seven years and members of parliament were not paid. Although in theory pro bono service might seem a noble concept in that those who represent their constituents do so for altruistic rather than mercenary motives (especially considering the enormous superannuation packages present day retiring parliamentarians take with them), in practice this would mean those members of parliament of the poorer classes would not be able to support themselves while serving. Overall it would seem that despite what reforms were begrudgingly granted, there appeared to be overriding determination to ensure that “the great unwashed”, the feared, uneducated working class, were definitely denied the power of the vote.

The Chartists

This shortcoming motivated many to come together to create a People’s Charter, an imitation of the  Magna Carta, the sacred medieval document of 1215 used by the nobles to limit the power of the monarch. Rather than a proclamation for all human rights, this movement originally centred specifically on what was held to be fundamental democratic rights. The supporters of this People’s Charter took the name Chartists.

A Chartists' March

The Six Points

The claims of the Chartists came to be known as The Six Points

  • Universal suffrage for all men from the age of 21
  • Equal-sized electoral districts
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament
  • Pay for Members of Parliament
  • Annual election of Parliament

Compared with many of the militant movements of the time, their plans for agitation and obtaining reforms were originally set out to be strictly peaceful. Their goal was moral force rather than physical.  A petition was circulated throughout the community and on the 7th of May 1839 it was submitted with over one million signatures to the House of Commons by MPs sympathetic to the cause. The parliament subsequently voted to not even discuss the request.  After further petitions with even more signatures, which extended the cause to include complaints about general working conditions and taxes, were similarly ignored, unity in the leadership of the movement broke down with various factions following their own disparate concerns including some deciding upon more militant action to best achieve results. 

 

Even though the movement eventually lost support due to the Chartists name being associated with bloody and even lethal riots and the subsequent imprisonment and deportation of many of its leaders, the Chartists of the early nineteenth century did prove to be quite prescience in what was ultimately recognized as the democratic rights of man. 

Democracies of the twenty-first century have implemented five of their Six Points, and even with the last, annual elections, there has been evolution in their suggested direction since that time. Britain eventually changed its electoral cycles from seven to five years and most democracies now have periods equal to that or even lower. Terms for members of the United States House of Representatives are only two years.

Chartists meeting at Kennington Common

Right or Wrong on Number 6?

It is interesting to contemplate whether the Chartists got it wrong on annual elections or whether governments, even in the twenty-first century, are still dragging their feet on electoral reform.

If an MP is there to represent his constituents then it would seem to follow that he should only be there for as long as he is wanted. One would think political representation is for the sake of the represented rather than the representative. This theory is manifested in Canada and some of the United States where, if sufficient signatures are obtained, recall elections are held to allow the voters to replace an elected official before his term is up. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, originally attained office at the recall election of his unpopular predecessor Gray Davis.

 

One of the more surprising defences of longer electoral terms is, as mentioned by the Australian Government’s Civics and Citizenship Education website, to enhance the ability of members of parliament to enact legislation their representatives don’t want.

  “Recently State parliaments have been given increased terms: from three to four years. The case for doing this is that governments often have to adopt unpopular measures. If they are worried too soon about getting re-elected, the time when they can govern well is very short.”

Thus the argument is that if an election comes too soon after “unpopular measures” are introduced, the MPs might find themselves out of a job. One can certainly understand why it would be in the interests of the state parliamentarians to lengthen electoral terms and consequently their chances of staying in office, but one wonders why that should be in the interests of voters, and especially democracy.

Necessary Unpopular Legislation?

An argument often used to defend this self serving position of politicians is that the electorate will never vote for unpopular initiatives such as tax increases. There are two responses to this argument.

First, the implication above is that imposing unpopular legislation is like forcing a child to take his medicine. Even though that analogy might be suitable with respect to legislation on tax increases, some unpopular legislation could more aptly be compared with child endangerment or embezzling an infant’s education endowment. For example, Immigration and Capital Punishment are two areas of legislative reform where, over the last few decades in Australia reform has, euphemistically speaking, preceded public opinion. In the early seventies under the Labor government, immigration was a very controversial issue. In the 1974 election, despite Labor being returned to office, the Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, lost his seat due to what most believed was the government’s new criterion for accepting new immigrants.  Thus the vacant office of Minister for Immigration was thought of by many as a ‘poisoned chalice’ for any new occupant. It was eventually  accepted by the new occupant only when the name of the portfolio itself was changed to Minister for Labour and Immigration in an effort to disguise the stigma.

Second, even when the legislation is an increase in taxation, it does seem rather a facile argument to say that the electorate will never support it because of the reason it may cause pain. This may well be true for when the new taxes are to support spurious expenditures. However it is hard to believe the general electorate are not intelligent enough to appreciate that important and necessary new programs have to be paid for. One seldom completes a visit to the dentist without suffering either physical or financial pain. Are we to believe dentist’s surgeries are mostly free of voting age people?

If we should ever find it rare to come across smiling voters, it would in all probability be more likely because of concern about their limited connect with the legislative system, rather than any shame they might possess to display their teeth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Encarta Premium Suite 2004

Australian Democracy, Civics and Citizenship Education, Australian Government  Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations   

Chartist history reference site  

With thanks to Wikipedia for ‘borrowed’ images

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