150 years ago: the fight for the vote

In Uncategorized on June 8, 2017 by kmflett

150 years ago: the fight for the vote

With the 2017 General Election campaign concluding today a constant media theme is that the left can’t change the way society goes on and that while Jeremy Corbyn attracts huge crowds whenever he speaks in public, this also makes no difference.

It’s worth reflecting that this has been a message that has been sent out regularly since the inception of any form of Parliamentary Democracy in Britain, broadly from the 1832 Reform Act.

Historically we haven’t heard much about successful demonstrations for example, but they do exist.

When the Chartists gathered on Kennington Common on April 10th 1848 to protest for the vote they failed. They were prevented from even marching. The failure of the Chartists on that Spring Monday in South London is well known.

Rather less well publicised is what happened on a subsequent Monday, not quite 20 years later, on 6th May 1867 when many of the same activists, under the auspices of the Reform League, marched to Hyde Park, and did so again for the vote

It was one of the most immediately successful demonstrations in British history to date.

The Reform League was a combination of middle class radicals, former Chartists and working class trade union activists. The May 1867 demonstration was the latest in a series demanding an extension to the franchise.

Both Liberal and Tory Governments had looked at extending the vote to allow more working class voters, but deliberately not enough ever to have a majority influence. Gladstone boasted that his property qualification for the vote would still leave less workers enfranchised than had been before the 1832 Act.

The Government took the decision to ban the League’s proposed rally in Hyde Park and mobilised large numbers of police, special constables and troops to ensure that it did not go ahead.

The League was far from a revolutionary organisation but it determined that it would continue with its plans.

At 6pm on Monday 6th May 1867 a protest of 150,000 people approached Hyde Park led by the Clerkenwell branch of the League with a red flag topped with a cap of liberty on a pole.

There was no confrontation. Faced with the League’s determination, the Government backed down.

The right-wing press was beside itself. The Home Secretary Walpole had to resign.

Meanwhile the impact of the campaign for an extension of the franchise was felt at once. In the Commons the Liberal leader Gladstone announced his discovery that the people wanted reform of the franchise. The actual measure, known as the Second Reform Act, which was passed in short order was far more radical than anything proposed before May 6 1867, extending the franchise by four times more than previously discussed.

Historian Royden Harrison noted of the working-class impact on the demonstration ‘If it was increasingly respectable it was increasingly well organised. If it had abandoned its revolutionary ambitions it had not wholly lost its revolutionary potentialities’.

The trade union leaders of the Reform League- far from the most radical of men- Applegarth, Odger and Howell- knew why the fight was worthwhile.

In 1863 the Manhood Suffrage and Vote by Ballot Association noted that ‘the evils under which we suffer have a common origin, namely an excess of political power in the hands of those holding a higher social position’.

Very much the same is true today. In that context and the continuing media furore about the politics of Jeremy Corbyn it’s worth noting the balance of the events of those May Days 150 years ago. An important extension to the right to vote was won which extended Parliamentary Democracy. The extension however was won outside Parliament, by extra-Parliamentary means.




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