Workers' history

Submitted by Anon on 10 September, 2003 - 2:14

by Oona Swann


With turn-outs at elections at an all-time low and disillusion with politics rampant, it's odd to look back on a time when working people had no vote, when the vote seemed key to winning economic and social equality.

The Chartist movement grew out of disgust at the failure of the 1832 Reform Act to extend the vote beyond the middle classes. The political system was openly corrupt, it was acknowledged that wealth and property conferred political power, not covertly as now, but by buying votes.
In June 1836 William Lovett, Henry Hetherington, John Cleave and James Watson formed the London Working Men's Association (LMWA). At one meeting in 1838 the leaders of the LMWA drew up a Charter of political demands:

The People's Charter:

  • Vote for all adult males over 21.
  • Payment for MPs
  • Each constituency the same size
  • Secret ballot
  • No property qualifications for MPs
  • General elections once a year

When supporters of parliamentary reform held a convention the following year, Lovett was chosen as the leader of the group that was now known as the Chartists.

Political reform had been demanded by radicals for decades, what was new about this movement was that it based itself on the new working class, created out of and suffering the inhuman effects of the industrial revolution. From the beginning the movement was divided over tactics, between Physical and Moral Force, violence and non-violence, petitions, marches or general strikes. But all of its leaders understood it brought a new force into politics, the masses. Throughout 1838 large meetings were held all over Britain. Estimates of how many people attended these meetings varies. The Northern Star claimed that 500,000 people were at the Kersal Moor meeting in Manchester on 24th September, 1838, whereas the report in the Manchester Guardian estimated the crowd to be only 30,000. However, even hostile newspapers in Scotland admitted that over 100,000 people assembled at Glasgow Green on 28th June, 1838, to hear Chartist speakers.

George Julian Harney went on a tour of Northern towns in the summer of 1839. Numbers at these meetings ranged from 10,000 in Carlisle to 100,000 in Newcastle. The Chartist, Ben Wilson, who organised a meeting in Halifax, claimed that over 200,000 people turned up to hear the Chartist speakers. Workers saw the vote as opening the way for their wider social and economic interests-for the 10-hour day, against police repression and the hated Poor Law.

In the early 1830s, William Benbow began advocating his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an uprising and a change in the political system. Benbow used the term "holiday" (holy day) because it would be a period "most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty". Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity "to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up... that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production."

The General Strike was initially opposed by other Chartist leaders, especially Feargus O'Connor, leader of the physical force faction. The failure of the first Chartist petition led to the adoption of the call for a General Strike for 12 August 1839. (This was called off after the arrest of the main Chartist leaders.)

The first Chartist petition was presented to the House of Commons on 7 May, 1839 by Thomas Attwood, John Fielden and Joseph Hume. Although the petition contained over 1,280,000 names, when the debate on the motion that the petitioners be heard in the House of Commons took place on 12th July 1839, it was rejected by 235 votes to 46.

Another strike wave followed the second petition. On 4 May, 1842, Thomas Duncombe presented to Parliament a Chartist petition signed by 3,250,000 people. As well as demanding the six points of the Charter the document also complained about the "cruel wars against liberty"; and "unconstitutional police force"; the 1834 Poor Law; factory conditions and church taxes on Nonconformists. It also included an attack on Queen Victoria, contrasting her income of "£164 17s. 10d. a day" with that of "the producing millions". The Chartists were furious when the House of Commons rejected the petition by 287 votes to 47.

This decision was followed by a series of strikes in the industrial districts. It started in the Midland coalfield, and spread during August to Scotland and to the textile industry in Lancashire and Yorkshire. In some cases, striking workers stopped production by removed the boiler plugs from the steam engines in their factories. As a result, these industrial disputes became known as the Plug Plot. 500,000 workers struck during this time.

Some workers argued that they would remain out on strike until the People's Charter became the law of the land. A conference of trade union leaders in Manchester also passed a resolution linking the strikes to the demands for universal suffrage.

The high points of Chartist agitation were linked to economic depressions. When the economy revived, workers settled for local improvements; when they were faced with lay-offs and wage cuts, they turned to political action.

The other new feature of the movement was the importance of the working class radical press in articulating and debating politics for those who had no political voice.

To be continued next time: 1848 Europe in revolution.

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