Push for ‘real reform’ honours pro-democracy protesters massacred in Manchester 200 years ago

Screenshot of crowd from Peterloo film
Ed Sykes

16 August 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, when UK authorities murdered civilians campaigning for democracy. And campaign groups today are marking their deaths with a continued push for “real reform”.

Continuing the battle of Peterloo

Mike Leigh, director of the film Peterloo, previously called the 1819 massacre “a defining moment in our political history” and “one of the most shameful displays of state violence against the people”. Historians, meanwhile, say the event strongly influenced the growing fight for political reforms while boosting the development of the trade-union movement.

To mark the anniversary, members of the modern labour movement paid tribute to those who died two hundred years ago:

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Two hundred years ago today, on St Peter’s Field in Manchester, armed cavalry charged into a crowd of peaceful…

Posted by Jeremy Corbyn on Friday, 16 August 2019

 

But a new report from Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform insists that there’s still a long way to go in the fight for justice and equality. As the report’s author Owen Winter stressed in a press release, the UK’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system:

consistently skews politics to the right and drives up economic and social inequality.

In the report’s introduction, meanwhile, prominent academics asserted that:

it is widely accepted by experts that FPTP has a pronounced conservative bias

And that:

countries with more proportional systems have been more successful in delivering the kind of outcomes associated with egalitarian, compassionate societies.

As Labour MPs Jonathan Reynolds and Rupa Huq also emphasised in the report’s foreword:

It is time for us to learn from our sister parties and embrace Proportional Representation.

Labour must push for “real reform”

On 31 August, hundreds of people will gather at a ‘Politics For The Many’ conference in Manchester. They will push Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to back a bold project of constitutional reform.

As Politics For the Many spokesperson Lynn Henderson said in a press release:

Two centuries today… since the Peterloo Massacre – where 18 people were killed and hundreds injured demanding political reform – the need to overhaul Westminster remains urgent…

the House of Lords remains totally unelected, and our electoral system leaves people feeling voiceless. Our institutions are in dire need of change.

The plans being mooted in No 10 for Boris Johnson to ignore a vote of no confidence or even to shut down Parliament altogether – highlight that our uncodified constitution cannot be relied on. Britain’s centralised political system places too much power in the hands of the executive, and far too little in the hands of citizens and elected representatives.

The Labour movement must now put forward plans for real reform of the Westminster system.

The biggest tribute to those who died at Peterloo? Keep fighting!

Electoral Reform Society senior director Willie Sullivan, meanwhile, insisted in a press release that:

200 years from the first movements for the vote, the majority of Parliamentarians remain unelected, with a House of Lords that too often looks like a private members’ club. Trust in politics is at rock bottom, and millions are excluded and alienated by a Westminster that is distant and out-of-touch.

It is up to politicians to do something about this – to try and restore some trust by giving power back to the public. This has to involve listening to the majority of voters across all sides who want a fairly-elected second chamber and for seats in Parliament to match how we vote…

By far the biggest tribute to the struggles of those at Peterloo would be to kick-start a conversation about political reform today – and what must be done to revitalise the crumbling Westminster set-up.

Two centuries ago, tens of thousands of people rallied in Manchester to demand democracy. But authorities met them with violent repression. The rich and powerful were never going to end their stranglehold on society without a fight. And the same is true today. So if we want a fair, compassionate democracy in the UK, we need to stand up and be counted. Because only together can we truly bring about meaningful change.

Featured image via YouTube

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    1. Seemingly, Peterloo figures highly in Labour’s catalogue of demonology and sainthood. Fair enough for people in need of deep roots in a comforting construction of history in order to function in the present. Commemoration of the small (by present day standards) massacre is giving rise to a lot of chatter about ‘democracy’ and ills arising in its absence.

      Unfortunately, most general discussion of democracy is trite and avoids exploration of deeply serious matters concerning governance of nations, parishes, and building societies. ‘Democracy’ is a loosely deployed term bearing analogy to manner of use of other popular ill-defined ideas like ‘racist’, ‘equality’, ‘fairness’, ‘progressive’, ‘sexist’, ‘poverty’, ‘loyalty’, ‘elitist’, and so forth. At the drop of a hat, pundits will declare this and that as ‘democratic’ or ‘undemocratic’. Similarly the specious notion of ‘will of the people’ is introduced to bolster a weak argument.

      ‘Democracy’ is a communal decision taking process. When unadorned the term, in context of national governance, is generally taken to mean ‘representative democracy’. In recent times there has been considerable discussion over how choices ought be presented on ballot papers. Each leads to its own interpretation of how voter intentions pan out in terms of membership of a representative assembly.

      That is fine so far as it goes. Yet, it leaves unaddressed important issues coming into prominence as result of unprecedented complexity of civil society and demands made upon citizens. It ignores too possibilities for an entirely new way of implementing some kind of democratic process using opportunities offered by modern electronic communication and associated technologies.

      Representative democracy, as currently conceived, is the crudest possible workable expression of choice. Its weaknesses are well known and were succinctly expressed in 1976 by the late Qintin Hogg as ‘elective dictatorship’. Representative democracy in the UK has until recently provided stability and permitted, sometimes at glacial pace, introduction of reforms (and backward steps too). Nevertheless, it is predicated upon a false assumption which allows choice of representatives to be manipulated in various ways.

      The assumption rests on ‘one man one vote’ coupled with an implicit idea that every man’s vote carries equal worth for making collective decisions. That stands valid at the parish pump and within a company board of directors. Its credibility is stretched when making choices for representatives from large heterogeneous populations. Perhaps, it could be claimed a message comes forth from amid a cloud of static in which foolish choices (i.e. not based on understanding issues at stake and on applying reasoning) of differing nature cancel each other out.

      Complexity of advanced nation society is such that beyond basic choices (e.g. localised as for a small town council) a rapidly diminishing proportion of a population is capable of making defensible choices as complication increases. However, almost everybody ought be able to voice legitimate opinion on guiding principles concerning morality, distribution of wealth, broad national ambitions, and how we should get along with other nations. That would be possible even under simple representative democracy if candidates were to articulate broad policies and not obfuscate matters with irrelevancy.

      Thus, ‘one man one vote’ structured choice ballots make sense too via frequent guiding referenda commissioned by government and the leading opposition party (all state funded); technology to accomplish that is mature.

      Existence of universal franchise for broad brush stroke decisions does not preclude setting up restricted franchises for guiding decisions on complicated matters. Places in these would be earned by dint of an objectively measurable attribute such as level of educational attainment. Whilst the government of the day must have authority to respond quickly to developing circumstances the greater part of parliamentary business has little true urgency. There is scope for bringing ‘qualified’ outside opinion to bear at all stages of legislative process, not merely through an initial consultative mechanism as now. A balance between vox populi and patrician wisdom? Means to steer between the the Scylla and Charybdis of idiocracy and kakistocracy?

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