Charting the charter
Wednesday 25 March 2009
The newly launched People’s Charter petitions for a radical programme of change for British society, building on a firm foundation of activism by the Chartists of the 19th century.
One of the new charter’s antecedents is the charter of 1837, which was launched by the London Working Men’s Association with six demands around basic democracy and the right to vote.
But what is the connection and how far should it be taken?
As with the current charter, many of the 1837 demands around MPs’ payment and secret ballots were not new but had been raised in the early radical and labour movement for decades.
But for the first time, the demands had been brought together in one document and this had been taken up by a body of some substance – London trade unionists.
Certainly, the LWMA had its political right, such as the cabinet-maker William Lovett, and its left like George Julian Harney, who went on to work with Marx and Engels. But they were united around the charter.
The political form of the petition remains very similar today to how it was 160 years ago.
The language of petitions presented specifically to Parliament is archaic, but the political mechanism is simple. The idea is to amass large numbers of signatures to underline the breadth of support.
There were, in fact, five Chartist petitions, the last being in 1851, but the numbers signing them varied hugely.
The first petition was presented to Parliament after a London demonstration on May 7 1839 and had over a million signatures.
The petition of 1842 was, however, signed by over three million people out of a total population of 10 million.
There could be no doubt that it represented the democratic will of British people, rather than the largely unreformed House of Commons.
This leads to a further point to do with the method of collecting signatures for the charter and agitating around its demands.
The key mechanism the Chartists used was not going door to door to collect signatures or even standing on the high street on a Saturday morning.
Rather, they held mass open-air meetings where those attending could both hear the charter explained and add their signature or mark to it.
This was known as the mass platform and it was supposed to have died out as politics became more respectable and moved to indoor ticketed meetings in the 1860s.
This applied though to parliamentary politics, not the grass-roots activism that is the bedrock of the left and labour movement then and now.
So there are some parallels between that first people’s charter and the current one.
There were also some differences.
While working women were heavily involved in agitating for the charter, they were excluded from the formal demands made, on the basis that this was something not likely to be achievable in mid-Victorian society.
Perhaps the Chartists had a point, as the government did not manage to concede even limited votes for women until 1918.
But the main thing about that 1837 charter which should give us heart today is something you may have missed in your school history lessons. The received historical wisdom is that Chartism fell apart by 1848 – although in fact it continued for another 10 years – with none of its demands won.
This is true, up to a point. However, five of the six charter demands were conceded in the decades to come. So the agitation had a deep and lasting impact on the British political landscape.
The one demand that was not agreed was for annual parliaments, which still seems to me to be a basic democratic demand.