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The Levellers’ unfinished fight for democracy

TRISH LAVELLE asks what can we learn from a historic struggle remembered today in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency

Last year comedian Russell Brand told BBC Newsnight that he has never voted, and he never will, as Britain’s political system has created a “disenfranchised, disillusioned underclass. It is not that I am not voting out of apathy.

“I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations,” he added.

Brand is apparently not alone in these views. Research carried out for the Electoral Reform Society earlier this year revealed that as many as 800,000 18–21-year-olds are not registered to vote.

In all, they estimate that 8.5 million people were missing from the parliamentary electoral register in April 2011. Many of these will be younger, working-class voters. It seems our political elite is quite happy with this mass disenfranchisement.

Each year in May people gather in Oxfordshire to celebrate and commemorate the ideas of the Levellers. On May 17 1649, three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard. They belonged to a popular movement with beliefs in representative government, civil rights and religious tolerance.

During the civil war, the Levellers fought on Parliament’s side, at first seeing Cromwell as a liberator, but by 1649 they viewed him as an oppressor. They were prepared to fight against him for their ideals and he was determined to crush them. Over 300 of them were captured by Cromwell’s troops and locked up in Burford church. Three were led out into the churchyard to be shot as ringleaders.

The ideas of the Levellers were influential in the development of democracy, equality and civil rights and are every bit as relevant today as they were then. They were certainly seen as a threat to the rich and the powerful of that era, which explains why they were so brutally suppressed. The Levellers called for a system of fair representation of the people and an end to corruption and abuses of power.

And of course we are just days away voting from the elections for the European Parliament in Britain and Northern Ireland. The racist and reactionary interests represented by Ukip have high expectations of electoral success.

Many people have not registered to vote or will choose not to use their vote. In less than a year, if these voting patterns continue, we could see a Tory/Ukip coalition beaming out at us from the rose garden.

So in a timely debate this weekend in the heart of David Cameron’s West Oxfordshire constituency, we will be considering why apathy and cynicism about mainstream politics seem to be at an all-time high and how we must increase participation and engagement in the political system.

Speakers from trade unions, Operation Black Vote and Class will discuss what we can do to make representative politics truly representative and how we can turn single-issue activism into broader political activism. And of course, we will discuss how the values and aspirations of the Levellers continue to inform and inspire this debate.

This year will see a special tribute to Tony Benn who was a magnificent supporter of our event for many years. We will place flowers for him on the spot where the Levellers were executed and remember a great “Leveller” of our times.

Levellers’ Day takes place today at The Recreation Ground, Tanners Lane, Burford, Oxfordshire from 10.30am–3.30pm.

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