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Editorial: Peterloo and the ongoing struggle for people power

ONCE in a generation we are confronted with evidence that political power rests only nominally with the voters.

It is true that in the seven or eight generations of British subjects that have lived since the Peterloo massacre — when the sons of the Manchester and district yeomanry attacked a 60,000-strong crowd demonstrating for parliamentary representation — the franchise has been gradually widened beyond the minute circles of landed aristocrats and property owners.

It grew to include some men of modest property, later men of even less property, some women of more mature age and then a wider circle of men and women of little property and most recent, in some elections, younger voters, mostly of no property at all.

If anything this glacial pace at which democratic rights have been extended demonstrates that in constitutional terms there are little in the way of “inalienable” rights — save those of property — but that every advance has been won in the teeth of opposition. 

The use of military force to disperse the Manchester crowd was a demonstration by the men of property that the political power they held rested on a monopoly of armed force.

A generation later, when the Chartists demonstrated to demand democracy, 170,000 upright citizens of the middle classes, including Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Emperor Napoleon III of France, were enrolled as special constables to confront the insurgent processions of Londoners led by a black trade unionist and reinforced by their Irish migrant worker allies.

Military force was openly mobilised to deal with an insurgent working class in the industrial districts following the Russian Revolution, in the 1926 General Strike and more recently we experienced the repressive police and security measures deployed to deal with the threat the Miners’ Strike.

While the state, capitalist or socialist, always strives to retain a firm grip on its monopoly of violence no ruling class, whether capitalist or working class, is secure if this is its only means of defence.

The ideas women and men hold in their heads are the critical ingredient in the exercise of political power and when political theory is crystallised in the form of  constitutional law it acquires the appearance of solidity and lays claim to continuity.

Two factors have taken the shine off the patina of permanence that gave the British political system its surface appearance of stability. 

The irruption of hundreds of thousands of people into the already existing if somewhat atrophied apparatus of the Labour Party has made that institution — which owes its birth and growth to precisely the re-emergence of working class revolt a generation after the defeat of Chartism — once again an unreliable instrument for securing working-class consent to the existing realities of power.

The second factor is the vote to leave the European Union. This event revealed both that Britain’s popular classes are divided but that the more exploited and oppressed, the poorer and the most angry, those most excluded from the security and comforts of guaranteed employment, a steady income and secure housing poured their class anger into the Brexit vote.

This unprecedented entry of millions, hitherto excluded from or indifferent to the normal exercise of the vote, has created a political crisis that the British system — which depends on preventing irreconcilable class differences from disturbing the exercise of political power — cannot resolve by conventional means.

It cannot be resolved until the working people of Britain find a common purpose and fashion the political means to make the satisfaction of their collective demands the business of government.

Nothing should be permitted to divert us from this goal.


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