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Homage to the Chartists

January 9, 2012

It will be interesting to see how much progress will be made in this Parliamentary session on the Coalition Government’s ambitious programme of constitutional reform.  This will be the crunch year for a breakthrough on House of Lords reform.  I suspect regulation of lobbyists will hit the statute book but a deal on party funding will founder on the rocks of self interest.

This weekend I thought about the reforms demanded by the Chartists in the mid 19th century.  I’d finally got round to visiting the grave of one of the Chartists’ leaders, John Frost.  He’s buried in the graveyard of Horfield Parish Church, about a mile from my home in Bristol.  I’ve known since my O’ Level history days about Frost and his role in leading the 1839 Newport Rising. But it wasn’t until a recent visit to the superb displays on Chartism at Newport Museum that I discovered that Frost had ended his days in Bristol.

Chartists from the Monmouthshire mining valleys had marched on Newport on 4th November 1839.  There was a violent fracas with the Mayor and the militia holed up in the Westgate Hotel, with 22 people being killed.  Frost and his co-leaders William Jones and Zephania Williams were arrested and charged with high treason.  They were the last people to be sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering.  The Home Secretary commuted the sentence to transportation to the Australian penal colonies.

This was meant to be banishment for life.  But Frost was able to return in 1856, sailing to Bristol (it seems not on the SS Great Britain) where he stayed until his death aged 93 in 1877.  He was politically active into his old age and lived to see partial progress on two of the aims for which he had sacrificed so much.

So how much has now been achieved?  The Chartists weren’t concerned with House of Lords reform, such was the rotten state of the House of Commons at the time.  But they were very much interested in the amounts spent on elections and how to influence MPs.

Here’s the six point Charter, issued in 1839:

1)     “A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.” – not achieved for men until 1918 and fully for women in 1928 at Parliamentary elections. You can read elsewhere on this blog about my views on prisoner voting.

2)     “The secret ballot – to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.”  –  the public hustings and declaring of votes was ended by the Ballot Act in 1872.

3)      “No property qualification for members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.” – the only people now prevented from standing are bankrupts, Church of England vicars (again read elsewhere for my views on disestablishment), members of the House of Lords and the Royal family.  A £500 deposit is needed for elections to the Commons but there are no residence or property qualifications.

4)     “Payment of MPs – thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.” – a salary for all MPs (of £400) was introduced in 1911.

5)     “Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.” – this won’t actually be achieved until the next general election in 2015, when finally all constituencies will have approximately 76,000 electors, rather than the huge anomalies that currently exist.

6)     “Annual Parliaments – thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.” – unlikely  that we will ever get a general election every year, in fact we will now have 5 year fixed term Parliaments.  The expenditure on campaigns by parties still needs reform…though bribery of voters was outlawed in 1883.  The accountability of MPs is still a hot topic!

When Frost died he may have been satisfied that some of the aims of the Chartists had been realised.  But I’m sure he would have been astonished to be told that by 2012 so much more still needed to be done to reform politics in Britain.

NOTE – if you are in Bristol and want to see John Frost’s grave it can be found at Horfield Parish Church.  From the Wellington Hill gate it is on the left against the wall of Manor Farm Boys Club Hall.  Appropriately it’s made of Welsh slate.  It has the rather pleasing epitaph, “The outward mark of respect paid to men merely because they are rich & powerful hath no communication with the heart.”

12 Comments leave one →
  1. robertjessetelford permalink
    January 10, 2012 8:41 am

    What do you think about the £500 deposit to stand for MP, Stephen? Is it prohibitive for those on lower incomes who don’t get a nomination with one of the major parties?

    Do you care or not if people from smaller parties (or independents) get a chance to stand? Or do you think “the less competition in Bristol West, the better for me”?

    It’s too bad the Coalition’s changing of constituencies has the effect of squeezing your vote and increasing the Tories. Well, POTENTIALLY it does.

    It might not be realistic (or particularly economically/pragmatically viable) to have elections every year for the UK parliament, but it’s important that local elections happen every year (or with only one fallow year in four). I assume there are a lot of local authorities that still use the “twin seats” election format which Bristol used until quite recently. We need more staggered election cycles.

    It’s also important that a constituency’s electorate can recall their MP if they get a certain number of signatures on a petition.

    • January 10, 2012 7:18 pm

      Rob – why not just ask a question, rather than lace your comments with negative remarks about me? As to the deposit situation – there has to be some amount as candidates are entitled to a delivery by Royal Mail and £500 is a pretty good deal for that. The amount used to be forfeit if a party secured less than 12.5% of the vote in a seat. It was reduced to 5% in I think 2001 to help smaller parties.

    • Mike Drew permalink
      October 9, 2012 8:56 pm

      If someone cannot get enough supporters to raise £500 then there he/she is unlikely to be a realistic candidate. Most party candidates (certainly the LIb Dems) have to raised the money for deposit and campaign locally amongst their supporters.

  2. Chris Bury permalink
    January 10, 2012 11:33 am

    I went through all the entries in this blog and could not find, what the Parliament is going to do about the lobbyists. Sorry, Stephen, if I missed the relevant blog. Is it too much to ask to let us know what your own feelings and what the rest of the parliament want to do about this. Thank you

    • January 10, 2012 7:22 pm

      Chris – the DPM will be publishing the Coalition’s proposals for lobbying regulation later this month. I have commented on the issue as Chair of the cross party committee on Smoking & Health – the tobacco cos are among the most active on covert lobbying and I have personally (incl today) been on the receiving end of negative remarks from their various front organisations and sympathetic individuals. Transparency about campaigns is certainly needed – lobbying itself is an essential part of the democratic process.

      • Chris Bury permalink
        January 11, 2012 10:44 am

        Thank you Stephen. I do understand that lobbying is part of the democratic parliamentary process. But regulation by an independent body of elected officials is necessary, I think.

  3. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    January 10, 2012 12:16 pm

    How about “Nobody to stand for Parliament untill they have done at least 5 years of “proper” work”, which does not include political adviser, apprentice lawyer, studying political history, or working in the media. And if you can add to that, anybody who has been to Oxbridge, it would be even better!

    • January 10, 2012 7:23 pm

      Well I worked for 17 years in a series of “proper jobs” and have often commented in public that all 3 parties have a big problem with too many MPs out of touch with the real world of work. See my blog on the day Ed Miliband became leader of Labour.

      But I would say that studying history is surely a good thing! But then I am biased on that issue.

  4. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    January 10, 2012 8:30 pm

    My comments are never personal, and I really agree about History. It did seem for awhile that it was not PC to teach that subject, I have no idea why. I can understand Tories being part of The Establishment, but I’ve had my fill of Champagne Socialists. I’m sure part 4 of the Chartist aims, did not envisage what we have ended up with today. “tradesman and the working man” are very conspicuous by their absence.

  5. January 12, 2012 1:26 pm

    Also, chums being parachuted into safe seats against the will of the local party (e.g Tristram Hunt). Utterly abhorrent – not the root cause, but a symptom of why Labour did quite so badly last time round.

  6. Davis Walsh permalink
    October 10, 2012 9:43 am

    Does your comment on equal constituencies mean you will be voting for Tory gerrymandering ?

    • October 10, 2012 10:31 am

      Strange that you think equal sized constituencies are gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is fixing the shape of a seat in an artificial way to suit a party. We have an independent boundary commission in the UK, so politicians do not fix boundaries as in the US, where gerrymandering is rife.

      I support equal sized constituencies. It is ludicrous that some MPs have huge seats (say 80,000 + like Bristol West) when others have 50,000 electors. The current seat review was made far more radical than necessary by reducing the size of the Commons by 50. If you want to check Hansard you will see that I spoke against this part of the Govt’s proposals. The review is now likely to be dumped anyway as Lords reform has been stalled.

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