On 13th September 2016 BBC Newsnight ran an item on the proposals for changes to Parliamentary constituencies issued by the Boundary Commission for England . One of the interviewees was Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution, who referred to the People’s Charter of 1838 to lend legitimacy to the proposals. During the course of the interview he made the statement:
‘The Chartists, who are heroes to some people on the Labour benches’.
It would be positive, but possibly naïve, to think that the 19th Century Chartists should be heroes to all who claim to be democrats, meaning not only all the Labour Party but MPs of any party, including the Conservatives themselves. But there is a problem. The Chartists demand for equal sized constituencies and a much wider suffrage was an integral part of the demands for comprehensive socio-economic reforms to alleviate deprivation and oppression suffered by most working people at that time. Then, as now, political reform was was an essential corollary to social reform and it is disingenuous of Mr Skidmore to merely pluck one of the six points of the Charter and ignore the spirit of the movement behind it.
Skidmore can get away with appropriating Chartists aims for a narrow political point because of the lack of knowledge about our radical history which I posted about a few weeks ago. But it may surprise him to learn that genuine support for Chartists and other radical groups is far from unknown within his own Conservative Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli expressed sympathy with Chartist aims and in 2013 David Skelton of the Conservative Party’s Renewal group published this call for greater education about the history of radicalism including Levellers and Suffragettes as well as Chartists.
The issues surrounding the Boundary Commission proposals which the Government is determined to pursue are complex, including disputes over how to measure the size of a constituency. There have been claims that it represents gerrymandering on the part of the Government but I argue that it goes much further than this, serving to distort the very nature of democratic representation while showing profound disregard for social justice. Even allowing for the shrinkage in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 the Conservatives on some estimates would have an increased majority of 22 in the Commons based on the new boundaries. This increase would serve to exacerbate an already unfair system where a Government elected by only 37% of actual voters command a disproportionate amount of power, with an even more pronounced marginalization of Green and UKIP voters To enforce these boundary changes without instituting some form of Proportional Representation as an absolute minimum is undemocratic bordering on reckless.
Political Change is Integral to Wider Social Change
The fact that systems of voting are integrally bound up with socio-economic problems was brought into focus during the Brexit vote where many disaffected people took the opportunity of registering a protest vote. But it is not the job of the Boundary Commission to take wider political factors into account. That is the job of the government and they must not dodge their responsibilities to fairness and democracy. During the 1830s the Chartists chafed against the petty pretensions of the property owning classes which aped the mores of the aristocracy, debasing workers socially as well as economically. Demands for a voice in Parliament had an egalitarian as well as an economic base. Society has changed radically and deference to the aristocracy has declined, being replaced by the overt greed of owners such as Philip Green and Mike Ashley who debase their workers by flaunting knighthoods, peerages and gross conspicuous wealth. The malaise is now affecting public bodies as this article on the activities of Coventry University and its Vice Chancellor testify. So the sense of injustice persists and Mr Skidmore will be well advised to consider it in his plans. As Paul Mason points out in his book Postcapitalism the Chartists confronted an industrial economy trapped within an aristocratic state. Today we have a low-wage service and knowledge economy trapped within an oligarchic state. Simply manipulating the electoral system to pursue an ideal of fairness within a narrow definition will lead to further instances of protest which may make the Brexit vote appear a mere inconvenience by comparison.
As Sean Monaghan in Jacobin Magazine writes::
A renewed Chartist movement would, for starters, demand the extension of the franchise to all those who lack it. But it would also embrace one of Chartism’s seminal contributions to the history of working-class movements: the necessity of political struggle for popular emancipation.
Government Ministers would do well to remember this rather than cherry pick ideas for narrow party gain.