For Peterloo, for democracy!

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. It is a vital part of our democratic history and, more importantly, it was a bitter tragedy that reminds us of the importance of exercising our right to free speech and defending our values.

On August 16th 1819, strain from the end of the Napoleonic Wars weighed heavy on the shoulders of Britain’s workers. Unemployment, famine, the Corn Laws, and next to no voice for the North West in Parliament paved the way for a near 80,000-strong demonstration at St Peter’s Field, calling for parliamentary reform.

The demonstration was cut short when the local magistrates called for the arrest of Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and several members of the Manchester Patriotic Union. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were called to perform the arrest and the Chairman of Lancashire and Cheshire Magistrates summoned the 15th Hussars to disperse the crowd.

The Hussars approached the crowd with their sabres drawn. Mass confusion followed, injuring nearly 700 people. Eighteen people lost their lives, including a two-year-old child.

The massacre sparked a national outrage and further protests across the North. In response, Parliament passed the Six Acts, which further curtailed people’s democratic rights by suppressing radical reform meetings.

The Peterloo Massacre stands as a monument to the uprising of people against the establishment. We owe it to those who died at St Peter’s Field not only to vote, but to continue to demand a better democracy for our country.

Two hundred years later, British democracy is still unfit for purpose. Our democracy is broken, but it was broken long before Brexit.

Our electoral system is inadequate

The 2010s have shown us just how broken our current electoral system is. Two hung parliaments have caused panic and confusion; the prospect of coalition government has daunted many voters. Two referendums have heightened and exposed divisions in the country which politicians and journalists have long sought to ignore. Three Prime Ministers have come and gone, two of whom took office without a General Election.

Perhaps the biggest culprit for the problems with our electoral democracy is our first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP). Under FPTP, the 2015 General Election returned a Conservative majority, followed by a Conservative government. This majority was secured with just under 37% of the vote, but the Conservatives received 100% of the power. Sixty-three percent of the country got a government they didn’t vote for.

Like other UK governments before it, the Conservative government decided to put an issue of national importance to a referendum: the UK’s membership of the European Union. Though Brexit is fundamental constitutional change, there was no provision put in place for a qualified majority.

Since then, our country has been torn apart by a question won in 2016 by the slimmest of margins, which would not have been put to a referendum if a party had not come to power on only 37% of the vote. Considering that the UK is one of the world’s oldest democracies, we aren’t very good at exercising it.

Great Britain flag
Great Britain flag on wall of historic building

A memorial for Peterloo

A new monument is due to be unveiled at the Manchester Central Convention Centre to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre. Personally, I believe a better monument to those lives lost in the name of democracy would be to fight for reforms to our current electoral systems.

This is a fight that can unite people across the political spectrum, break partisan tribalism, and make our politics more inclusive. It is up to us as younger votes to push for reforms such as lowering the voting age to 16, scrapping FPTP in favour of a more democratic alternative, and reforming the House of Lords so that it can become a genuinely democratic second chamber.

We also need to rethink how we conduct our referendums. Requiring a qualified majority for any constitutional change would be a good start.

Brexit and our current parliamentary turmoil are symptoms of what is wrong with democracy in the UK. It’s our duty both to those reformists who gathered in St Peter’s Field 200 years ago and to future generations to campaign for real electoral reform now.

The ideas I have mentioned above already have support from the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, UKIP, and the Brexit Party. Outside the toxic issue of Brexit, I believe we can unite behind a bigger vision of what can be achieved. We need to work together to build a better United Kingdom.

Tradition versus progress: How can we win in the North?

If you’re like me and you’ve grown up in an ex-mining town in the North of England, you’ll feel that there are characteristics that are unique to these towns. A strong sense of community spirit, pride and a fondness for “’arping back” to years long gone. 

Towns like Wigan are fiercely set in their ways and hold on tight to their traditions which are passed on through generations. Beside the positive sides to the traditions these towns hold dear, there also are things we must let go of: distrust of ‘outsiders’, scepticism towards new technologies, traditional family values that hold little relevance in today’s society, reliably voting Labour in elections. 

In 2016, my town voted to leave the European Union. The result was heart-breaking to come to terms with, especially when I understood that my family and close friends voted to leave, too. The results from these old mining towns are often unfairly written off as being racially motivated or ignorant. 

Set of different paper flags in cardboard box decorated with EU sign on green background with copy
In a cardboard box with sign of the European Union, collection of paper flags of European Union countries on green background . Economic, Political Union of European States

For me personally, this misconception is disheartening to hear. My friends and family aren’t racist but they are fond of tradition. For Wigan as a whole, Brexit was an expression of rebellion against the status quo and – from what I can see – an act of defending those traditions.

Wigan needs change but Brexit isn’t that change

Wigan, like many other mining towns, has been consistently neglected by consecutive governments. Next to no real investment has been seen from our national government to address a void that first appeared after the miners’ strike in the 1980s. All that Wigan has seen is cuts and stagnation, which has only created a tighter grip on those traditions as people feel traditions are all they have left. 

Only recently it came forward that since 2014, the Home Office had failed to spend £3.5 million that was sent from the EU to tackle child poverty. In Wigan nearly a quarter of the borough’s children are living in poverty. This is callously neglectful and a clear indication of how Wigan is being let down. 

There have been no real opportunities to fill the void left by Thatcher’s government. The town has been given no opportunity to develop a new identity or a sense of purpose. Couple this with a charismatic figure appearing on your TV, in your newspaper and on your phone who offers to take you back to the good old days if you vote to leave the European Union. The promises speak to you on an emotional level. And indeed, Wigan needs change. But Brexit isn’t that change.

A referendum isn’t enough, we need a vision

If the argument for a People’s Vote is to hold any water in towns like Wigan, it requires a change in attitudes. As for Remain activists, we need to challenge the misconceptions about towns like Wigan in our own ranks and understand that the results from areas like this are more nuanced than they appear. As for residents in mining towns, there needs to be an encouragement to embrace change and start looking ahead to the future instead of dwelling on our past. 

Finally, as for our political leaders there needs to be a comprehensive plan on how we can start to invest in and revitalise these communities, and listen carefully to why people voted to leave in these areas. Above all of this, we need to be honest with ourselves. 

Nothing will instantly fix the divisions and anger that have permeated the UK since the 2016 referendum. It is far easier to break something than it is to fix it – so we must be honest that a referendum in itself won’t fix those divisions, even though it’s a step in the right direction. 

We must secure an economic foundation to repair our social divisions, and reform our democracy and political processes to ensure we don’t fall into the same uncertainty again in the future. 

British Pound Banknotes
Ten British Pound Banknotes Closeup Photo. British Economy Business Concept.

Especially for towns like Wigan it isn’t enough to just campaign for a second referendum. We have to offer a credible vision for the town. We have to offer a reassurance that there is nothing to fear when we move away from some of our traditions and embrace the opportunities that come with our EU membership, including immigration. 

Brexit is the greatest distraction to our parliament in living memory. While our politicians argue about how to translate the referendum result, more children are left in poverty – suffering from the incompetence of our leaders.