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.
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.