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278

Remembering the Chartists

by Adam Hunt

Democracy in the nineteenth century would have been unrecognisable to many of us today. In order to vote, men (just men) had to have certain qualifications – generally associated with owning property. In order to be a Member of Parliament, some form of income was required, because it was impossible to earn a living and represent your electorate. So MP’s tended to be landed gentry, or latterly successful businessmen with vested interests to protect.

In Britain, a radical movement emerged between 1838 & 1850 to further the interests of democracy, and broaden its base to cover “ordinary” people. The goal was to extend the franchise beyond the middle classes: the Chartist Movement is sometimes considered the first mass working class labour movement in the world.

In 1837 six British MP’s and six working class men formed a committee, and produced the People’s Charter of six objectives. It is useful to look at these together, to understand how many of them we take for granted… and how we should perhaps be careful with our outrage:

1. A VOTE for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.

2. THE (SECRET) BALLOT. To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.

3. NO PROPERTY QUALIFICATION for Members of Parliament - thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.

4. PAYMENT OF MEMBERS, 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.

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.

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.

Remember, these were all radical demands (even if seen as too moderate by some contemporaries!) but they struck a chord. Meetings were held around the country, and a petition prepared – but Parliament voted to not even hear the petitioners.

There were marches, strikes and violent protest. The establishment resisted the Charter, seeing it as an attack on entrenched interests. The Duke of Wellington deployed cavalry to deal with strikers. People died. While the movement failed, it was only temporary – by 1918, five of the six demands had been enacted.

One of the most important of these was that MP’s should be paid. The reason that MP’s are referred to as representatives is that their role is to represent us in Parliament. That doesn’t mean they should do everything we want – it means we are paying them to turn up, assess information and make decisions on our behalf, so that we don’t have to.

Running a country is very, very complicated. It needs smart people. Just like I want the surgeon about to operate on me to be an elite expert, I want the person looking after my interests to be intelligent, educated and open minded.

I am prepared to pay them for that. Being a politician today is a thankless task. There is a fine line between holding to account and holding to ransom. We have all seen in other countries what happens when we forget that the odd sexual misdemeanour between consenting adults has little bearing on ability to run a country. And dumb home-boy common sense is no qualification to judge intelligence reports (or cerate sentencing rules for that matter).

Our MPs are not highly paid by private sector standards – even our Prime-Minister earns considerably less than senior Public Servants. We must make it possible for our brightest and best to represent us without having to take a too much of a cut to their personal lifestyle.

If someone asked me to maintain a second home in Wellington, I would expect them to pay for it. And if the job was CFO of a business spending $70 Billion a year, I would expect to be spending well over $2,000 a month on accommodation. I want our Ministers to be able to do their job without asking themselves every day whether the drop in living standards is worth it.

Being a good politician is gruelling work – we must rise above our petty, penny-pinching envy and show some respect for people willing to make the commitment to serving our country. It’s too easy to snipe and whine from the sidelines. It’s time we stopped distracting ourselves with this sort of trivial noise and paid attention to real issues.

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