Many working people were disappointed when they realised that the 1832 Reform Act did not give them the vote. This disappointment turned to anger when the reformed House of Commons passed the 1834 Poor Law. In June 1836 William Lovett, Henry Hetherington, John Cleave and James Watson formed the London Working Men's Association (LMWA). Although it only ever had a few hundred members, the LMWA became a very influential organisation. At one meeting in 1838 the leaders of the LMWA drew up a Charter of political demands. When supporters of parliamentary reform held a convention the following year, Lovett was chosen as the leader of the group that were now known as the Chartists.
The four main leaders of the Chartist movement had been involved in political campaigns for many years and had all experienced periods of imprisonment. However, they were all strongly opposed to using any methods that would result in violence. Ironically, William Lovett was imprisoned in Warwick Gaol in 1839 for making a speech that was wrongly described as calling for fellow Chartists to use "blood thirsty and unconstitutional force".
Members of the House of Commons who supported the Chartists such as Thomas Attwood, Thomas Wakely, Thomas Duncombe and Joseph Hume constantly emphasized the need to use moral rather than physical force. Lovett, the acknowledged leader of the movement, wrote of how Chartists should "inform the mind" rather than "captivate the senses". William Lovett argued that Chartism intended to succeeded through discussion and publication and "without commotion or violence". Moral Force Chartists believed that peaceful methods of persuasion such as the holding of public meetings, the publication of newspapers and pamphlets and the presentation of petitions to the House of Commons would finally convince those in power to change the parliamentary system.
In the early 1840s the Chartist leadership came under attack from people like Joseph Rayner Stephens, Feargus O'Connor and James Bronterre O'Brien who raised doubts about the Moral Force campaign. Upset by these criticisms, William Lovett and Thomas Attwood decided to retire from active politics. Although some of the original leaders such as Henry Hetherington, John Cleave and James Watson continued to work for the Charter, by 1842 the supporters of physical force were very much in the ascendency.
As regards the best means of obtaining our Charter. We are of those who are opposed to everything in the shape of a physical or violent revolution, believing that a victory would be a defeat to the just principles of democracy. The political despots; and as such a sanguinary warfare, calling up the passions in the worst forms, must necessarily throw back for centuries our intellectual and moral progress.
Mr. Attwood delivered a speech. He professed himself a peaceful man, and declared that he would never sanction the commission of violence for gaining the people's object, but as he warmed to the subject, he talked about the legislature being unable to resist the demand for two millions of men, which, if not speedily complied with, would result in the two millions being increased to five. If petitioning was found to fail in making the necessary impression, the honourable gentleman suggested a national strike for one week, during which time not a hammer was to be wielded, nor an anvil sounded, not a shuttle moved, throughout the country, and he told his hearers that although he would be opposed to the employment of any violence, if the people were attacked the consequences must fall on the heads of the aggressors. He told the meeting too, that if the government dared to arrest him in the execution of his peaceful purpose, a hundred thousand men would march to demand his release.
The millions have, unquestionably, the same constitutional right to choose those who are to make laws for them, as the body of electors who will enjoy the privilege under the Reform Bill; and, if they have for the present forbone to insist upon that right, their forbearance has not been owing to any doubt of its existence, but to the confident expectation that the comparatively small number of voters who are permitted to enjoy it, will exercise it in a proper manner, and for the benefit of the whole community.
Ill winds blow good and clouds have silver linings, or so we're told and so we must hope. If the greatest scandal affecting parliament in generations leads to serious change, then we may yet be grateful for that, if nothing else. Although the expenses scandal has prompted various schemes for constitutional and electoral reform, here is one that has gone missing. And yet it was among the radical Chartists' demands for parliamentary reform more than 150 years ago, and is the simplest and potentially the most effective of all.
Before coming to that, it must be said that the way the liberal commentariat raised the question of electoral reform this summer had a flavour of transference about it, or changing the subject, or missing the point. At the places where ordinary British people gather, from factories to offices to shops and pubs, they have not been earnestly debating the merits of the single transferable vote against the alternative vote.
But repellent as the MPs' impenitence is, institutional reform of parliament is desirable in its own right – and should be achievable. Looking over our political history, it's striking how daring radical demands once seemed, and how almost all were met, and quite soon at that.
If the great Reform Act of 1832 made less practical difference than its supporters hoped at the time, it did initiate a steady process by which parliament would be transformed in less than a hundred years. It was not simply an end to the ludicrous old corruption under which rotten boroughs like Old Sarum with a handful of voters or none returned two members while burgeoning Manchester had none at all. And it was not just a matter of extending the franchise. Over the course of that century, the unreformed Commons became a house for what the 1918 act was called, the Representation of the People.
When such representation of the people still seemed a long way off, the People's Charter in 1838 demanded six reforms, only one of which has not been achieved to this day. Universal suffrage took less than 80 years to accomplish, and property qualifications for voting were finally ended, although second votes in "business constituencies" continued until almost the second half of the 1900s. The secret ballot was introduced as early as 1872.
Those successive reform acts slowly addressed the Chartists' demand for "equal representation", in the sense that all constituencies should have electorates of roughly equal size. That was far from the case after 1832 or even after 1867, and it has never been achieved in absolute terms. Considerable variation between larger and smaller seats continues, ironically to the disadvantage of the Tories, traditional opponents of reform.
As to the fifth demand, payment of members began in 1912, and has had an unintended consequence, not to say a lamentable one: the emergence of a new class of permanent, if often mediocre, professional politicians. This was further encouraged by a system of expenses that, even when it wasn't flagrantly dishonest, rested on the assumption that politics was a full-time profession. That has now met its nemesis.
And the sixth demand? This was the one never achieved, rarely mentioned now, but simpler than any of the others: annual parliaments.
Over the centuries the life of parliaments has varied, sometimes three years, then seven, now five. In practice we have got used to four-year intervals between elections, except when the government is in such a jam that it soldiers on to the bitter end, as James Callaghan did in 1979 and John Major in 1997 – neither a happy precedent for Gordon Brown as he soldiers or staggers on.
One idea that has been much canvassed lately is fixed-term parliaments, but that doesn't really meet the case. The problem is not that the theoretical ability to call for a dissolution at any time strengthens the power of the prime minister; as Brown has learned the hard way, that may not make a great deal of difference in practice. Our real problem has been the surrender by parliament of its ultimate control over the executive. The simplest definition of parliamentary government is that the prime minister of the day is whoever controls a majority in the primary – the lower or representative – house of the legislature, which we call the House of Commons; but this means little if MPs are ciphers.
To those Victorian radicals it was axiomatic that the best way to make the government accountable to parliament was to make parliament accountable to the electorate – every year. The objections to this are themselves revealing. Too expensive? But elections don't need to involve enormous sums of money spent by parties, and we would be much better off without that. Governments would be less stable and weaker? Well, yes, that's the point. Electing parliament every year would keep our rulers on their toes. More than any other possible reform it answers the simplest call of all: power to the people.