Socialist Worker

Recall a live tradition

by John Charlton
Issue No. 1841

PARLIAMENT HAS refused to reflect the will of the majority on the question of war on Iraq. So the People's Assembly will convene in Westminster Central Hall, next to the House of Commons.

The significance of the location will not be lost on Blair and company. They will see that a delegate assembly right next to their talking shop issues a challenge. To many it will seem like a new development which, in our times, it is. But it is also rooted in tradition.

The word 'tradition' is usually invoked by conservatives to help enforce the status quo. The 18th century radical Tom Paine put it well when he said, 'I am contending for the rights of the living and against their being willed away and controlled by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.'

Paine belonged to another tradition, one that we might call a people's tradition. It was in this tradition that a National Convention of the Industrious Classes was called in 1839.

Although there was a parliament with elected MPs which had existed since the middle ages, over 90 percent of the population were excluded from the vote. Almost all MPs were members of ruling class families, or friends or clients of those families. On the streets and in radical pamphlets the system of government was known as Old Corruption.

In the 1830s a mass movement was born to challenge the situation and to fight for representation for all-this was the Chartist movement. It was founded in London in 1838 by working class artisans and craftspeople who combined with radical middle class activists.

Over the decade which followed, it spread to every section of the working class-miners, iron workers, canal navvies, wool and cotton operatives, builders, seamen, land workers. In 1848 tens of thousands converged on London to accompany their mass petition to parliament.

At its peak the Chartist national newspaper, the Northern Star, sold 50,000 copies per week. In 1839 it was decided to organise a mass petition to parliament, a campaign repeated twice more in 1842 and 1848. A delegate meeting was convened from which the petition would be presented to parliament.

It sat in London from February till May debating the means by which the suffrage could be achieved. The law forbade meetings of over 50. Delegates were subject to arrest, and several were lifted.

It was almost impossible for workers to get leave from work to attend. Travel was difficult and expensive. Yet many delegates were sent from meetings in most areas over the three-month session.

Richard Marsden, a weaver, came from Preston. He said, 'I think the country should know and should be aware of the evils which press upon the industrious classes.'

He spoke of a house where there was 'not a mouthful of food', contrasting this situation with 'money idly wasted by the aristocracy at balls and parties'. The convention was harassed, abused and scorned by politicians and the newspapers.

Yet it did debate and draw up a range of policies for the movement. They included boycotting unsympathetic shopkeepers and favouring Chartist ones, and calling a general strike for the Charter if the great petition was rejected. At a Newcastle meeting to elect delegates, Edward Charlton said, 'Parliament does not represent me, and I will not obey its laws.' The alternative was a People's Parliament.

The assembly for peace will meet in much more favourable circumstances. As the true potential of the assembly dawns it may be subject to abuse from politicians and the media. The best way of resisting attacks will be to go on spreading news of the assembly and winning delegates in busloads!

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Sat 8 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1841
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