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Struggle won the vote-let’s use it

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Issue 1750

Struggle won the vote-let’s use it

PAUL FOOT explains why you should use your vote on 7 June

LISTENING TO the election broadcasts you would think that these curious rituals, bogus arguments and doomed promises had been part of our political life for centuries.

Another thought follows close behind. Do these elections do us any good at all? In fact, the right of all adult people to vote in Britain goes back only 73 years, and only the most loony sectarian would argue that we were, or would be, better off without it. The fight for the right of ordinary people to vote goes back to the English Civil War and the debates in Oliver Cromwell’s army at Putney in 1647. The civil war unleashed a fantastic and furious display of radical and revolutionary ideas.

These resulted in the formation of the first-ever left wing political party, the Levellers. In the debates at Putney Leveller delegates dared to suggest that after the war everyone should have the vote. General Cromwell and his son in law General Ireton were horrified. They argued that if the ordinary people got the vote they could use their votes to seize the property of the great estate holders.

The vote, Ireton insisted, should be limited to those who had a “fixed interest” in the country-that is, the landowners. That argument continued through the next two centuries, throughout which the parliamentary vote was restricted to the “fixed interest” brigade.

Whenever anyone argued for the right to vote, propertied people and their hangers-on argued that such a move would decrease their wealth and loosen their control, and thus destroy the very fabric of the nation. During and after the French Revolution in 1789 there was a wave of agitation among the lower orders, and even some unseemly riots in Bristol and the burning down of a castle.

Frightened of revolution, the rich made what they felt was a generous gesture. The 1832 Reform Act (passed at second reading by one vote) extended the franchise to about 4 percent of the population. Any celebration of this dubious victory for democracy was quickly stifled by the Whig governments that followed.

They were as keen as any of their predecessors to stamp out trade unionism and force the poor into the workhouse. This led to the greatest revolt in all British history, led by the Chartists.

Popular revolt

THE CHARTISTS demanded universal male suffrage, and made it clear that if they got the vote they would use it to force the rich to surrender their wealth and control over society.

For this reason, the Chartists were bitterly and violently resisted by Britain’s rulers, Whig and Tory, for a decade (1839-48). The Chartists were eventually broken by the biggest show of force ever displayed by a British government against its own people, and the fight to extend the franchise was postponed for another 20 years.

In 1867 a Tory government, besieged by demonstrations and riots calling for a wider franchise, conceded votes for most male workers in the cities. And in 1884, after another bout of demonstrations led in the main by miners, a Liberal government widened the male franchise to the countryside. By 1885 about 60 percent of men, and no women, could vote for their government.

Votes for women were only conceded after another decade and a half of furious women’s resistance (1900-14). The government was embarrassed by the allegation that it was sending men to die in the trenches, many of whom could not vote, and filling their places in the factories with women, none of whom could vote. Even then, votes were only conceded after the war to women over 30.

Women finally got the vote on the same terms as men in 1928, and votes for 18 to 21 year olds were not conceded until Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960s.

Rulers nervous

There were two main features of this long struggle for the right to vote. First, the ruling class fought like tigers against any concession. If no one had demonstrated or campaigned for the vote, no extra vote would have been conceded. Secondly, the vote was granted piecemeal and nervously as the rulers found themselves with their backs to the wall.

The general election of 1918, the first ever fought on something approaching universal suffrage, was hurried through with almost indecent haste even before all the armed forces could get back from France, and was won (on an extremely low turnout) by a Liberal-Tory coalition. The reason for the nervousness was simple.

There was, and is, an obvious and glaring contradiction between a democratic political system in which everyone can vote for their government and a highly undemocratic economic system in which no one can vote for the boss. This contradiction continued throughout the 20th century, as the rulers discovered that, for most of the time at any rate, a millionaire with one vote is infinitely stronger than a beggar with one vote-and so grew accustomed to periodic democratic elections.

The wealthy came to learn how-by control of the media, for instance-they can manipulate the voting system to their advantage, and also discovered that the chance to vote often deters workers from direct action. Indeed (as in the General Strike of 1926) the employers and the Tory government soon learnt how to use the elections they formerly despised as ideological arguments against strikes, occupations and other forms of decisive direct action.

Positive protest

IN THE early days of British Labour, many Labour leaders understood the significance of the power they could wield through the vote. Aneurin Bevan, for instance, argued passionately that it was Labour’s duty to replace the economic oligarchy with an economic democracy. George Lansbury and the elected Labour councillors at Poplar in 1921 went to prison rather than raise a lawful rate that would have further penalised the unemployed and the poor.

But as the century went on, Labour governments became more supplicant to the rich until New Labour under Blair and Mandelson finally declared that since it was pointless trying to change capitalism, the best course was to join it and sustain it.

Even the hideous defects of New Labour, however, do not snuff out all the advantages of voting. Voting gives us a precious power to replace our government, and carries with it a long string of democratic rights that are worth defending. The right to vote on its own may not give us the power we need to change society, but to ignore it or sacrifice it would be suicidal.

The policies of the three main parties are virtually indistinguishable from each other as each competes for favours from big business. This is leading some people in the letters page of the Guardian and elsewhere to talk of abstaining next week.

But abstaining in the present election will let New Labour off the hook, and allow it to claim no one cares about its surrender to the enemies of the labour movement.

Fortunately, there is a positive way to protest. It is to vote for the more than 180 openly socialist candidates standing against it. In that way we can use the vote our forebears fought so hard to obtain to take a stand against those who are trying to empty voting of any significance.

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