Last week, legendary British director Mike Leigh announced his next film project was to be a dramatisation of the events surrounding the Peterloo Massacre. Leigh reportedly plans to begin in 2017, two years before the massacre’s second centenary, and cited its “universal political significance” as to why it was such an important story to re-tell now. That universal significance, the political mainstream would have you believe, was as a fable to remind us of the importance of using our right to vote. People died fighting for your vote after all.
The slaughter itself took place on St Peter’s Field, Manchester on the 16th of August 1819, when a crowd of up to 80,000 ordinary people gathered to demand that they be represented by parliament. When local magistrates called for the arrest of radical orator Henry Hunt, an armed cavalry charge sent to capture him and disperse the crowd murdered 15 civilians in cold blood, and wounded as many as 700 — an act of ‘heroism’ that seems to inspire the London Metropolitan police to this day.
The savage attempt to quash popular dissent is widely regarded as one of the defining moments in British history, setting in motion a protracted struggle from the bottom, up, for universal suffrage in the UK — as well as inspiring the epic call to arms from Percy Shelley at in his poem The Masque of Anarchy:
“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.”
196 years later, though, lion-like fury seems the last thing politicians want to incite when motivating us to poll, with a storm of embarrassing attempts to ‘re-engage’ apathetic voters with electoral politics ramping up before polling day in two weeks. Attempts have ranged from the pathetic to the down-right sinister. Special mention for painfully patronising shit of the week must go to the Independent, whose bizarre yoof-engagement strategy attempted to make politics ‘cool’ by reimagining the political parties as Game of Thrones houses (though ironically a story where the viewers are invited to root for the least evil clan of murderous aristocrats amidst an endless squabble for aimless power does somewhat reflect the Westminster-os elections). For sheer evil alone, however, the worst mention must go to Labour backbencher David Winnick, who suggested voting be made compulsory.
lion-like fury seems the last thing politicians want to incite when motivating us to poll
Citing the much heralded land of the free, Australia — which definitely did not force 93% of its populace to consent to internment camps for asylum seekers… — Winnick amongst others suggested such an important part of the democratic process as voting should be considered a ‘duty’, not a ‘right’. Presumably, he did not consider it a duty of politicians to give people (particularly young people, who have been forcibly screwed by consecutive governments of every creed and colour) some promises that might actually motivate them to poll. And so here we see the inherent problem with seeing voting as an end in itself.
For all the talk of apathy on the part of the voters, the true face of apathy resides in those who have long since given up trying to promise us anything meaningful. It becomes little more than tyranny through choice. If we want it to be anything more than that, we have to recognise the dictatorship in democracy.
This is where so many people get what Russell Brand said in that infamous Newsnight interview wrong. Brand’s assertion that voting does no good never stood alone — it was not permanent diagnosis, it was a symptom of a treatable disease. The fact that people like Polly Toynbee — who has never made a promise worth keeping in the long sequence of disappointments an SDP member might describe as a ‘life’ she has led — railed against Brand saying this tells you all you need to know.
For all the talk of apathy on the part of the voters, the true face of apathy resides in those who have long since given up trying to promise us anything meaningful
The Toynbees of the world treated Brand as if he had recommended we allow David Cameron to mulch our children in order to boost employment in Britain’s ailing Soylent industry, when actually all he meant was choosing between varying degrees of oppression still results in you consenting to some form of oppression. Brand himself later admitted that might still be a choice we materially have to make — but the difference is, he doesn’t believe that’s as good as it gets. The solution, according to him, was to apply pressure from beneath, campaigning, fighting, striking and occupying until representatives start making promises we might actually want to put our X next to.
On a local level, that certainly seems to have worked in Norwich South, in which both the Labour party and the Greens are fighting an election on what they can do, rather than simply what they can stop the Tories from doing. In that vein on a national level, the People’s Assembly will be marching on Parliament on the 20th of June 2015, a month after the election, to put pressure on what will most likely be a Labour/SNP coalition to end austerity now.
It is not enough for Haves to evangelise the virtues of voting as an end in itself for the Have-Nots. Turnouts cannot simply hinge on vacuous pop-culture appeal, people can’t be re-engaged with politics in any meaningful sense through a Buzzfeed article telling them which Disney Princess Ed Miliband is most like (though for the record he’s definitely an Ariel). Nor should we be legally forced to consent to our own servitude. If we are to consent to government, our choice must consist of more than simply the least bad. History shows, time and again, give us something to vote for and we will mobilise. Most recently, just look at the huge turnout in the Scottish referendum if you want to see what democracy looks like when a choice with tangible differences is on the line.
History shows, time and again, give us something to vote for and we will mobilise.
The campaigners butchered at Peterloo, part of that amorphous collective of ‘people who died for your vote’ who the civic duty brigade now eulogise as selfless martyrs, were not campaigning simply to choose between semi-skimmed and full-fat capitalism. Hopefully, as Mike Leigh’s distant film will show, they were living through extended periods of famine and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by wars not of their making, and Corn Laws beyond their control. They were not campaigning for the virtues of putting an X on the paper out of some sense of national duty — nor were the ruling class of that era simply irrationally evil Bond villains in opposing them; they genuinely saw the threat to their way of life that suffrage presented.
The protestors saw the vote as a means to change their situation — of radically altering the world around them for the better. That is what made the demands of the campaigners at Peterloo so dangerous — and it is those dangerous ideas that can revitalise suffrage in the 21st century.