Peterloo massacre, August 16 1819: working class fought for electoral reform

Misrepresenting the people

Paul Demarty wonders what is left out of the centenary celebrations for the Representation of the People Act

The city and the city, China Miéville’s first great novel, takes place in a single geographical conurbation in a vaguely post-Soviet country, in which two completely different cities coexist. The means of their separation are psychological - citizens of the one place are trained to immediately “unsee” those of the other.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 reminds us that we sometimes fall, in our appreciation of history, into a similar predicament to that of Miéville’s characters. This is undeniably part of our history - the history of class struggle. Yet any brief, nauseating encounter with BBC factual programming these past few weeks, any attention paid to the ‘professional’ politicians of Westminster, will tell us that it is also a part of our enemies’ history. The two interpretations are shoved awkwardly into a territory - the rough terrain of truth - which can accommodate at most one of them. Either the awarding of the vote to middle class women over 30 was a fine part of England’s elegant, moderate unfolding as the home of liberty, or it was part of a package of concessions to a militant movement that had scant regard for property or propriety, in the context of global social upheaval.

What we learn, in the end, from the radically incomplete accounts promoted by the gatekeepers of popular memory is that there is a contradictory logic to social progress under capitalism, which prevents its being fully assimilated, even when we cannot imagine going back.

Pardon me?

We suppose a good place to start with all this would be the faintly ridiculous contretemps as to whether the suffragettes who suffered legal censure should be retrospectively - and overwhelmingly posthumously - pardoned. Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader, says yes; Jeremy Corbyn says yes; Amber Rudd, home secretary, says she will “take a look at it”, although it’s “complicated”, and it is not a good idea to step all over the law merely “because we’ve changed our views on things”.

Squarely opposed to any such move is the feminist campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez, who briefly rose to prominence by campaigning successfully to knock Charles Darwin off the £10 note in favour of Jane Austen. No doubt to the surprise of many of her Twitter followers, she takes the contrary view - “Pardoning them now whitewashes their radicalism - and that is wrong .… They were radical. They did break the law. They did so willingly.”

Criado-Perez’s take has the benefit of stating very clearly what, after a fashion, Amber Rudd is thinking, but is too much of a political coward to say openly. This is the first of our contradictions - between what is being celebrated and who is doing the celebration. Almost absent from the whole commemorative extravaganza, for a start, is the Suffragist movement, which was the ‘moderate’ part of the whole universe of people agitating for some extension of the franchise to women in that period - the talk is entirely of the Pankhursts, of chains on railings and kings’ horses. The history, it seems, was made by the badly behaved faction of the sisterhood.

And, as Criado-Perez notes, they really were very badly behaved. They smashed up the clubs of Pall Mall, harangued and intimidated politicians (with particular attention paid to the ‘great reformer’, David Lloyd-George), set plenty of things on fire, inveigled themselves into the Houses of Parliament illegally, and even - on occasion - attempted bombings (not with any great success). They were, by the contemporary definition, terrorists - like the Russian Narodniks and certain anarchists, they believed in the propaganda of the deed (“deeds, not words” was their most famous slogan). Indeed, only very recently - when the word ‘terrorism’ became associated, on the one hand, with grotesque massacres and, on the other, almost exclusively with Islamists - have the definitions changed enough to exclude them.

Pardoning them is thus something of a poser. The obvious precedent is the process of pardoning people convicted of homosexual acts before the process of legalisation began 50 years ago; but the difference is strikingly obvious: viz that the crimes of which the suffragettes were guilty - the wrong word, since they were rightly proud of their actions - are still crimes; and nobody is proposing to legalise arson or sending bombs to the chancellor of the exchequer (more’s the pity … ). To pardon these women is, in the end, to stitch them into a comfort-blanket of Whiggery, to reduce them to the level of banal Hollywood cliché - “in a world of injustice”, we can imagine Don LaFontaine growling over the trailer, “They fought for what was right”. It is exactly to whitewash their radicalism, and thus conveniently to abjure radicalism in the present.

Here we meet Theresa May, the very good girl who once ran through a field of wheat without setting fire to any of it, using the memory of the suffragettes to propose new legislation against the ‘abuse’ of MPs - that is, to reinforce laws against exactly the thing the suffragettes did most of. As always, irony is not the Tories’ strong suit.

Disappearing class

The Hollywood-cliché model of history has room for only one kind of disagreement - whether to run or to stand and fight! For reasons of Aristotelian narrative logic, the latter course must always be taken, with those on the other side of the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism to be reconciled to their former disputants in the heat and camaraderie of battle.

In reality, of course, any serious political movement is riven with disagreements at every possible level of discussion. What organisational structure should we have? What should we do next week, next month, over the next five or 10 years? What is the fundamental nature of the world we are trying to change, of the world we would want it to be afterwards? People who come together on at all vague grounds will discover between them every last point of imprecision, and on each one fight it out. The suffragette organisations were themselves the product of a disagreement over the methods of struggle for women’s suffrage, and would themselves split repeatedly.

The central issue - again and again - was class. The Women’s Social and Political Union, the major militant organisation of the movement, initially cooperated with the Independent Labour Party and the wider labour movement in agitating for economic reforms, but dedicated itself exclusively to the suffrage question after several failures to get women’s votes discussed on the Commons floor. The WPSU refused to support the Labour Party when it formally adopted a plank of universal suffrage - whether out of opportunism or reaction, it supported existing property qualifications.

Sylvia Pankhurst, the most leftwing of the women to bear that surname, retained a much firmer commitment to socialist politics, and was expelled in 1914 for her trouble. She founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes, based on her work with working class women in that area. This eventually became the Women’s Suffrage Federation, which then mutated, acronym intact, into the Workers’ Socialist Federation. Unlike her mother and sister - who turned the WPSU into a grotesque, chauvinist outfit after the outbreak of the Great War - and indeed much of the socialist movement, Sylvia took a firmly anti-war line, which ultimately brought her into the milieu that would become the Comintern, and on its ultra-left at that.

When we talk about organisations ‘splitting on class lines’, we Marxists are (if we are honest) often talking rather impressionistically - we assert that splits are a class-line issue, and that we are the proletarians, and the other lot are the petty bourgeois, or whatever it happens to be. To say that the split between the WPSU and the ELFS-WSF was on class lines is to merely describe the obviously apparent course of events. One side based its appeal on middle class women - ever more prominent in civil society and public life, but excluded from political decision-making; the other wanted to organise working class women for universal suffrage; and they split over these issues.

The total absence of this controversy from the general trumpeting going on is part of a wider effort to exclude the labour and socialist movement entirely from the history of the 1918 act. Yet, wherever in history there are attempts to extend the franchise to anyone, women included, there we find the labour movement. The suffragettes’ earliest allies, again, were in the ILP; and when the split between them came, it was the ILP - which supported universal suffrage - that, surely, we would identify as having been on the right side.

Forgotten men

Another aspect of this comes with the shape of the 1918 act itself.

The intersectionalists used to have a meme they would deploy whenever somebody on the internet would splutter that having a Y chromosome was not all peaches and cream - an image would be found of a man crying hot, salty tears, adorned with the text, ‘What about teh menz?’

What indeed? Anyone could be forgiven, given recent media coverage, for not realising at all that the 1918 act also extended the franchise to all adult men, eradicating the last property qualifications for male suffrage. Some 5.6 million men gained the vote (compared to 8.4 million women). Why the difference? Why not throw universal womanhood suffrage into the bargain, while you’re in a generous mood?

Part of it, yes, will be ingrained sexual stereotyping. But part of it is pure game-theory calculation. It is 1918; the most extraordinarily and needlessly destructive war in human history is limping to an undignified, albeit victorious, conclusion. One of the allies Britain joined in the war has just had a revolution, which placed communists in power. Millions of working class men will soon be returning home from the trenches; but, unlike when they left, they now know one end of a rifle from the other.

It is simply impossible to avoid giving men the vote in this situation. So the choice is this: give all men and no women the vote; give all men and all women the vote; or give all men and some women the vote. The first option is guaranteed to bring a thumping Labour majority to power the next time of asking. The second one will result in the same thing. The third, however, is survivable. With the limits drawn just so, the class balance of the electorate can be skewed enough to stave off what the Tory establishment viewed as disaster. The electorate after the act consisted of roughly four million more men than women; those missing millions of women (actually more than four, thanks to the devastating costs of the war) were almost exclusively working class women.

From the point of view of historical principle, the first of our options above is clearly the most reactionary. But the third was chosen in large part because it was likely to be the most reactionary outcome for the composition of parliament in the 1920s. Sadly, it proved to be a wise gamble; the massive expansion of the working class vote was enough to destroy the Liberal Party, but left the Labour Party still weak.

There are many episodes in history in which things get so far but no further, and not nearly far enough. It is extremely rare that the class question is incidental to matters. (Another example would be the freeing of slaves in the second American revolution, the subsequent rollback of reconstruction and Jim Crow regime, and the complicated relationship today’s official American ideology has to that bloody history.)

It is these historical moments that give rise to the effect I mentioned at the outset, of talking about the same event, but barely overlapping in interest at all; of two intellectual cities existing in the same physical space, unseeing each other all down the line.

What we have in common, of course, is the suffragettes. So we should end with their great lesson: in politics, intimidation works. Sometimes it is the only thing that works. And in such circumstances, it is worth doing even if some vicar’s daughter outlaws it.