Forgetting Peterloo - RSA

Forgetting Peterloo


  • Picture of Ed Cox
    Ed Cox
  • Heritage
  • Localism
  • Social justice

The apparent lack of national media coverage for the Peterloo massacre, 200 years ago today, betrays the fact that democratic reform remains taboo in a political system run by London elites.

Maybe working life in Manchester and some of the poorest parts of the country has improved enough that we no longer have the same propensity to protest, but the inequality and economic insecurity which still determines too many Northern lives must be confronted in a new era of radical reform.

Peterloo was about political representation

The conditions that led up to the Peterloo massacre of 1819 were indeed appalling. The rapid growth of Manchester’s mills was sucking people from all over Lancashire and beyond off the land and into the most abominable living conditions in and around the burgeoning city. Low wages and high food prices led to malnutrition and the lack of even basic public health provision caused thousands of premature deaths. Infant mortality in particular was unimaginable by today’s standards and many were killed in workplace accidents, not least children employed to carry out some of the most dangerous tasks. 

So much of this we know, but what I find interesting about this is that the ordinary folk of Lancashire saw their struggles primarily to be about political representation. The Corn Laws were clearly the cause of so much hardship and there were, of course, disputes with mill owners about pay and working practices, but people gathered to protest not so much about specific concerns but about democratic reform as their primary means to improving their lot

Manchester in 2019 still has a poverty problem

Greater Manchester remains one of the most impoverished cities in the United Kingdom and in Europe more widely. Of course, the newfound glamour of the city centre, our sporting success, universities, graphene, MediaCity and the like give us much to crow about on the global stage, but the truth is that behind the shiny exterior we have levels of poverty and economic insecurity that should put us to shame.

According to the Centre for Cities, average weekly pay in Manchester is just £512 compared with £727 in London and falls to £436 in places like Wigan. And our living conditions remain significantly worse than London and other cities. Manchester has by far the worst rates of emergency asthma admissions in the whole country and, according to the WHO, it has the second-worst rates of PM10 pollution in the UK (London lies 22nd in their ranking).

Looking more broadly across the North and taking health is one of the best indicators of such inequalities, a recent Lancet study of public health has shown that the North-South divide is deepening for a wide range of causes of premature death including accidents, suicide, alcohol misuse, smoking, cancer and drug addiction. In crude terms, between 2014 and 2016, 3,530 more men and 1,881 more women aged between 25 and 44 died in the north than in the south.

This in a context where government spending in the north of England has fallen by £6.3bn while the south-east and south-west of England have seen an increase of £3.2bn since 2009-10. 

Why don’t we still see poverty as a failure of the democratic system?

Comparing 1819 and 2019 raises two questions for me:

  • Are the 5,411 premature deaths of young Northerners who should be in the prime of their lives not worthy of some protest today?
  • And why don’t we see these issues in terms of the failure of our democratic systems? 

There are many on the left who would contend that poverty, inequality and premature death are just as much of a problem in the south as the north. There are so-called ‘pockets of deprivation’ throughout London and the south-east and many southern coastal towns display the same characteristics of being ‘left behind’ as many northern towns. This is all true. Furthermore, the failures of political representation are nationwide. Our first-past-the-post electoral system, albeit with universal suffrage, still denies all but a limited number of swing-voters in swing-seats any meaningful say on the outcome of a general election. But the question is how to tackle these failings?

Peterloo marked a turning point in the history of our nation. Not only did it give rise to a series of new media channels - including the Observer and the Guardian - it also planted the seeds for both the Suffragettes and the Labour Party.

In a brilliant recent book written to commemorate Peterloo, two local historians from Manchester chart the life of the little known radical reformer, Elijah Dixon, and show how - even in the life of this one Manchester Radical - the seeds of co-operatism, municipal government, union representation and the Labour Party grew out of their experience of the Peterloo massacre.

We need to reconnect the link between inequality and localism

Fundamentally, for Dixon and the Manchester radicals, the political reforms they sought were about local and regional autonomy, their founding values were set against the authority and power of the nation state and the London elites that sought to exploit and manipulate their labour. The blood shed at Peterloo was of course part of a struggle against poverty and exploitation, but equally it was a struggle against centralisation and state control. During the twentieth century, this founding principle of freedom and reform seems to have been lost by the Labour Party and by the left in general. Localism has been handed over to the right as a tool to divide and rule. 

Having ground out piecemeal reforms throughout the 19th century, it took a full 109 years between Peterloo and universal suffrage in 1928 and - one could argue - another twenty years after that before the kinds of welfare that Dixon and the early reformers might have dreamed of. But much as the post-war settlement brought significant improvements to the social and economic life of the nation, little has happened since 1928 to continue the process of democratic reform and now, as the welfare state rapidly unravels, the failures of our political architecture become all too clear. 

We must once again forge the link between poverty and inequality, local and regional autonomy and democratic reform. It is now so obviously foolhardy to leave the pressing issues of our day to a group of Westminster politicians, civil servants and the bubble that surrounds them. Whether on the right or the left, they always resisted reform and what little municipal power was ever conceded nearly always required protest, arrest and bloodshed. (This is not to say that the reformers enacted violence, on the contrary, one of the characteristics of the Peterloo crowd and their local leaders was their determination not to take up arms in their confrontation with the powers of the day.)

As low-key as the Peterloo commemorations seem to be, as partial and piecemeal as democratic reform seems to happen in this country, let Northerners once again stand up and speak out against a London elite that continues to ignore the gross inequalities that divide our nation. And let us once again imagine our own new democratic institutions to govern our workplaces, our neighbourhoods, our towns and cities and our region and seize what powers we can to breathe them into life.

Peterloo spawned a social movement not marked by political celebrities but by forgotten reformers who transformed our nation. Our time has come again.

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