Today, marks 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre, a brutal and bloody clash that became a turning point in the history of our democracy and Britain’s long struggle for universal suffrage.
The right to vote is a powerful tool, one that is seldom given freely. And, on the morning of 16 August 1819, 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters marched towards Manchester and gathered at St Peter’s Fields calling for political reform.
At that time fewer than two per cent of the population had the vote. Poverty and hunger were rife, and the right to representation was capturing the hearts and minds of large numbers of people.
The Windrush scandal proved how some communities have real difficulties providing the official documentation needed to vote.
These peaceful protests were met by violence, carried out by troops sent in to disperse them. At least 18 people were killed, including William Fildes a two-year-old child thrust from his mother’s arms when she fled the cavalry. Almost 700 were injured and many people were arrested as the British government tried to cover up the massacre.
The Peterloo massacre was a defining moment. Initially the government responded through a crack-down on radical reform. However, it became a source of inspiration for many, a symbol of the struggle for the right to vote by the working class against government suppression. It also inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ that advocated nonviolent resistance by the masses and immortalised the words “Ye are many—they are few!” – a precursor of Labour’s current line ‘For the Many, Not the Few’.
As we commemorate the men, women and children who lost their lives in the struggle for democracy, we should challenge ourselves to resist the efforts of those who want to turn the clock back.
Sadly, rather than extending the franchise, the Tories are currently looking to restrict it with plans to introduce mandatory ID checks in polling stations.
We cannot underestimate the impact this change will have on our democracy. So far 1,100 people have been denied their right to vote because they did not have the necessary ID in the small number of pilot areas that took place at local elections over the last two years. The stated aim of voter ID is to combat “voter impersonation,” when someone pretends to be somebody else in order to cast one fake vote. Fortunately this is an incredible rare event. Just 28 allegations of voter impersonation were made out of 44 million votes cast in 2017, for which just one person was convicted. In 2018, this figure fell to just seven allegations, all of which were resolved locally or required no further action from the police.
Let’s be clear: electoral fraud is a serious crime and it is vital that the police have the resources they need to deal with it. However, the proposals outlined by the government are clearly disproportionate – a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s like trying to tackle shoplifting by asking every shopper to go through body scanners, rigorous bag searches and airport-style security – a ludicrous and heavy handed approach that will do more damage than good.
A wide range of civil society groups, academics, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned that Voter ID presents a significant risk to democratic access and equality. In fact, there are 3.5 million electors – that’s 7.5% of the electorate – who do not have photo ID. That makes mandatory Voter ID a barrier to millions of people from exercising their democratic right to vote. Yet the government refuses to listen and has made no suggestion it will introduce free provision of photographic identification to redress this.
The Windrush scandal proved how some communities have real difficulties providing the official documentation needed to vote. This ‘hostile environment’ treats people who have made Britain their home as second-class citizens, shutting them out of participating in public life. The Tories are blatantly using Voter ID fixation to suppress voters and attack our right to vote.
What we have learned from the brave protesters at Peterloo, the suffragettes and the chartists before them, is that the right to vote is something to be hard won. Our party has a proud history when it comes to building a democracy that works for the many and not the few, and we must do everything we can stop this government from rolling back centuries of progress on voting rights.
Cat Smith is Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood