‘Crisis of democracy’ warning 200 years since Peterloo

Posted on the 16th August 2019

  • Strictly embargoed until 00:01 Friday 16th August. Statement from the Electoral Reform Society

Democracy campaigners are calling for an urgent overhaul of Westminster, as they warn of a ‘crisis of democracy’.

Friday (16th) marks 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre – a key event in the ‘battle for the ballot’ of the 19th century. 18 were killed and many more injured as they gathered on St Peter’s Field in Manchester to campaign for a limited extension of the franchise.

It comes as a new report from fact-checking group Full Fact shows that politicians are one of the least trusted professions, with just 19% of people in the UK saying they trust them to tell the truth. Trust in government ministers is similar, with 22% trusting them [1].

Meanwhile, new analysis this week from Bite the Ballot shows that around eight million eligible voters are still not on the electoral register [2].

The Electoral Reform Society are calling for a range of reforms to ‘drag democracy into the 21st century’:

  1. Scrapping one-person-takes-all elections at Westminster and moving to a proportional voting system, as in Scotland and most advanced economies
  2. Replacing the House of Lords with a fairly-elected revising chamber
  3. Halting the government’s undemocratic mandatory voter ID plans
  4. Moving towards automatic voter registration, to bring in the ‘missing millions’ not on the electoral register
  5. Updating Britain’s ‘analogue age’ campaign rules, to end ‘dark ads’ and party funding loopholes, and ensure transparency in a digital age
  6. Deepening democracy through greater use of citizens’ assemblies on contested issues
  7. A constitutional convention on how the nations and regions of the UK relate to Westminster

The past few weeks have seen constitutional issues back on the agenda, with fears of a constitutional crisis over attempts to ‘prorogue’ Parliament or for Johnson to stay on as PM after losing a confidence vote.

Recent polls have put the Conservatives and Labour on a combined vote share of around 60% – 10 points lower than their lowest GE vote share in a 100 years. It is likely to lead to ‘bizarre and unfair’ results in a snap General Election.

Hundreds will gather at an inaugural ‘Politics for the Many’ conference on August 31st in Manchester, pushing the Labour party to adopt an ambitious constitutional reform agenda [3].

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“200 years from the first movements for the vote, the majority of Parliamentarians remain unelected, with a House of Lords that too often looks like a private members’ club. Trust in politics is at rock bottom, and millions are excluded and alienated by a Westminster that is distant and out-of-touch.

“It is up to politicians to do something about this – to try and restore some trust by giving power back to the public. This has to involve listening to the majority of voters across all sides who want a fairly-elected second chamber and for seats in Parliament to match how we vote.

“There is a crisis of democracy in this country – and it needs dealing with before it festers. By far the biggest tribute to the struggles of those at Peterloo would be to kick-start a conversation about political reform today – and what must be done to revitalise the crumbling Westminster set-up.

Lynn Henderson, spokesperson and the Politics For the Many, and National Officer for the PCS union, said:

“Two centuries today [Friday] since the Peterloo Massacre – where 18 people were killed and hundreds injured demanding political reform – the need to overhaul Westminster remains urgent.

“Just 4% of people feel properly able to influence decision in Parliament, according to polling for the Electoral Reform Society. And no wonder – the House of Lords remains totally unelected, and our electoral system leaves people feeling voiceless. Our institutions are in dire need of change.

“The plans being mooted in No 10 for Boris Johnson to ignore a vote of no confidence or even to shut down Parliament altogether – highlight that our uncodified constitution cannot be relied on. Britain’s centralised political system places too much power in the hands of the executive, and far too little in the hands of citizens and elected representatives.

“On the 31st August, hundreds will gather in Manchester for ‘This is What Democracy Looks Like’ – a landmark conference to set out a vision for the reforms we so desperately need. 200 years since Peterloo, we still need to build a politics for the many.”


Notes to Editors

The Electoral Reform Society is the UK’s leading pro-democracy organisation. As the ‘pressure group for voters’, the ERS produces research and analysis on issues of political reform.

[1] https://fullfact.org/media/uploads/political-trust-in-the-uk.pdf

[2] https://tobysjamesdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/missing-millions-still-missing.pdf

[3] The ERS are supporting the ‘This is What Democracy Looks Like’ conference on August 31st. Jon Trickett MP will be giving a keynote speech alongside journalists Paul Mason, Dawn Foster and activists from Manchester. Contact ERS for press accreditation. More info here: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/this-is-what-democracy-looks-like-why-campaigners-are-gathering-in-manchester-200-years-on-from-peterloo-massacre/ and politicsforthemany.co.uk

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