Today we celebrate the founding of the London Working Men’s Association – the radical organisation that would be responsible for the key demands that were incorporated into the People’s Charter, thus heralding the birth of Chartism – the first mass working-class movement in history.
Exploited by the severe Corn Laws, repressed by the 1815 Stamp Act, slaughtered during the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and betrayed by the 1832 reform bill which extended the vote to property-owning middle-class men while deliberately excluding the working-class – by 1836, the new class of industrial workers had finally had enough.
The London Working Men’s Association, in the words of one of its founders, William Lovett, was formed “to draw into one bond of unity the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country. To seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of the equal political and social rights”. Male suffrage, annual parliaments, no property requirement for MPs, payment of members, equal constituencies and a secret ballot formed the core of the LWMA’s radical reform programme. These demands were a restoration of the should-be rights of the “freeborn Englishman” that had been usurped by a corrupt and greedy governing elite that taxed the wealth of the producing classes to maintain its parasitic extravagance.
Chartism – the biggest mass movement in 19th century Britain – was something never seen before. A movement of the people whose labour kept society going, organised from within, not just as a one-off riot or revolt, but as a permanent organisation. It threw the ruling class into a panic, and with good reason. Universal and natural rights (at least for men) based on privilege and the past, spurious traditions premised on dubious history, bogus constitutionalism and inherited superstition would never again reign unchecked.
The class war ahead would be long and gruelling; it’s still being waged. But on this day in 1836, the ruling class’s minion opposition had – at least and at last – got one foot on the first rung of the ladder.