If you are 18 years of age or over and have registered, you have the right to vote in the general election happening across the UK on Thursday 7th May 2015. You may already have done so via a postal vote.
But why does voting matter?
Britain has a proud tradition of popular involvement in politics. Attempts to keep those in charge honest and accountable, whether they were members of royalty or politicians, date back 800 years to Magna Carta. This was Britain’s first ‘people’s charter’ but, politics being what it is, the issue of fair representation didn’t go away. In 1838, a new People’s Charter was drawn up, with the primary aim of securing the vote for all men over 21. Women were not overlooked: their struggle for the vote had already begun. In the spirit of setting achievable goals, however, fighting for rights of men was more realistic. The Chartist movement gained in strength and popularity across the country.
In 1839, Chartism was particularly popular in south Wales. It was an area that had seen huge industrial change over the last few decades and many people felt their working and living conditions were intolerable. Without the vote, they had no power to change their situation.
On 3rd November 1839, about 5,000 men gathered from across Gwent to march through the night in the pouring rain. They were heading to Newport to demand the release of Chartist prisoners. Fearing the power of the Chartists, the authorities were waiting for them at the Westgate Inn in the centre of the town on the following morning. Both sides were armed and no one knows for sure who fired the first shot. What we do know though, is that over twenty men died that morning, fighting for the right to vote. What’s more, ten of them were hurriedly buried in the churchyard at St Woolos Cathedral by order of the authorities.
With their protest in tatters, the chartists fled, but many were arrested and William Frost, Zepheniah Williams and William Jones were tried for High Treason at a sensational trial in Monmouth in January 1840.
Many more local people were called to give evidence against them. Eventually the three men were sentenced to be hanged and quartered (drawing, the removal of entrails whilst still alive, had recently been abolished.)
Their sentence caused outrage and Queen Victoria, on the occasion of her marriage to Albert, commuted their sentence to transportation to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land.)
So what was the People’s Charter?
- The People’s Charter contained six key demands:
- The right for all men over 21 to vote
- Payment for MPs (
- Abolishing the need to own property in order to stand as an MP
- Secret ballots
- Constituencies of equal size
- Annual elections
How popular was Chartism?
At one point, about three million people in Britain signed a petition to make the People’s Charter law. The authorites later destroyed it, but this really was people power in action and it was effective: the only demand the Chartists made that hasn’t since become law is the demand for annual elections. Protesters wanted this to ensure that politicians remained accountable to voters, something that’s arguably just as important today.
So, whatever you think of politics and politicians today, if you are eligible, make your voice heard and vote on May 7th. Many people have died and others have made huge sacrifices to give you the right to do so.