What Peterloo Means Today

200 years after Peterloo it's time to take up the mantle of working-class empowerment once again.

International Workers’ Day brings workers together not just in the UK but across the world in celebration of our day. Millions of workers come together remember our history, and the brave comrades who fought before us for the values that we hold. 

This year we mark an important anniversary in the story of British working people’s struggles for dignity, freedom and democracy. On 16th August, 1819, a meeting of peaceful campaigners for parliamentary reform was brutally broken up by the Manchester Yeomanry, troops sent in by the Tories to suppress the struggle for democratic rights. Fifteen people were killed and hundreds injured.

The 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre reminds us that it’s our job to tell our own stories, and to fight for our own justice. The powerful don’t like being reminded of their acts of repression. They don’t want to be held to account. The ruling class would prefer to sweep Peterloo under history’s carpet.

This anniversary gives us the opportunity to hold up a mirror to them. Peterloo was the moment when we began the journey, one we’re still on, to working-class representation. It teaches us that it was working-class people who stood up for democracy, and economic and political freedom; a lesson still not taught in our schools. 

So, we must honour those who put their lives on the line for a better future for all by demanding that coming generations truly know their own history. After Peterloo, the early trade unions started to take root. The massacre set our fledgling movement down a determined road to political representation. And it shone a light on the poverty that enchained our people. 

It was hugely influential in working people securing the right to vote. It changed public opinion. And yet, when I watched Mike Leigh’s epic dramatisation of the massacre last year, I had an uncomfortable feeling. It’s not just a depiction of history, it’s a reminder that we cannot, and must never, take democracy for granted. 200 years after Peterloo our trade unions remain shackled by Thatcher’s anti-union laws.

While the prime minister claims austerity is over, it’s far from over for the places hammered by cuts. Manchester has the highest levels of deprivation in England. In some parts of Greater Manchester, a near-decade of cuts has seen local government spending fall by as much as £650 per person. Just imagine what the city council could do with these millions robbed from it by central government; in a city where, in some areas, more than half of children live below the breadline.

There’s record demand for foodbanks, with a staggering 223,000 emergency three-day food parcels being given out by the Trussell Trust in the North West in the last 12 months. And we see the working homeless living on the streets of our great cities. This, too, is the lesson of Peterloo – that strong trade unions are the best guarantee of holding on to what we’ve fought for and secured over the last 200 years. 

When the Tories are in power, trade unions are the best and often only line of defence we have. And when unions are weakened, as they have been by all the legal and economic restrictions placed on us by the Tories during the ‘80s and ‘90s – restrictions disgracefully never repealed by the New Labour governments of Blair and Brown – then our great industries are decimated and the welfare state is degraded.

Decent jobs are replaced with the precarious work we see now. Cities are turned from powerhouses to poorhouses. Neoliberalism destroys community after community. Henry Hunt, the radical speaker who was arrested at the Peterloo rally and imprisoned for two years said of conditions in the factories at the time that he had “witnessed the sufferings of the overworked children. But my friends, you never heard of this. My speeches on the subject were all suppressed by the press.”

Well, not much has changed there either. Every day our mainstream media, with some notable exceptions, suppresses stories of the reality of life for the vulnerable and desperate. This Tory government has heaped misery upon misery on the lives of working people.

It should come as no surprise that it has made a disastrous mess of Brexit. Tony Woodhouse, the president of Unite, often says that whether we’re in or out of Europe, it makes no difference as long as the Tories are in government. That may be too simplistic, but it’s not far wrong. 

That’s why, above all else, we have to support Jeremy Corbyn, who speaks to the whole nation, not just sections of it. My message to all Labour Party members, and to all our MPs, is to back him, especially at a time when the Tories are imploding.

We have the prospect of the European elections at the end of the month. In the North West we’re faced with a very particular and vital challenge – to stop the election of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon to the European Parliament.

Across the world, the far-right is stirring. Right-wing authoritarian leaders are coming to power and challenging our democratic values. And while Spain’s general election last weekend didn’t produce the breakthrough for the far-right that had been anticipated, the very fact that an extreme nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-women’s rights party won 10% of the vote and seats in parliament, in a country for which fascism is a recent memory, should be a wake-up call for us all.

Yaxley-Lennon, UKIP and the Brexit Party seek to exploit and benefit from the despair that has gripped so many of our communities as a result of a decade of failed austerity policies. They want to channel anger away from the bankers and unscrupulous bosses towards the weak and vulnerable, and to peddle the politics of hate when people need the politics of hope. 

We must challenge this right-wing strategy, which is why I say to those demanding a 2nd referendum that I want a people’s vote, but a real people’s vote: a general election. I want the opportunity to return a Labour government and to start talking again about the issues that effect the everyday lives of working people, the vulnerable, the sick, the young and the elderly. 

It’s time for a government of the people. It’s time for a real living wage, and for homes to be built again – so that we can get rid of the stain of homelessness on our streets. It’s time to banish zero hours contracts and to invest in our public services. It’s time to make our communities safer with more bobbies on the street. It’s time to save our NHS and to nationalise the rip-off railway and utility companies.

It’s time the super-rich and the corporate elite paid their taxes, that people were put before profit and our children given hope. 200 years after Peterloo, it’s time to fight for a Labour government that puts the many before the few.