Friday, 2 March 2012

Chartism and the Labour Parliament of 1854

The Labour Parliament of 1854 was one of the last significant Chartist gatherings. A page on the Labour Parliament which also lists the 40 delegates who attended has now been added to Chartist Ancestors.
There is no clear date at which Chartism came to an end. For many, the disappointments and state backlash of 1848 were enough; others struggled on to 1858 when the National Charter Association held its final convention. A few still continued to describe themselves as Chartists for decades more.
But there is some sense in which 1854 marked the demise of the Chartist movement. It was both the year in which Chartism’s first historian, Robert Gammage, ended his account, and the year in which a Chartist Labour Parliament met and signally failed even to discuss Chartism’s political demands.
By the winter of 1853-54, the fight was clearly industrial and economic. Strikes and the first systematic use of lock-outs by employers were rife, and it would surely have been remiss of any socialist organisation (as the NCA had been since 1851) to ignore this battleground. Most notably, the Preston lock-out of 1853-54 was seen as crucially important. The photograph here shows George Cowell, a leading figure in the events of that winter, addressing a crowd in the Lancashire town.
The Labour Parliament was Ernest Jones’s attempt to tie together industrial struggle and Chartism. Unfortunately, this was neither a totally popular move among the remaining Chartist activists, nor an especially successful one.
A furious Gammage watched in horror as Jones put forward a scheme for agricultural and factory co-operatives in place of Chartism’s political demands, recalling that Jones “had always previously pronounced such schemes as worthless”.
He went on: “The plan did not take. The contributions – which according to Jones, were to amount to five million pounds a-year – were not sufficient to pay the salaries of the Executive, who were involved in a debt of £18, which rested upon the shoulders of a single individual.”
Realising the plan was doomed, Jones now “advised the people to send no monies but what were sufficient to pay off the debt”, and, according to Gammage, declared the failure of the scheme to be evidence that the people were becoming more convinced of the need to gain political power.
“Matchless impudence! Was ever trickery more transparent?” asked Gammage.

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