The People's Charter - representation of the people act

Background

Chartism was a political movement of the 1830s set up by working men. The Chartists campaigned to reform the British electoral system, believing that all men over the age of 21 should have the right to vote. They submitted the People's Charter to Parliament in 1837, making six specific demands:

Universal suffrage (the right to vote)

Voting in British parliamentary elections was restricted to men of a particular class and wealth. Women could not vote at all.

Abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament

Potential members of parliament needed to own property of a particular value. This prevented the vast majority of the population from standing for election.

Annual parliamentary elections

A government could retain power as long as there was a majority of support. This made it very difficult to get rid of a bad or unpopular government.

Equal Representation

The Reform Act (1832) had abolished the worst excesses of 'pocket boroughs'. A pocket borough was a parliamentary constituency owned by one patron, who controlled voting rights and could nominate the two members who were to represent the borough in parliament. In some of these constituencies as few as six people could vote for two members of parliament. There were still great differences between constituencies, particularly in the industrial north where there were relatively few MPs compared to rural areas. The Chartists proposed the division of the United Kingdom into 300 electoral districts, each containing an equal number of inhabitants, with no more than one representative from each district to sit in Parliament.

Payment of Members

The majority of people could not afford to become MPs if MPs received no pay.

Vote by ballot

Voting at the time was done in public by 'show of hands' at the 'hustings' (a temporary, public platform from which candidates for parliament were nominated). Your landlord or employer could see how you were voting and that might influence or intimidate you. Voting was not made secret until 1871.

Although the Chartists gathered enormous support in the form of signatures for their petitions, their demands were rejected by Parliament every time they were presented. Eventually some of the Chartist leaders were arrested and the movement fizzled out. Although the Chartists failed to achieve aims directly, their influence continued and eventually all but one of their demands became part of British law.

There was more to Chartism than the demands set out in the People's Charter. The Chartists called for wider social reform. In the late 1830s and 1840s many believed the government to be corrupt. Unfair laws were seen to keep the working people poor and hungry. The Corn Laws kept food prices artificially high. The Poor Law Amendment Act stopped provision of relief to the able bodied poor and forced those needing help into the workhouse.

Taken from: The People's Charter
Author / Creator: Working Men's Association
Date: 1838
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board
Shelfmark: 8138.bb.87