This document, written in 1838 mainly by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association, stated the ideological basis of the Chartist movement. The Charter was launched in Glasgow in May 1838, at a meeting attended by an estimated 150,000 people. Presented as a popular-style Magna Carta, it rapidly gained support across the country and its supporters became known as the Chartists. A petition, populated at Chartist meetings across Britain, was brought to London in May 1839, for Thomas Attwood to present to Parliament. It boasted 1,280,958 signatures, yet Parliament voted not to consider it. However, the Chartists continued to campaign for the six points of the Charter for many years to come, and produced two more petitions to Parliament.
The People's Charter detailed the six key points that the Chartists believed were necessary to reform the electoral system and thus alleviate the suffering of the working classes – these were:
Universal suffrage (the right to vote)
When the Charter was written in 1838, only 18 per cent of the adult-male population of Britain could vote (before 1832 just 10 per cent could vote). The Charter proposed that the vote be extended to all adult males over the age of 21, apart from those convicted of a felony or declared insane.
No property qualification
When this document was written, potential members of Parliament needed to own property of a particular value. This prevented the vast majority of the population from standing for election. By removing the requirement of a property qualification, candidates for elections would no longer have to be selected from the upper classes.
A government could retain power as long as there was a majority of support. This made it very difficult to replace of a bad or unpopular government.
The 1832 Reform Act had abolished the worst excesses of 'pocket boroughs'. A pocket borough was a parliamentary constituency owned by a single 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 elect 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
MPs were not paid for the job they did. As the vast majority of people required income from their jobs to be able to live, this meant that only people with considerable personal wealth could afford to become MPs. The Charter proposed that MPs were paid an annual salary of £500.
Vote by secret ballot
Voting at the time was done in public using a 'show of hands' at the 'hustings' (a temporary, public platform from which candidates for parliament were nominated). Landlords or employers could therefore see how their tenants or employees were voting and could intimidate them and influence their decisions. Voting was not made secret until 1871.
- Article by:
- John Sutherland
- The novel 1832–1880
Professor John Sutherland explores the personal and social circumstances that prompted Elizabeth Gaskell to write Mary Barton, her novel describing industrial poverty in Manchester during the 'hungry forties'.