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As Labour’s first woman MP for Manchester I stand on the shoulders of all those who protested at Peterloo

3 min read

On the 200-year anniversary of the Peterloo massacre Labour and Cooperative Member of Parliament for Manchester Central Lucy Powell MP reflects on the modern challenges to democracy. 

Reform. Universal Suffrage. Equal Representation. Love.

These were just some of the banners carried by peaceful protestors on Manchester streets 200 years ago today, as they were brutally attacked and killed. The Peterloo massacre was a major event in Manchester’s history, and a defining moment for British democracy. 

On the 16th August 1819 a huge crowd of over 60,000 men, women and children many dressed in their Sunday-best, gathered on St. Peter’s Field, modern day St. Peter’s Square, in the center of Manchester, for a peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protest. As their banners proclaimed, they wanted the vote, representation in Parliament, and an end to the disastrous Corn Laws which made bread unaffordable. Just 2 per-cent of the population had the vote in 1819. 

18 people were killed, including 4 women and a child, and 700 were seriously injured when they were trampled and attacked by paramilitaries and cavalry acting on the orders of local magistrates.  

The massacre occurred during a time of huge political tension and mass protests. 

Our modern democracy was born on that bloody field of Peterloo 200 years ago and it radicalised our city: the Chartist movement, the trade union that began in Manchester grew after Peterloo, the Manchester Guardian newspaper was established; the suffragette movement began in our city, the Independent Labour Party had its first meeting in Manchester as well as the Co-operative movement. Manchester has a radical history of protest and opposition to hate that we are proud of.

More recently our city led the fight against Section 28, protested against apartheid and austerity, and the hate-fueled politics of Donald Trump.  

As a born and bred Mancunian, and Labour’s first and only woman MP for our city, I stand on the shoulders of all those who protested at Peterloo. They created the kind of democracy that meant someone from an Irish immigrant background like me could end up being the MP for Manchester today. There are now 27 MPs in Greater Manchester, when before there were none, and everyone has the right to vote.  

As we commemorate this anniversary, and celebrate the lives and contribution of the marchers to our social and political progress, it’s right to reflect on the modern challenges to democracy and society and how we can safeguard protest, freedom and the credibility of our democratic traditions in the face of fake news, misinformation and an increasingly hostile and hateful political discourse on and offline.  

That should start with embedding Peterloo in our national story. When I was at school in Manchester in the eighties it wasn’t something that I learnt about, it wasn’t something that I was aware of growing up. More recently it has come to the fore. That’s a very good thing because it shows what happens when authorities make the very wrong decision to attack peaceful protests and don’t listen to that groundswell of public opinion. We have to be mindful of that in the current context as much as we do understanding the history of it.

Forgetting our past, and the sacrifices that led to the democracy and freedoms we enjoy today undermines and threatens our future. That’s why the monument unveiled this week in Manchester, and the programme of activity this weekend is so important.  

Today the traditions of representation, participation and protest movements against abuses of power, are alive and thriving. Yet we must guard against deliberate misinformation and the power of national and global corporations. They are often unaccountable and leave communities and individuals feeling powerless. We must guard too against the increasingly hateful political discourse we are seeing on and offline.  

Peterloo was a watershed moment for our democracy. 200 years on, we must remember and understand the context in which it took place; and recommit to ensuring that the causes of that massacre – inequality, mistrust, division, hate – are consigned to the past and don’t threaten our future. 

Lucy Powell MP is the Labour and Cooperative Member of Parliament for Manchester Central. 

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