British Working Class Politics, 1832-1914

By G. D. H. Cole | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE BEGINNINGS

From Radical Reform to the Chartists

WHEREVER the workers are voteless, or the right of political agitation is not granted to them, working-class political movements are bound, if they exist at all, to take a revolutionary form. There can be no democratic working-class party, attempting to change the face of society by parliamentary means, unless the workers have the right both to organize politically and to conduct open propaganda campaigns, and also the right to vote. This does not mean that every workman--much less every working woman--must be a voter before a Labour or Socialist Party can be brought into existence. But there must be in the electorate a sufficient proportion of working-class voters to give candidates who offer themselves as the advocates of the claims of Labour a chance of success. It is also indispensable for the development of any real working-class party that there should be no property qualification for candidates or Members of Parliament; for though a Labour Party can and usually does include men of other classes among its candidates, no party can properly represent working-class claims and interests unless it consists predominantly of actual workers.

For these reasons, it was impossible for a Labour Party to arise in Great Britain until well on in the second half of the nineteenth century. There were, indeed, long before this, candidates who appeared before the electors primarily as the advocates of working-class claims. But these candidates could not be actual working men as long as the property qualification remained in being: nor was there until after the Reform Act of 1867 any substantial working-class element in the British electorate. The Chartist and other Radical

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