Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Paul Foot - The Vote

On 15th February 2003 up to two million people marched through the streets of London against the forthcoming war in Iraq. Around the globe millions more protested, demonstrated, expressing their disgust at the seemingly inevitable war. For those of us involved in the anti-war movements there was a strange contradiction; then as now it seemed almost impossible to find anyone who supported the invasion of Iraq. Certainly a majority of people in this country opposed the war yet the so called democracy we lived in, ignored this majority opinion and its parliamentary leaders blithely followed the US administration to war.

Paul Foot’s monumental history of the struggle for the vote (and the subsequent undermining of the votes’ power) tries to address how this contempt for democracy came about. As his starting point he looks at how during obscure debates of the English Revolution the English ruling classes expressed their fear that representative democracy would “threaten their property”. For almost 350 years various propertied minority ruling classes struggled against extending the vote to the unpropertied majority.

And yet when universal suffrage became law the rich didn’t lose their lands, wealth and property. In fact, as Foot points out the main beneficiary of universal suffrage, the British Labour Party has retreated totally from its ambition of reducing capitalism and governing for ordinary people.

But Foot points out that this was not inevitable. In three brilliant chapters, one on the Chartists, one on the Reform Acts and one on the Suffragettes, we see how the struggle for the vote was often part of far more radical demands, demands that would have fundamentally altered the balance of power in favour of the poor. Foot points out that many who entered parliament on the back of universal suffrage learnt to their dismay that simple democracy means nothing, if the power of the rich, the unelected bankers and financiers and the capitalists remains untouched.

Paul Foot was one of the greatest socialists that the British Left ever produced. Here, in his greatest book, we see how his passion for justice was a reflection of his absolute belief that society needs to be transformed by ordinary people.

The Vote: How it was won and How it was undermined has recently been republished by Bookmarks. You can buy it online from their website here.

Related Reviews

Foot - Red Shelley
Vallance - A Radical History of Britain
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

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