Last week’s centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act was an opportune moment to celebrate the achievements of the Suffragette women who put lives and livelihoods on the line to secure a vote for women and to highlight the continuing struggle to overcome today’s barriers to women’s political participation. But while the majority of media coverage rightly focused on gender equality, we should also take time to recognise the democratic dimensions of the Suffragettes’ victory.
The Votes for Women campaign came at a time when the balance of power between central and local government was very different. Back then, municipal authorities rightly looked after the large part of the public realm: education, hospitals, transport and other aspects of civic infrastructure. It is important to note that even then local government was more progressive than Parliament. The Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 enabled female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils but even before that women had the right to vote and to hold office in a range of local and parish institutions from their foundation.
Until very recently, from the introduction of the welfare state through Thatcher’s abolition of metropolitan county councils to Pickles’ swingeing cuts to council funding, we have seen the steady erosion of the clout and capacity of local government. Local democracy has suffered as a result with council elections too often seen as little more than a barometer of the national political mood.
At the time, as well as a great leap forward for women’s rights, the Representation of the People Act was a democratic innovation to match innovations in the workplace and in education. (It is important to note the relationship between women’s emancipation and wider shifts in economy and society). Following in the footsteps of the Chartists, the Suffragette’s demands for universal suffrage were born not exclusively from a sense of democratic disenfranchisement but also from the perceived economic and social ‘distance’ between Northern towns and cities and the capital, London.
So what of today? Many have noted a sense of democratic disenfranchisement in the calls to “Take Back Control” heard so clearly from many parts of the North during the EU referendum. And this linked to the economic insecurity that comes with living in apparently peripheral places and excluded from the decisions taken in all-powerful Westminster.
As we continue to fight for the rights of women, perhaps now is the time when once again our changing economy and society requires some democratic innovation too? As devolution to our great cities – however partial and piecemeal – revives progressive municipal spirits, perhaps we should seize this moment to break free from the shackles of twentieth century, two-party, first-past-the-post politics in favour of more participatory, deliberative alternatives? And if so, why not here in the North of England - the fulcrum of economic, social and democratic innovation from century to century – as the place to lead the world with a permanent, inclusive Northern Citizens Assembly?
It is time for local government to seize the spirit of the age and once again lead Parliament into a very different democratic future. It is precisely when it is at its lowest ebb, with so little to lose, that such radical action becomes all the more compelling. Devolution provides our platform but it will be deeds not words – both locally and nationally – that puts people not politicians back in control.
Ed Cox is Director of IPPR North. He tweets at @edcox_ippr
This blog was originally published by the MJ on 13th February.
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