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Political Unions

Political Union were established to campaign for a reform of parliament. The most influential was the Birmingham Political Union led by Thomas Attwood but others were formed throughout the country. The Sheffield Political Union was a single organisation that enrolled 12,000 new members in the final crisis of 1832. Leeds had problems because of the class cleavage there. The working class union demanded universal suffrage, although Edward Baines did try - ineffectually - to unite the middle and lower classes. In Leeds there were

Manchester had the same problem as Leeds. Here the working classes demanded universal suffrage, while Prentice formed a Union limited mainly to the 'shopocracy', which reached neither merchants/manufacturers nor operatives in large numbers. Many wanted repeal of the Corn Laws but did not want currency reform, which was one of Attwood's objectives. A large number of manufacturers were Whig Dissenters looking for free trade.

In London, Francis Place formed his National Political Union in October 1831, which aimed at co-ordinating agitation. It failed to replace the Birmingham Political Union as leader of the movement. William Lovett and Hetherington set up a rival body, the National Union of the Working Classes.

The BPU's ideas on currency reform were not widely followed because they appealed to neither masters nor men in the textile areas. Here, the middle class wanted freer trade including reduced taxation and the modification or abolition of the Corn Laws. The working class wanted factory legislation and better living and working conditions. The two groups were unlikely to work together. Also, as Attwood told Hobhouse in June 1830

'The whole people of England [are] essentially aristocratic and imbued with respect for their superiors, and hatred of those neighbours raised by accident above themselves'

In the winter of 1830-31, middle-class reformers (mainly Dissenters) in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield achieved national importance through their local activities.

Supporters of reform were determined to make their opinions felt in high places: on 5 December 1830, Joseph Parkes wrote to Francis Place saying

These are times when the Government should be told plainly what the people demand and will have: if the Whigs intend to realise their promises they cannot object to strong demonstrations, if they mean to break their vows it is wholesome to remind them of them. I think they should have a fair chance. Thank God we are now dependent on no party.

On 13 December 1830 a meeting was held to welcome the Whigs to office, and produced a petition claiming as "the birthright of every Englishman":

  1. a taxpayer franchise
  2. triennial parliaments
  3. payment of MPs
  4. abolition of the property qualification
  5. redistribution of parliamentary seats

Hundreds of reform meetings were called in the provinces, to produce petitions. The initiative had to be left to the government: this was stressed by John Shuttleworth, a leading Manchester radical, at a great reform meeting on 20 January 1831

if the plan of the ministers is essentially good, if it rests upon general principles that are sound and popular, if it evinces on their part a sincere and earnest desire to effect a real reform; then ministers are justly entitled to the fullest confidence and support of the people.... it would be most ill-judged as well as most ungenerous, on the part of the people, to embarrass the proceedings, the first proceedings, and I fear, the necessarily imperfect proceedings of ministers

London's radicals were organised by the ubiquitous Francis Place; William Cobbett praised the Bill in his Political Register; Richard Carlile did likewise in the Prompter. The Spectator coined the phrase "the Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill". Daniel O'Connell supported the Bill, thus strengthening the government while the Opposition, which appeared to be defending its own interests made little headway with the public. The Bill promised the middle classes what they wanted: to have their place within the system but also to be protected against wild radical schemes.

The working classes were in a dilemma. The period 1829-32 were years of intensive and varied working-class activity, only one strand of which was political reform. This competed with

The Reform Bill offered nothing directly to the working classes and threatened to disenfranchise some of them in a few constituencies. Although Cobbett and Carlile supported the boldness of the Bill, Hunt and Hetherington opposed it as inadequate. Many followed their lead. Hunt believed that the working classes deserved the right to vote as a matter of justice, to protect wages against inequitable taxation. In April 1831 he said that [the Reform Bill] certainly was all very good, very liberal; but would it give the people something more to eat?"

He denounced he Whigs as selfish; he said the Bill was intended to keep the Whigs in power and that the middle classes were to get the vote to stop the lower orders from obtaining their rights. Its working class supporters said the Bill was the best that realistically could be offered and that changes could be made later to extend its provisions. Defeat of the Bill would mean a return to repressive Toryism and a split between the middle and lower classes. Once the middle classes had the franchise, they would enfranchise the working classes in gratitude for their help in securing the Bill. Pro-Bill men usually were in the majority.

The high peaks of working-class support for the Bill came in March 1831 and May 1832: the beginning and end of the campaign. The agitation varied in intensity and effectiveness from place to place. In March 1831, Birmingham led the way, followed by the Scottish Lowlands. Tyne and Wear were at the bottom of the scale because attention was diverted by coal strikes. Manchester and Leeds came somewhere in between the two extremes. Manchester had its own ongoing class conflict and Leeds was diverted by the Ten-Hour movement. The agitation was patchy in geographical and class terms but its intensity still staggered politicians. Nothing like it had been seen before. Popular approval of the Bill was reflected in the increase of support from MPs eager to safeguard their seats - and to avoid the dissolution of parliament and the expense of an election. External pressure brought a reaction from the anti-reformers, however.

In May 1831 the Political Union of the Working Classes was set up by Hunt. It was never very popular except in the north of England. Its main demand was universal suffrage. The ultra-radicals had no alternative proposals although William Benbow suggested a 'grand national holiday' (a general strike) in support of reform. This suggestion was impracticable.

Also in May 1831 the National Union of the Working Classes and Others was established, preaching a mixture of ideas from Tom Paine, Robert Owen and the 'primitive social theory' of Hodgskin. Its leaders had moved from the British Association for the Promoting of Co-operative Knowledge. These men believed that the Bill was adequate as a first step.

In July 1831 Hetherington began publication of the Poor Man's Guardian, an unstamped and therefore illegal paper. In it he expounded exploitation theories and attacked the middle classes for being drawn willingly into an alliance with the aristocracy. He consistently opposed the Bill in his paper. Although Bronterre O'Brien and John Doherty were cool towards the Bill, they saw it as the first step towards real reform.

On 5 October 1831 the National Union of the Working Classes adopted a petition to the Lords demanding:

  1. annual general elections
  2. universal suffrage
  3. abolition of the property qualification

- but asking for the passage of the Reform Bill as an interim measure.

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