Ernest Jones and the People’s Parliament

We begin a three-part series on significant figures in the first working class mass political movement, Chartism.

‘As regards the working man swamping all other classes, the answer is simple―other classes have no right to exist. To prepare the way for the absolute supremacy of the working class, preparatory to the abolition of the system of classes, is the mission of ‘The Red Republican.’  (July 1850)

Ernest Jones

Ernest Jones was a lawyer, a poet, and a prominent Chartist agitator who was sent to prison in 1848 for two years. Upon his release, he continued is Chartist activities and together with his friend George Julian Harney tried to give the Chartist movement a more socialistic direction. He knew both Marx and Engels personally and was a member of the Manchester section of the International Workingmen’s Association. Jones was committed to the wider international context of the workers’ movement. He wrote in The People’s Paper of 17 February, 1854:

‘Is there a poor and oppressed man in England? Is there a robbed and ruined artisan in France? Well, then, they appertain to one race, one country, one creed, one past, one present, and one future. The same with every nation, every colour, every section of the toiling world. Let them unite. The oppressors of humanity are united, even when they make war. They are united on one point that of keeping the peoples in misery and subjection … Each democracy, singly, may not be strong enough to break its own yoke; but together they give a moral weight, an added strength, that nothing can resist. The alliance of peoples is the more vital now, because their disunion, the rekindling of national antipathies, can alone save tottering royalty from its doom. Kings and oligarchs are playing their last card: we can prevent their game.’

In  response to a lock-out of around 20,000 mill workers by the employers at Preston and also in an attempt to revive the Chartist Movement, Ernest Jones was the prime mover in assembling what was called, the Labour Parliament. Jones in The People’s Paper for January 7, 1854, wrote:

‘Every day brings fresh confirmation of the need for a mass movement and the speedy assembling of the Labour Parliament. If it is delayed much longer, every place, Preston included, lost or at the best forced into degrading and weakening compromises … The Cotton Lords, at a ‘Mass Meeting/ of their own, unanimously resolved to support their brother Cotton Lords of Preston and Wigan with the full force of their funds. Under these circumstances it is class against class …It must, therefore, become manifest that unless the working classes fight this battle as a Class, that is, in one universal union by a mass movement, they will be inevitably defeated …The greater the lock-out, the wider the strike movement, the more national becomes the movement –the more of a class struggle it is rendered –and if the working classes once see that they are struck at as a class, their class instinct will be roused and they will rise and act as one man.’

The Parliament first met on March 6, 1854, at Manchester, and was attended by some fifty or sixty delegates, mainly from the textile unions. The Parliament’s discussions lasted several days and when it broke up it declared its unfulfilled intention of meeting again at a later date that year. So in 1854, there met two Parliaments, and invited but unable to attend Marx was to remark:

‘some future historian will have to record that there existed in the year 1854, two Parliaments: a Parliament at London and a Parliament at Manchester – a Parliament of the rich and a Parliament of the poor – but that men sat only in the Parliament of the men and not in the Parliament of the masters.’

The work of Ernest Jones for the Labour Parliament marks the culmination of his career as a revolutionary agitator. When, in 1858, The People’s Paper ceased publication, Jones, worn out and disheartened became a Liberal for the last eight years of his life. While he still recognised the inherent evils of the society he lived in, he resigned himself to an accommodation with it, “I am about to take the world as I find it, and see if we cannot make the best of it, such as it is, without any violent and sudden disruptions of Society.”  But this should not diminish his contribution to the cause of the working class. During the American Slave-owners War, he campaigned vociferously against slavery and against the Confederacy when it was trying to gain support from the cotton-mill workers who were suffering from the blockade. He died in Manchester on the 26 January, 1869,  a day after his 50th birthday.  An estimated 100,000 lined his funeral cortege. Ernest Jones, the son of a major, a barrister-at-law, and a published poet, died in such poverty that his friends had to launch a financial appeal for his widow and three children.

In 1780 less than 3 percent of Britain’s 8 million population had electoral rights. From the late 18th century, pressure for parliamentary reform grew, culminating in riots in several British towns in 1831. Even after the 1832 Reform Act was finally passed, only one in seven adult males were able to vote. The Chartist movement was the first mass political movement of the British working class and effectively Britain’s first civil rights movement. Many unknown and therefore unacknowledged workers engaged in the mass struggle for the vote and political power. As the factory and mill owners resisted any rebellion against the dictatorship of capital, Jones and fellow radicals such as Harney emphasized the connection between the struggle to win the vote and the class struggle. In addition, they also emphasised that this was just a part of a wider and greater international fight for democracy and people’s power.


(The Greasy Pole column resumes next month).

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