The ‘Six Points’ of the People’s Charter is something that I have written about on many occasions in the last few decades. They are central to any discussion of Chartism and formed the foundation for what was arguably the most widely supported working-class movement since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Millions of men and women saw in the Charter the solution to their economic, social and political woes. Although Chartism was deemed a failure by many contemporaries, five of its six points were ultimately translated into law. That we today have universal suffrage, the secret ballot, paid MPs, single member constituencies and no property qualifications baring anyone from standing for Parliament is a direct result of the Chartist agitation of the 1830s and 1840s. That annual parliaments—the sixth of the six points—has never been implemented, has been largely forgotten. Yet it was potentially the most revolutionary of the electoral principle adopted by Chartists and has a particular resonance to the current situation in the Labour Party.
Kennington Common, 10 April 1848
The essence of annual parliaments for Chartists was its participatory nature. MPs would be elected by their constituents and their actions in Parliament would be closely monitored with, for instance, how they voted and how many sessions they attended would be published in the press. To keep their seats, MPs would need to consult not just their own supporters but all who could vote in their constituencies regularly to ensure that they represented their opinions. This did not mean that they were delegates mandated by their electors to vote in particular ways but certainly did mean that they would be held accountable for their actions by those electors. The link between MPs and their electors would inevitably be more personal, more intimate and more defined.
Although I suspect that annual parliaments are not part of his thinking, there is much in what Jeremy Corbyn has said in the past suggesting that he favours a more participatory approach to politics, an attempt to push decision-making away from Westminster and placing it more in the hands of the electors. The Labour leader has sent out a survey to party members asking for their views on bombing IS in Syria and urging them to respond by the start of next week. He has also told his MPs to go back to their constituencies this weekend and canvas the views of members. Jeremy's supporters are convinced that his views are closer to Labour’s grassroots than those of dissenting MPs while his opponents suspect him of trying to bypass the parliamentary party and appeal directly to the members who emphatically elected him in September.
But we do not have a participatory but a representative democratic system—one reason why annual parliaments have never been introduced. Once elected MPs represent their constituencies as a whole not just the narrow number of activists who may have helped them get elected. So MPs should not simply be canvassing the views of members, as Jeremy suggests, but seeking the views of electors from across the political spectrum before they make their decision on what is essentially a matter of ‘conscience’. Even if the notion of a free vote can be seen as the only way Labour can get out of the hole they’ve constructed, when John McDonnell says that MPs should not be ‘whipped or threatened’ and that they should follow their ‘own judgement’ on possible air strikes over Syria, he is restating this long-established principle that there are some issues that are above party politics.