Democracy then and now

DEMOCRACY: Councillor Jim McMahon speaking at the launch of the ‘Local Democracy Exhibition’

THE TOPIC for today’s blog picks itself with ‘Local Democracy Week’ now underway across the Borough.

I attended and spoke at the launch of the new ‘Local Democracy Exhibition’ at Gallery Oldham on Friday night to help kick-start our series of local events.

This is a genuinely fascinating exhibition which charts the history of democracy in our Borough and tells the stories of local people and their involvement in politics and change.

It looks at local political parties, social and Trade Union movements, and acts of individual and collective action – and there is a very rich and powerful tapestry here of inspiring stories.

But I see the purpose of this exhibition not just about being there to educate our young people or entertain history buffs – it’s more fundamental than that.

I want to use Local Democracy Week as a whole as an opportunity to engage with residents. I also want to look at our place in history and seek to learn from it as we move our Borough into the future. 

As part of that tomorrow night (Thursday from 6pm to 8pm) we are holding the first-ever live Question Time event for Cabinet Members. This is a chance for the public to engage and ask your burning questions – either in person, or from the comfort of your armchair. 

This will be the first event to ever be streamed live on the Oldham Council website and – linked to various social media activity on Facebook and Twitter – is designed to encourage people to participate.

Please do take this opportunity now to submit questions – or apply for tickets to attend this event – by emailing calling 0161 770 1975/5696. 

You can also tweet questions and comments to @oldhamQT or visit us on Facebook

There are further events also taking place this week around the districts – including one on a barge in Saddleworth(!) – and you can find out more about these by visiting

What I think is important about all these events is that they give us an opportunity to reflect on where we are in 2011. 

By that I mean looking at this subject in the context of what people fought for in the past, and what the quality of our modern democracy really is today. 

If you look back to August 1819 in this exhibition you’ll see men and women from our Borough famously marching to Peterloo to fight for ‘One Man, One Vote’. 

In what became a defining moment of its age, cavalry then charged into the crowd that had gathered at St Peter’s Field killing 15 people – five from our Borough – and injuring up to 700. 

You can only imagine what the coverage of such an event would be like now in our age of 24/7 rolling news channels but – more importantly – I wonder if, in 2011, we as a society still hold true to the legacy of the causes that these protesters held dear? 

Is what people fought for what we have ended up with?

The battle for ‘one man, one vote’ was hard fought but today some people think they can cast more than one vote by attempting to undertake postal vote fraud– or to dictate how others in their household will vote.

We also have thousands of people who don’t even use their right to vote. The 65 per cent turnout in the 2010 General Election was up four per cent on 2005 – but it still means one in three people actively declined to vote.

At the exhibition opening we were treated to a fantastic preview of a play by Oldham Theatre Workshop, performed brilliantly by Scott McDowell and Olivia Cooke from Royton.

This harked back – amongst other episodes in our history – to Annie Kenney and her infamous heckling of Winston Churchill at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1905. 

Again it made me wonder what Springhead’s Kenney – our very own leading figure in the Suffragette movement, who served 13 stints in prison for her cause – would think about democracy in 2011. 

Specifically, I wonder how she would feel – having fought for the right of women to vote – to learn that in households today some women do not exercise this right, and in certain cases even pass it on to the ‘man of the house’?

Equally what would those Free Liberals and Trade Unionists who fought for working class representation in Parliament think about our House of Commons today?

Allowances originally brought in to help working class people become Members of Parliament have to my mind since been abused. 

Would these erstwhile campaigners think that the current Commons membership – of which 35 per cent were privately educated, and three in ten went to Oxbridge – is really the representative chamber they fought so hard for?

My essential point here is this: That if we forget how hard-fought democracy was, we are in danger of becoming nothing more than a throwback to the old Rotten Boroughs – the product of a system that did not want to change. 

This is all – again – part of that wider ‘disconnect’ I’ve referred to in earlier blogs about the relationships between decision makers and those affected by decisions. 

And if we neglect these problems at a local and national level – by failing to engage citizens in debate and discussion – then they are simply only going to get worse. 

Staying on the theme of democracy I want to close today with a further update on Oldham Council’s response to the recent proposals to completely redraw the map of Parliamentary constituencies in our Borough.

Following the setting-up of a working group, a response to this has now been agreed by all three political group leaders. 

We reject the suggestion that historic townships should be broken apart and believe it is unacceptable that Chadderton and Royton would be split across two constituencies.

Dispersing Oldham across four constituencies is also not a viable option. Oldham itself would lose its identity, with none of the three proposed constituencies bearing any reference to its presence within them.

We also believe there is genuine support from the electorate and historic groups for no more than three constituencies to represent the Borough – and to maintain our townships as they stand.

This submission has been signed by myself along with Councillors Howard Sykes and Jack Hulme, and sent to the Boundary Review.

In the interests of protecting local identity and strong democratic representation for residents we sincerely hope these views will be taken on board and these flawed proposals substantially amended. 

Thanks for listening,


3 thoughts on “Democracy then and now

  1. Frankenstein

    I like the fact that Mr. McMahon talks about the make up of Parliament and yet he is leading a Council that is trying its utmost to cut the rights of normal working class people who are employed by the Council.

    Changes to Terms & Conditions of service as cost cutting exercises are a disgrace especially when it is not the fault of the workers but others.

  2. “You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists” – Abbie Hoffman, political and social activist.

    In this Local Democracy Week (10 – 14 October) such freedoms, often denied and sometimes hard won, should be at the forefront of our individual and collective engagement with the subject.

    In his seminal publication “Oldham Brave Oldham: An Illustrated History of Oldham” (published to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of Oldham’s incorporation as a Borough 1849-1999), Brian R. Law gives a fascinating insight into a burgeoning class struggle that came to define the late 18th and much of the 19th century:

    “The new industrial community or at least the town of Oldham itself particularly, soon acquired a reputation for radical behavior. Whether the incidence of social protest and turbulence in Oldham over the period was different from that in other rapidly growing industrial towns is conjectural. In the 1790s the background of revolution on the continent, the new political ideas of Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man, subsequently the demand for the vote, were common throughout the country. During and after the Napoleonic Wars social distress and perceived injustices were widespread in a growing changing unstable economy, plagued by bad harvests and, at times, extreme food shortages and subject to powerful new influences. All the incidents of disaffection, disorder and riot are well recorded, for Oldham as for other communities in Lancashire and elsewhere, each of them proud of their involvement. Oldham may have acquired its particular reputation because it has attracted more comment and analysis by historians – “an almost excessive burden of interpretation” as one writer put it – rather than that radical protest was more frequent or more serious than elsewhere.”

    To quote from the Oldham Council website (Local Democracy Week 2011):

    “Oldham Gallery will also be running an exhibition charting the history of local democracy in the borough. The exhibition tells the stories of local people and their involvement in politics – from Annie Kenney’s prominent role in the suffragette movement to the residents who fought in the Spanish Civil War…”

    In reality the characters and events within the exhibition, are part of a larger and more intricate tapestry – one that is still being woven today. An ongoing flow of legitimate dissent, in which the perceived wrongs of a given age – be they social, political or economic – are passionately challenged.

    The call to conscience rings louder than ever, to make a stand, to fight for what is right and just – as Martin Luther King famously stated: “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he would die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

  3. I’d just like to make the point that I, and many others I know, either declined to vote or deliberately spoiled our ballots in the last election – because we had three parties to vote for and no appreciable difference between them – especially from the view of being reasonably educated, but unemployed and fairly poor, with little chance of an opportunity to change that.

    Elections are all well and good, but surely if how you vote doesn’t make any difference to what happens to you, it has failed and is no longer democracy?!

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