William Lovett, the son of the captain of a small fishing vessel, was born in Penzance, Cornwall on 8th May, 1800. His father was drowned at sea before William was born. William's mother, who was a strict Methodist, sent him to the local school and at the age of thirteen he became an apprentice rope-maker.
After a couple of years of training William realised that ropes were gradually being replaced by chains and decided to leave the trade. William managed to persuade a local man to train him as carpenter, a trade that he believed would give him a better future.
At the age of 21 William Lovett decided to try and find work in London. Lovett eventually found work as a carpenter in a cabinet making company. He applied to join the Cabinet Makers' Society but he was rejected as the training he received in Penzance was not recognised as being good enough. It was not until 1826 that he was finally accepted as a member of Cabinet Makers Society. Later that year Lovett married a lady's maid working in London.
Lovett began attending evening classes at the London's Mechanics' Institute. It was at the Institute that he met the radical publishers, Henry Hetherington and John Cleave. These two men introduced Lovett to the socialist ideas of Robert Owen. William Lovett now abandoned his Methodist beliefs and became a supporter of the Civil and Religious Library Association.
Lovett also joined Hetherington and Cleave in London Co-operative Trading Association. Lovett worked for a while as the Co-operative Trading Association's storekeeper and in 1828 replaces James Watson as the secretary of the British Association for the Promotion of Co-operative Knowledge.
In 1831 William Lovett's name was drawn for service in the London Militia. As a punishment Lovett's household goods were seized. Lovett responded by establishing the Anti-Militia Association. Lovett's organisation adopted the slogan "No Vote, No Musket". The campaign was a great success and the authorities decided to abandon the idea of militia drawings. Lovett's victory brought him a great deal of attention and he was now a national political figure.
Lovett decided that parliamentary reform was now the most important issue facing working people. He joined the National Union of the Working Classes, an organisation formed by Richard Carlile, Henry Hetherington, James Watson, John Cleave and William Benbow to form the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC). It proposed universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, votes by secret ballot and the removal of property qualifications for MPs. Iain McCalman has claimed that it became the "most effective working-class radical organisation in the early 1830s."
Lovett also became a member of Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. In March 1832 Lovett was arrested by the police during a peaceful demonstration. However, he was released without charge.
In June 1836, William Lovett, Henry Hetherington, John Cleave and James Watson formed the London Working Men's Association (LMWA). Although it only ever had a few hundred members, the LMWA became a very influential organisation. At one meeting in 1838 the leaders of the LMWA drew up a Charter of political demands. When supporters of parliamentary reform held a convention the following year, Lovett was chosen as the leader of the group that were now known as the Chartists.
R. G. Gammage, the author of History of the Chartist Movement (1855) later recalled: "This gentleman (Lovett) was a native of Cornwall, and sprang from the poorest class. Lovett was secretary to the Association, and, without exaggeration, it may be affirmed that he was the life and soul of that body. Possessed of a clear and masterly intellect and great powers of application, everything that he attempted was certain of accomplishment; and, though not by any means an orator, he was in matters of business more useful to the movement than those who were gifted with finer powers of speech."
In 1839 Lovett was arrested for making a speech in Birmingham. The authorities claimed that his description of the Metropolitan police as a "blood thirsty and unconstitutional force" was seditious libel. Lovett was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment in Warwick Gaol. He described the experience in his autobiography, Life and Struggles (1876): "I was locked up in a dark cell, about nine feet square, the only air admitted into it being through a small grating over the floor, and in one corner of it was a pailful of filth left by the last occupants, the smell of which was almost overpowering. There was a bench fixed against the wall on which to sit down, but the walls were literally covered with water, and the place so damp and cold, even at that season of the year, that I was obliged to keep walking round and round, like a horse in an apple-mill, to keep anything like life within me."
While in Warwick Gaol, Lovett and a fellow prisoner, John Collins, wrote the book Chartism, a New Organisation of the People. After nine months Lovett refused to accept three months remission for good behaviour because, he argued, it implied admission of guilt.
Twelve months in Warwick Gaol severely damaged Lovett's health and he was forced to spend time recuperating in Cornwall. When Lovett returned to London he open a bookseller's shop in Tottenham Court Road. Lovett was still seen as the leader of the Chartist movement but he was under constant attack from people like Fergus O'Connor and James Bronterre O'Brien who raised doubts about his Moral Force campaign.
Upset by these criticisms, Lovett decided in 1842 to retire from politics and devoted the rest of his life to the development of working class education. He formed the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People. Financed by workers' subscriptions, the association provided circulating libraries and employed educational "missionaries".
Lovett continued to run his bookshop, wrote school textbooks and taught evening classes. His bookshop failed to make money and William Lovett died in extreme poverty on 8th August, 1877.
I was very fond of attending debating places, especially Tom's Coffee House, in Holborn, and Lunt's Coffee House, on Clerkenwell Green, where, among other celebrities who took part in the discussions, I heard Gale Jones, the Rev. Robert Taylor, Richard Carlile, and others. I commenced also about this time the collection of a small library of my own, the shelves of which were often supplied by cheating the stomach with bread and cheese dinners.
I joined the First London Co-operative Trading Association; a society first established in the premises of the Co-operative Society, Red Lion Square, and subsequently removed to Jerusalem Passage, Clerkenwell. I think it was about the close of the year 1828 that the first of these trading associations was established at Brighton, by the name of Bryan; and its success was such that between four and five hundred similar associations were very soon established in different parts of the country. Some few months after I had given up my shop in May's Buildings, I was induced to accept the situation of store-keeper to the "First London Association", the late store-keeper, Mr. James Watson, having resigned. Much good resulted from the formation of those co-operative trading associations, notwithstanding their failure. Their being able to purchase pure and unadulterated articles of food.
I was locked up in a dark cell, about nine feet square, the only air admitted into it being through a small grating over the floor, and in one corner of it was a pailful of filth left by the last occupants, the smell of which was almost overpowering. There was a bench fixed against the wall on which to sit down, but the walls were literally covered with water, and the place so damp and cold, even at that season of the year, that I was obliged to keep walking round and round, like a horse in an apple-mill, to keep anything like life within me.
The London Working Men's association had several men possessing very considerable talents: some as men of practical business, others as writers, and as orators on the platform. The ablest as a writer and a man of business was undoubtedly William Lovett. This gentleman was a native of Cornwall, and sprang from the poorest class. Lovett was secretary to the Association, and, without exaggeration, it may be affirmed that he was the life and soul of that body. Possessed of a clear and masterly intellect and great powers of application, everything that he attempted was certain of accomplishment; and, though not by any means an orator, he was in matters of business more useful to the movement than those who were gifted with finer powers of speech.
I was brought up for judgment with my friend Collins, and both of us were sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment in the County Gaol. On the morning after my trial, when my little bucket of gruel was served out to me, I took up a black-beetle in about the first spoonful; this, together with the feverish state in which I was, caused me to take a loathing against this part of my prison fare. I therefore tried to satisfy my appetite for a few days with a little bread soaked in cold water for breakfast, and a morsel of bread and cheese for dinner. But this diet in a short time brought on a horrible diarrhea, under which, I believe, I should have speedily sunk had not my weakly appearance attracted the notice of William Collins, the member for Warwick, one of the visiting magistrates, on his going his rounds through the prison. Seeing me look so ill, he came up to me and questioned me about my health, and at once ordered me to be taken into the hospital. Mr. Thomas Duncombe very nobly brought my case before the House of Commons, together with that of other political offenders. To all of which the authorities turned a death ear, the only favour granted being a pint of tea instead of the prison gruel.
As regards the best means of obtaining our Charter. We are of those who are opposed to everything in the shape of a physical or violent revolution, believing that a victory would be a defeat to the just principles of democracy. The political despots; and as such a sanguinary warfare, calling up the passions in the worst forms, must necessarily throw back for centuries our intellectual and moral progress.
Ill winds blow good and clouds have silver linings, or so we're told and so we must hope. If the greatest scandal affecting parliament in generations leads to serious change, then we may yet be grateful for that, if nothing else. Although the expenses scandal has prompted various schemes for constitutional and electoral reform, here is one that has gone missing. And yet it was among the radical Chartists' demands for parliamentary reform more than 150 years ago, and is the simplest and potentially the most effective of all.
Before coming to that, it must be said that the way the liberal commentariat raised the question of electoral reform this summer had a flavour of transference about it, or changing the subject, or missing the point. At the places where ordinary British people gather, from factories to offices to shops and pubs, they have not been earnestly debating the merits of the single transferable vote against the alternative vote.
But repellent as the MPs' impenitence is, institutional reform of parliament is desirable in its own right – and should be achievable. Looking over our political history, it's striking how daring radical demands once seemed, and how almost all were met, and quite soon at that.
If the great Reform Act of 1832 made less practical difference than its supporters hoped at the time, it did initiate a steady process by which parliament would be transformed in less than a hundred years. It was not simply an end to the ludicrous old corruption under which rotten boroughs like Old Sarum with a handful of voters or none returned two members while burgeoning Manchester had none at all. And it was not just a matter of extending the franchise. Over the course of that century, the unreformed Commons became a house for what the 1918 act was called, the Representation of the People.
When such representation of the people still seemed a long way off, the People's Charter in 1838 demanded six reforms, only one of which has not been achieved to this day. Universal suffrage took less than 80 years to accomplish, and property qualifications for voting were finally ended, although second votes in "business constituencies" continued until almost the second half of the 1900s. The secret ballot was introduced as early as 1872.
Those successive reform acts slowly addressed the Chartists' demand for "equal representation", in the sense that all constituencies should have electorates of roughly equal size. That was far from the case after 1832 or even after 1867, and it has never been achieved in absolute terms. Considerable variation between larger and smaller seats continues, ironically to the disadvantage of the Tories, traditional opponents of reform.
As to the fifth demand, payment of members began in 1912, and has had an unintended consequence, not to say a lamentable one: the emergence of a new class of permanent, if often mediocre, professional politicians. This was further encouraged by a system of expenses that, even when it wasn't flagrantly dishonest, rested on the assumption that politics was a full-time profession. That has now met its nemesis.
And the sixth demand? This was the one never achieved, rarely mentioned now, but simpler than any of the others: annual parliaments.
Over the centuries the life of parliaments has varied, sometimes three years, then seven, now five. In practice we have got used to four-year intervals between elections, except when the government is in such a jam that it soldiers on to the bitter end, as James Callaghan did in 1979 and John Major in 1997 – neither a happy precedent for Gordon Brown as he soldiers or staggers on.
One idea that has been much canvassed lately is fixed-term parliaments, but that doesn't really meet the case. The problem is not that the theoretical ability to call for a dissolution at any time strengthens the power of the prime minister; as Brown has learned the hard way, that may not make a great deal of difference in practice. Our real problem has been the surrender by parliament of its ultimate control over the executive. The simplest definition of parliamentary government is that the prime minister of the day is whoever controls a majority in the primary – the lower or representative – house of the legislature, which we call the House of Commons; but this means little if MPs are ciphers.
To those Victorian radicals it was axiomatic that the best way to make the government accountable to parliament was to make parliament accountable to the electorate – every year. The objections to this are themselves revealing. Too expensive? But elections don't need to involve enormous sums of money spent by parties, and we would be much better off without that. Governments would be less stable and weaker? Well, yes, that's the point. Electing parliament every year would keep our rulers on their toes. More than any other possible reform it answers the simplest call of all: power to the people.