A lesson from history for Simon Danczuk

The Labour MP for Rochdale Simon Danczuk has promised that Jeremy Corbyn will face revolt from party MPs ‘from day one’ in the event of a victory. One of the brilliant/annoying things about studying history is that you see parallels between your era of expertise and the present. Danczuk’s comments put me in mind of the 1768 Middlesex election won by the radical candidate John Wilkes. Loathed by the King and his supporters, Wilkes received an enormous amount of support from the ordinary people. Most of these men, and all of the women, were disenfranchised; they showed their support through popular celebrations, illuminating their windows and crying “Wilkes and Liberty!”

Wilkite printers punished with the pillory. The punishment backfired when crowds celebrated the pilloried men instead of pelting them with abuse © The Trustees of the British Museum

Wilkite printers punished with the pillory. The punishment backfired when crowds turned the pillory into a place of high honour rather than disgrace © The Trustees of the British Museum

Wilkes has been labelled everything from a champion of liberty to a rabble-rousing demagogue by historians. In truth he was all of these things: a notorious libertine and member of the Monks of Medmenham Hellfire Club, a campaigner for individual liberty, the  freedom of the press and the abolition of general warrants, and a bigot who stirred up English anti-Scottish sentiment into a popular rage against Scots. The renowned print-maker William Hogarth attacked Wilkes in a caricature which derided his politics and physical deformities. The squinting Wilkes sits beneath a cap of liberty-cum-chamber pot.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

But Wilkes was popular. Returning from exile in Paris after being tried for seditious libel and blasphemy, he was elected to parliament in the 1768 general election for the London constituency of Middlesex. Parliament, no friends to Wilkes, expelled him on the grounds that he was an outlaw. They called a by-election for Middlesex, which Wilkes won. They expelled him, called another election, and Wilkes won again. They expelled him, called another election, and guess what? Wilkes won again. This time, Parliament declared his opponent Henry Luttrell the winner, despite Wilkes securing more than 3x the number of votes won by Luttrell. The result was chaos. Petitions in support of Wilkes poured in from across the country,and the Prime Minister, Grafton, was forced to resign in the face of dwindling support in parliament. Wilkes, meanwhile, rose through the ranks of city politics, becoming first Alderman and later Lord Mayor of London.

The message? Even in a society which was only very partially democratic, politicians have a very hard time when they try to overrule democratic processes. The will of the people, especially when it comes to elections, is difficult to argue against. In the end Danczuk might find it easier to oust Corbyn than parliament did to oust Wilkes. Corbyn will need to be re-nominated by MPs in the event of a new Labour leadership election. But perhaps Danczuk should take a lesson from history. Yes, MPs are powerful and important, but are you more important than the people who gave you your power? If we want Corbyn as our leader, can we elect him against your will? JezWeCan.

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