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Radical Roots: Sheffield’s Struggle for Democracy

Throughout history the people of Sheffield have organised and fought for democratic rights, to improve their lives and the world around them. That fight is continued through present-day community campaigns to transform the quality of housing, transport and local democracy itself.

Credit Sheffield Acorn

ACORN activists at Orchard Square in Sheffield protesting against Covid evictions, 2020.

Sheffield ACORN
Series sponsored by Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust logo

In 1830, Parliament ordered the construction of new Anglican churches across the country as a ‘bulwark against revolution’, to counter the radicalism of the Methodists and wider Chartist movement.

In Sheffield these were Christ Church in Attercliffe, St George’s in Portobello, St Mary’s at Bramall Lane and St Phillip’s in Shalesmoor. In 1839, suspicious of the large new churches and swept up in the fervour of the Chartist movement, Sheffield’s workers responded in kind—by trying to firebomb the newly-built St Mary’s.

While perhaps not sustaining this level of militancy, there has been a current which has run throughout Sheffield’s history of people calling for greater political participation to determine the lives they lead. This long-read article, the second in Now Then’s Radical Roots series, looks at similarities in past and present struggles for democracy – and how the people of Sheffield have fought, and continue to fight, to create a fairer and more equitable society.

A 'damned bad place'?

Ours is the city King George III called a ‘damned bad place’ because of its radical tendencies, and without a doubt Sheffield has led fights for democracy and voting rights. The first women’s suffrage organisation in the UK was founded in Sheffield in 1851, the Sheffield Women’s Rights Association (the WRA, also known as the Sheffield Women’s Political Association).

Not only did this group predate the founding of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union by over 50 years but, unlike the WSPU – a middle-class association which famously expelled Sylvia Pankhurst for supporting working-class women’s participation in the suffrage movement – the Sheffield group was founded and led by working-class Chartist women.

Our city has a long history of petitioning for democratic reforms. The WRA supported the first petition for women’s suffrage, presented by the Earl of Carlisle to the Lords in 1851. A previous petition from 1816, calling for parliamentary reform and an end to corruption, was signed by over 21,500 people in Sheffield.

In this respect, the city’s present continues to resemble its past; a little over 200 years later, in 2019, 26,000 Sheffielders signed a petition calling for a change to our council’s governance structure. Both earlier petitions were refused. It remains to be seen how the It’s Our City petition will fare.

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St. Mary's Church at Bramall Lane, which Sheffield Chartists attempted to firebomb in 1839.

J Potter & J Rogers (Picture Sheffield)

An appetite for reform

While movements for change have never disappeared, there has been a recent resurgence of single-issue campaigns for democratic reform in Sheffield and beyond.

Locally there have been calls to change Sheffield’s democracy. The It’s Our City campaign has culminated in a referendum on 6 May to decide whether we move away from our current ‘leader and cabinet’ model to a ‘committee’ system, so that all local councillors might have more of a say over how our city is run.

Regionally, the Northern Independence Party launched at the end of last year to “combat the injustice of the north/south divide” with an ambition to secede from the United Kingdom. Dore, in southwest Sheffield, was where the King of Northumbria was forced to submit to King Egbert of Wessex back in 829, leading to the unification of Anglo-Saxon Britain – and our city may yet play a role in its dissolution too.

Whether or not an autonomous Northumbria would give its people control over their own destiny remains to be seen. For now, as Alex Niven writes, the NIP has opened up a long-needed debate about “how England could be reorganised more fairly.”

Nationally, Make Votes Matter (MVM) has been campaigning to introduce proportional representation (PR) to Parliament, so that our representatives are better apportioned to the votes of electors. Sheffield For Democracy, a local MVM-affiliated group, have been coordinating these efforts at a city level. Momentum, Labour’s left-wing, has also recently announced it will campaign for PR to become party policy at its next conference.

Such proposals are appealing at first glance. If we look at the distribution of Sheffield’s parliamentary seats, we can see just how unrepresentative Westminster’s democracy is.

Unequal by design

In the UK seats are proportioned by an average number of electors. Each seat is meant to have 74,769 voters, with a 5% variation. Sheffield Central has an estimated 117,620 people of voting age and Brightside and Hillsborough has 82,303. Between these two Sheffield seats alone there are over 50,000 people not counted in our political system, more than the entire number of registered voters in seats like Arfon (42,215), Aberconwy (44,699), Dwyfor Meirionnydd (44,362) and Montgomeryshire (48,910). On numbers alone, it’s fair to say Sheffield deserves at least one more MP.

But there is a wider issue here. Constituencies are divided by ‘electors’, meaning anyone who isn’t registered to vote isn’t counted when constituency boundaries are set.

With an upcoming boundary review, it’s worrying that an estimated 8.3 to 9.4 million people in Great Britain are not correctly registered to vote, despite being eligible. Unsurprisingly, being registered to vote strongly correlates with wealth, property ownership, race and age.

In addition, with large swathes of the population barred from voting – including most migrants, under 18s and those in prison – we can recognise wider issues with our political system. Devising constituencies by electors rather than population means those of us impacted by structural inequality, institutional racism, high levels of mobility and a job market dominated by precarious, zero-hour contracts face a parliamentary system weighted against us by design.

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Make Votes Matter campaigners associated with Sheffield For Democracy.

Proportional representation would ensure current electors’ votes are equally represented, addressing the impact of seats exceeding or falling below the electoral quota, but it does nothing to fix the underlying problem that people are missed out of our democracy in the first place.

As reforms, proportional representation or a committee system are well-meaning and would create a more representative system of governance. But, as their proponents would agree, they are not silver bullets.

Democracy must go beyond who our representatives are and the systems of governance they’re bound to. Beyond reforms to make representation more representative, we need democratic structures which empower people and give us the means to transform our surroundings.

'None wretched, but the sick'

This was known in Sheffield’s past too. As Edd Mustill detailed in the first long-read of this series, due to its industrial heritage our city’s modern history has been one of class struggle. And because of the strength of its trade unions and working class politics, Sheffield’s calls for greater participation have intertwined with struggles for a more equitable society.

It’s known that the Chartists organised around six demands to create a more representative, democratic parliament. While the wider movement didn’t call for women to get the vote, Sheffield’s Chartists did support women’s suffrage, likely due to the work of the women who founded the WRA.

Similarly, Sheffield’s Chartists adopted their own People’s Charter in 1837, stating that “the working classes produced the rich man’s wealth, while being oppressed by unjust and unequal laws.” This pre-Marxist analysis of the exploitation of labour shows a desire to transform both the political system of the UK and the economic oppression it underpinned.

John Ruskin’s Totley Commune, a radical experiment in communal living, was established in Sheffield in 1877. Through it, Ruskin looked to build a utopic commune and collective farm, away from what he considered the evils of industrialisation. As he wrote:

We will try to take some small piece of English ground, beautiful, peaceful and fruitful. We will have no steam-engines upon it, and no railroads; we will have no untended or unthought-of creatures on it; none wretched, but the sick; none idle, but the dead.

While the St George’s Farm experiment eventually fell apart, in part falling prey to an overbearing, authoritarian landowner – a cause of suffering for far too many to count throughout history – in trying to create a space where both work and reward were collectivised, we can see the notion of building a world in which people determine the lives they want to live and the world they want to live in.

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The Sheffield Flood of 1864. The remains of a summer house, which was carried away and deposited in the middle of a dam.

H Dudley (Picture Sheffield)

Taking back control

Beyond Ruskin, there have been some more practical examples of this in Sheffield’s past, where politicians have responded to the need – and given people the means – to be able to transform their surroundings.

In the 1800s Sheffield City Council fought to de-monopolise utilities and bring about local public control over water and energy. In 1864 the Dale Dyke Dam burst, leading to the Great Sheffield Flood in which 240 people drowned and over 5,000 homes flooded. The Sheffield Waterworks Company, whose shoddy construction resulted in this crisis, was forced to pay £450,000 in compensation, and wanted to pass these costs onto the public by increasing water prices by 25%.

The Council responded by attempting to buy out the company, which the Mayor of Sheffield referred to, alongside its gas company, as “the two huge monopolies with which Sheffield is weighted.”

Similarly, and displaying great foresight, in 1899 Sheffield’s Council brought electricity under democratic control – having then only existed in private enterprise for just ten years – because they recognised what it could mean to manage the industry in the interests of the public instead of profit.

With ‘take back control’ having become the definitive phrase of modern UK politics, imagine what our city might have been like if we had not been forced to give up oversight of our utilities to exploitative corporations – if access to water, gas and electricity was determined based on need and not means.

Moving closer to the present, Sheffield is famously a Labour stronghold. It became the first major Labour-controlled city in the country in 1926, after the previous Liberal leadership failed to address a post-war housing crisis.

Responding to the housing shortage, Labour were catapulted into power off the back of a mass house-building promise. It’s significant both that the party was brought to power after promising to address the housing crisis, and that its success – building 7,888 good standard houses in its first six years in office and continuing to build great public housing works well until the 1960s – was what kept Labour in power for the next 40 years.

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Edward Carpenter in his garden at Millthorpe, Derbyshire.

Bryan Binns (Picture Sheffield)

The sound of the word ‘democracy’

It may seem an obvious point, but it bears repeating: Sheffield’s citizens have always tried to address the crises we face and our councils have been at their most successful when taking their lead from the public.

As Sheffield’s most famous queer Victorian socialist Edward Carpenter wrote, when “the politician turns round upon himself… acknowledges his brain baffled by the problems [...] reaches his hand for help to the hand of the People”, we will see “the grounds of society cracking, the fire showing through… at the sound of a new word spoken – at the sound of the word Democracy.”

Now, as they have in the past, our city’s politicians need to work with us to crack open the earth and help the new world be born. We are living in the middle of multiple intersecting crises: housing, healthcare, climate, biodiversity and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to each of these we are seeing grassroots efforts to remake the world anew.

In recent years many of Sheffield’s green spaces – from Crookes to Norton Lees to the Loxley Valley – have come under threat of development. Sheffield has a long history of protecting its green spaces, laying claim to the UK’s first green belt and the Peak District as the first National Park, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. In keeping with tradition, local people have been organising to protect their green spaces by attempting to purchase them as a community, crowdfunding to fight appeals or seeking protections like ‘village green’ status.

Alongside our city’s foodbanks, throughout the pandemic volunteers from mutual aid networks and organisations like Food Works and the Foodhall Project have organised to provide people with the material support they need.

As well as feeding thousands across the city and ensuring none were left hungry or isolated, their efforts have strengthened calls to redesign food systems to prioritise people rather than profit. The National Food Service, a campaign seeking to create a new public service to eliminate food insecurity and tackle social isolation and food waste, began in Sheffield and has since spread across the country.

The community union ACORN has been successfully organising tenants, workers and residents to build strength in our communities. They have coordinated long-standing campaigns to take back control of our buses and to tackle the scourge of landlordism.

Their campaign for Sheffield to confront the epidemic of poor housing by introducing landlord licensing and improve living standards across the city has recently borne fruit, with the Council moving towards a city-wide scheme. Their members are now calling on all Council candidates to create a fairer city.

These campaigns show that same desire that has existed throughout our city’s history, of people wanting to determine the world they live in, not waiting to be asked but actively shaping their surroundings.

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Foodhall / ID8 Photography

Towards a shared, collective future

Calls for citizens’ assemblies as spaces for people to discuss and collectively respond to the climate crisis show a way forward for politicians to, in the words of Carpenter, receive help from “the hand of the People.”

Thanks to the work of Extinction Rebellion and youth strikers Sheffield has been promised a citizens’ assembly. To ensure that it is truly representative of the people we must demand that its recommendations, if they're not binding, are at least put to city-wide referenda. Decision-making on the climate crisis, as with every other crisis, is too important to be the preserve of the few.

Whether because of our upcoming referendum, wider demands for democratic reform or ongoing campaigns for political transformation, Sheffield’s democracy is undoubtedly going to change in years to come; the referendum on 6 May will decide the beginning, not the end, of this transformation.

In a 1967 pamphlet, 40 Years of Labour Rule in Sheffield, the Labour Leader of Sheffield City Council Ron Ironmonger wrote that:

[Our system of local government] has remained unchanged for over a century, is bound to benefit from a complete overhaul. But any review must be based upon the following fundamental principles: Any change must result in an improvement of services to the community. Any change must preserve the system of democratic control.

Preserving and extending democratic control is key to our city’s future. Whatever the result of the referendum on 6 May, there is a need for participatory structures which empower people, so that each of us can play a role in reimagining our city to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

If our history is anything to go by, Sheffield’s people will continue to rise up and demand a fairer and more equal city. Any changes that can help facilitate this can only be a blessing for our collective future.

Learn more

An associated online event, Radical Roots & How To Bounce Forward: Democracy & Voting Rights, will take place on Wednesday 28 April at 6pm, featuring Minesh Parekh, It's Our City campaigner Ruth Hubbard, and Dr Joshua Forstenzer, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sheffield and Co-Director of the Centre for Engaged Philosophy.

Previously in series

Radical Roots: Work in Sheffield – Past, Present and Future

Since the Industrial Revolution Sheffield's workers have organised and collectivised on shifting terrain. The city's modern labour movement is fighting for workers in callcentres, shops and warehouses where steel mills and coal mines once stood.

More Radical Roots

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