“Tell me what democracy looks like?” calls a girl draped in a high-vis jacket, no older than eight, gripping a megaphone so big it hides half her face. “This is what democracy looks like!” reply united voices of school children marching beside her. It’s Friday lunchtime, traffic has stopped, and activism is on the move. Welcome to Manchester.
The streets around St Peter’s Square are overrun by a shouting mass of young campaigners. They can’t vote but they have a voice, and they’re using it. Led by a boy on an electric scooter, the group are calling for action on climate, inadvertently shaming the city workers who watch on, have a vote, but aren’t using their voice.
A loop of nearby streets brings the group back to the square where, outside the Central Library, they gather under the shade of trees to listen to a member’s poem. Wearing an Extinction Rebellion cap James reads his poem; it’s called “The fight”.
Two centuries ago, in almost the same spot, around 60,000 peaceful protesters gathered on St Peter’s Fields to fight for parliamentary reform. Fewer than two per cent of the population had the right to vote and people wanted better representation.
Following the French Revolution, fears of riot and revolution ran high. The infantrymen and Yeomanry were sent in to disperse the anti-poverty, pro-democracy rally, killing 18 people and seriously injuring hundreds more. Today, the Peterloo Massacre is regarded as central in catalysing universal suffrage.
Manchester has always been a city unafraid to go against the norm. Its radical history “creates tradition” and “increases the legitimacy of protest”, says Matthias Reiss, an expert on social movements. Birthplace of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, backdrop to the Moss Side riots, and the first self-declared nuclear-free city in Europe, protest seems to be part of Manchester’s DNA.
Today, Manchester is having its Renaissance moment. Just as the city bore witness to 18 people who lost their lives at Peterloo, it saw 22 more in 2017. The terror attack on the MEN Arena by a suicide-bomber brought the city together and heralded the revival of the worker bee.
Based on the ‘hives of activity’ in the city’s textiles mills, the bee has been Manchester’s symbol since the 19th Century. It pops up on the litter bins and buses, in the town hall – and now in an act of mass spontaneity, permanently inked on the arms and ankles of people who walk Manchester’s streets.
Why this tattoo? For the train conductor it was “charity”, the ophthalmologist answered “association” and for the café worker, “family”. After 2017, the collective identity of the bee offered Mancunians a chance to reclaim their city.
To mark the 200th anniversary, Peterloo 2019 is hosting more than 180 events including protest music, a Peterloo picnic, and performances of eye-witness accounts. The most anticipated is the unveiling of the Peterloo memorial following a 10-year campaign for a permanent tribute.
Designed by Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller, the memorial is a series of concentric steps which will serve as a permanent speaker’s platform. Its lack of disability access provoked a backlash amongst the community, campaigners noting the memorial’s paradox; it commemorates people who died for democracy and yet by design does not offer equality. After meeting with campaigners, Manchester City Council has now asked the architect and the artist to modify the monument to make it fully accessible – campaigners are pushing for a change to be made in time for the 201st anniversary of Peterloo, next year.
Dismay with democracy and conventional politics seems to be driving people to find a voice through activism. “We’re going through a period of people trying to re-learn how to organise themselves,” says Ian Allinson, President of the Manchester Trade Unions Council.
The skills of knowing how to bring people together, who to contact and how to make campaigns public have been lost. Now that people feel left behind and are questioning what happened to representation, they are re-learning the lessons of Manchester’s working-class movement.
Over in Hulme, political artist Eva Schlunke and cartoonist Paul Fitzgerald from the Peterloo Memorial Campaign are busy organising the online poll Six Acts to Reboot Democracy. As a tribute to Peterloo, Eva says: “We’re doing a health check on the way we practise democracy – we have the vote, but is it actually working for us?” Ideas for clauses include addressing citizen participation, quality of information, and the lack of accountability of politicians.
Beyond democracy, campaigns against inequality dominate. Greater Manchester has an economy larger than Wales but suffers from a prevalence of low-paying work. In 2018, Manchester ranked 24th out of 63 in the Centre for Cities research on wages across the country. Average weekly earnings were £512, significantly below the national average of £539.
Located above the bishop of Manchester’s office is Greater Manchester Poverty Action. Through what he calls “the spirit of conversation”, Graham Whitham uses meetings and public campaigns to tackle poverty. Calls to action such as a petition “to encourage the Co-op to adopt the real living wage” are essential to the activist ecosystem.
Bound to the spirit of conversation is that of collaboration. Alongside Poverty Action, Greater Manchester Coalition for Disabled People address issues faced by disabled people after almost a decade of austerity policies. In 2013, the government introduced Universal Credit; a system designed to replace six welfare benefits, including housing and unemployment, by merging them into one payment. The aim was to improve work incentives and make the system simpler.
The conversion to monthly and direct payments caused difficulties, particularly for vulnerable claimants. The Universal Credit rollout is “punitive” in the “way it treats disabled people” says Brian Hilton, a campaigner for GMCDP. “Universal credit needs to be replaced, not tinkered round the edges.”
Manchester is home to a number of veteran protesters and one, who is rather special, is Dennis Queen. As a queer disabled grassroots activist, Dennis has been campaigning for 20 years on disability rights. Dennis fondly recalled being arrested in St Peter’s Square for blocking tram lines in protest against the impact Tory austerity policies have on disabled people. “Our entire movement’s aim is to end segregation,” whether that be in education, housing or in residential care for disabled people.
Although Manchester has visibly prospered, a 2018 report commissioned by Greater Manchester Housing Action revealed of the 15,000 new homes built in the city centre, none were classed as ‘affordable’. Add to this Manchester’s rents rising higher than any other city in the UK and it becomes clear there is an acute housing crisis.
Where there are unaffordable homes there are often good schools, widening the education gap and leaving deprived areas behind. Last year, the towns of Wigan and Rochdale had a number of underperforming secondary schools according to the Department for Education. The expansion of Manchester’s tram and light rail metrolink systems signals some investment beyond the centre, but the current lack of access to education and housing is stark. Connected or not, these pockets of north Manchester voted over 60 per cent leave in 2016, despite Manchester having the strongest remain vote across the north west.
Fighting for inclusivity and access includes helping Manchester’s refugees. A total of 10,218 asylum seekers were placed in dispersed accommodation across the north west in March 2019 with just over 64 per cent in Greater Manchester. Gulwali Passarlay, an Afghan refugee, runs youth programmes to encourage the inclusion and empowerment of refugees. “Manchester inspires me in so many ways but it makes me angry too, the injustice bothers me,” he said.
In June 2014, the then chancellor George Osborne outlined his ambition for a Northern Powerhouse, bringing cities and towns together through infrastructure investment and devolution. Having a high-profile mayor like Andy Burnham, the former Labour health secretary certainly helps Greater Manchester, but in many ways he remains powerless. Pacer trains, built in the 1980s, are still on the network, the high speed rail plan HS3 is still all talk and no trains, and weekly pay has fallen.
Next month, Manchester, a Labour stronghold, will host the Conservative party conference, with new prime minister Boris Johnson in charge and Britain only weeks away from the October 31 Brexit deadline. Politics seems paralysed in Britain, but Manchester is on the march. What should the new PM expect? “Everyone comes out shoulder to shoulder,” when the Tories come to town, says Dennis, “we are solid.”
- Tomorrow: Alan Rusbridger on Peterloo and the importance of independent journalism
Photographs by Getty Images and Gallery Oldham/Peterloo2019