Chartism’s Electoral Strategy and the Bifurcation of Radicalism, 1837–1852

Author: Tom Scriven
This is the abstract of an article published in Labour History Review (2020), 85, (2), 99–126. Find out more.

Chartism’s participation in parliamentary elections has only recently received serious attention, with a number of historians seeing it as evidence of cooperative relations between Chartism and Liberal MPs and parliamentary candidates that facilitated the electoral alliance of popular Liberalism in the 1860s.

This article argues that such a conclusion neglects the overarching strategic purpose of that electioneering, which was to ensure Chartist leadership of parliamentary Liberalism through either the promise of electoral endorsement or the threat of a divisive opposition. This schismatic strategy has been overlooked because of a lack of attention to its origins in the 1837 general election, study of which reveals that the antagonistic aspiration of forcing Radical MPs to form a new party responsive to extra-parliamentary leadership was a foundational strategy of the movement. This strategy was born of an intense disillusionment with the Liberal MPs returned in the 1835 general election, which was retained within the Chartist movement until its dissolution in 1852. This fact is crucial for understanding Chartism’s attitude towards Liberal MPs and parliamentary candidates, the movement’s electoral culture, and the manner in which its continuity with popular Liberalism is not clear-cut.