Unite general secretary Len McCluskey will tonight be calling for the story of Peterloo to be taught in schools, in a speech at a special pre-screening of a new Mike Leigh film that dramatises the historical event, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured at a peaceful pro-democracy rally in 1819.
Introducing the film Peterloo which is being shown as part of the London Labour Festival at the Regent Street Cinema, McCluskey tonight (October 31) will praise the director Mike Leigh for bringing on to the “big screen one of the most important moments in the history of our democracy”.
“We often say in the labour movement that it is down to us to tell our stories,” he will say. “Power and privilege prefer not to be reminded of when they have been found wanting, have acted to repress and impoverish. They don’t want to be held to account.
“With this film they are, at long last, and deservedly, brought to book.”
Peterloo, which is out for general release on November 2, retells the events leading up to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when some 60,000 people from Manchester and surrounding areas gathered in St. Peter’s Fields to demand Parliamentary reform and the extension of the voting franchise.
An armed government militia attempted to arrest the leader of the people’s protest and disperse the crowds – in the process about 18 protestors were killed and up to 700 more were injured. The massacre precipitated further government crackdowns on reform but widespread public criticism of government violence led to growing unrest and the founding of the Manchester Guardian. The Massacre also played a crucial role in the later passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which historians consider the starting point of modern British democracy.
McCluskey will say that “Peterloo was the moment when we the people began the journey – a journey we seem destined to stay on – to representation and respect.
“But Peterloo has been erased, it seems, from our popular education.
“The history of these isles is not just that of the kings and queens,” McCluskey will note. “Peterloo must be taught to our children, and to their children. Our future generations must truly know our history.”
McCluskey will credit the Peterloo Massacre for being the precursor “to the early trade unions we recognise today as our forefathers”.
“Peterloo set us down a determined road to political representation. And it shone a light on the dark poverty that enchained our people while an elite wallowed in ever greater wealth.”
McCluskey will call the working class the protagonist of the film.
“Records of the time note how organised, collaborative and eloquent the leadership was, much to the shock and annoyance of the rich who had expected them to behave as a slovenly mob,” he will say.
“They had not reckoned with Henry Hunt and his followers, determined to make the case for justice with clarity of argument and dignity in action.
“Yet again our class was misunderstood and badly under-estimated. The blame for what unfolded lies firmly at the feet of the prejudiced and ignorant few.
McCluskey will urge those attending to “never forget – there is power in our protest.”
Find out more about the film Peterloo here.