Labour History Review

'Labour's Candidates': Chartist Challenges at the Parliamentary Polls, 1839–1860

Labour History Review (2009), 74, (1), 64–89.


Chartism is seen as the quintessential extra-parliamentary protest movement. The extent to which it took an active part in parliamentary elections has therefore been largely ignored. Chartists keenly contested the theatrical arena of the hustings but their participation in elections is generally understood to have ended there. However, on nearly forty occasions explicitly designated Chartist candidates proceeded to the polls — tagged 'Labour's Candidates' by Feargus O'Connor (Chartism's foremost leader). In addition, the National Charter Association endorsed (and sometimes supported financially) middle-class Liberal candidates — usually described as 'Duncom beites', in deference to T. S. Duncombe, the MP who more than any other represented Chartist and labour interests at Westminster. A National Central Registration and Election Committee existed (1846–52) to manage this aspect of the Chartist challenge. That Chartism took parliamentary electioneering seriously is an indicator both of the movement's political aspirations and its pursuit of a tactical alignment with middle-class reformers. Yet ironically, when O'Connor was returned to Parliament (Nottingham, 1847) his victory was totally unanticipated. Equally ironic, the election of a second designated Chartist MP (Samuel Carter at Tavistock, Devon, in 1852) has been totally overlooked by historians of Chartism, underlining the historiographical neglect of one of the core short-term political purposes of Chartism, the creation of a caucus of sympathetic MPs at Westminster who might hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament, a strategy directly borrowed from Daniel O'Connell's Irish home rule party. Samuel Carter was unseated when it was revealed he could not meet the property qualification. And O'Connor was an indifferent parliamentarian, one moreover who sat alongside Peel and Disraeli in the Commons rather than with the other 'Duncombeites'. Chartism's virtual failure as a parliamentary force highlights the contradictions of Chartist rhetoric and the limitations of its intervention in early Victorian politics.

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Author details

Chase, Malcolm