When I was out leafleting for the Labour Party during the general election of 2015, I was well aware that a lot of the people whose garden paths I purposefully strode up would not bother to vote. I’d put a leaflet through a letter box, the candidate beaming at any voter who cared to look, the key pledges prominently on display. How many were given a quick shufti and then immediately binned? Most of them, I suspect. We live in an age of voter disillusionment, of disengagement with politicians. It is becoming increasingly clear that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed this, whatever his supporters might have said about how he was the man to reconnect with those who had chosen to opt out of voting. When I speak to voters I still hear the same thing … that so familiar mantra … “they’re all the same”.
Choosing not to use your vote is not a new thing. James Arthur was a voter who categorically refused to vote. He owned a bookshop in Carlisle in the 1830s and 1840s and he was enfranchised under the terms of the 1832 Reform Act. He voted just once … in the election that followed the passing of the Reform Act and thereafter refused to ever vote again. Was it because he thought “they’re all the same”? Was it apathy? Was it because he had better things to do? It wasn’t any of these things, as you doubtless guessed. James Arthur had a deep interest in politics. He was the agent for the Northern Star and for the Northern Liberator in Carlisle. He printed Chartist handbills and posters. He chaired Chartist meetings. He was arrested in 1842 and spent some time in the nick. He was, in the words of his friend Joseph Broom Hanson, a ‘pure and honest patriot.’
Joseph Arthur refused to vote because he believed in manhood suffrage. Whilst the electoral system locked out working men he would not take part in it. And this continued until his death in 1877. General elections came and general elections went and James Arthur did not use his vote. He attended hustings for sure, where he’d conduct a chorus of hooting and yelling by the unenfranchised. The 1867 Reform Act, which gave the vote to working men who lived in towns, did not soften him. James Arthur was a whole hogger, a first principle Chartist: ‘A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.’ James Arthur had been forty-one years dead by the time this came about.
But this wasn’t the only principle James Arthur adhered to. He refused to buy salt because the government derived revenue from its sale. It was ‘a habit contracted in order to make the government bankrupt’. Of course, James Arthur’s efforts didn’t result in emptying the coffers of the government. He was called eccentric by some of his neighbours. Or perhaps principled is a better description.
James Arthur will feature in a forthcoming volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.