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Scott Jones reviews the BBC 2 documentary Valleys Rebellion
Actor and activist Michael Sheen returned to his home town Newport in South Wales for a recent TV programme, 'Valleys Rebellion', commemorating the 175th anniversary of the 'Newport Rising'.
In this 1839 armed revolt, thousands of workers marched from the Valleys to the local seat of power in Newport to demand the vote. This was part of the Chartist movement, one of the world's first working-class movement.
Sheen also visited the Valleys towns these Chartists descended from to discuss the Chartist legacy and ask working class people what they thought of political representation now. Today Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent and Rhondda, the hotbeds of Chartism and early trade unionism, are some of Britain's most deprived, unemployed and unhealthy areas and have some of Britain's lowest voting turnouts too.
Tredegar is now home to more boarded-up shop fronts than anything else while Blaina, home of Chartist leader Zephaniah Williams, has a male unemployment rate twice the national average!
Sheen interviewed James Dean Bradfield, frontman of left-wing band the Manic Street Preachers, in Blackwood where the Chartists met, to discuss the legacy of the rising, remembered in the Manics' recent song 'Stow Hill'. He held telling interviews with Neil Kinnock and Tory MP David Davies. Davies near enough admitted that he would have been frightened by the rising so would have been egging on the soldiers who opened fire on the Chartists and killed 22 of them.
Typically Kinnock came to the defence of Chartist leader John Frost, who had no stomach for revolutionary action, constantly urged restraint and was distrusted by many workers in South Wales.
More important were Sheen's conversations with the Valleys' working class people. A local man in Rhymney was fed up with not being listened to, and said we need something like the Chartist uprising now.
A community action group in Merthyr showed that people are not apathetic but are organising themselves. They said they were making their voices heard even though politicians see them as just 'sick, thick and lazy'.
These groups and others were asked what they would like to see on a new People's Charter. Some said they would in effect like to see the right to recall of elected representatives, a key tenet of socialist democracy. A young hairdresser said politicians should be paid less, to bring them in line with the people they represent - a workers' MP on a worker's wage.
12% of the population of one Valleys town needed to use food banks in a recent nine-month period. The Chartists' descendants are clearly not apathetic but angry and prepared to organise and fight if given a lead.
The parallels between then and now are huge. Now most of Chartism's demands have been won. But having fought for pay for MPs so that not only the wealthy could afford to go to parliament, now practically all working class MPs have been absorbed by the capitalist class and its system.
On St. David's day, the actor delivered a passionate call to arms at an NHS demo in Tredegar. He pointed out the damage done to the NHS by both Labour and the Con-Dems and said no mainstream political party is willing to safeguard its future.
Also on that platform was a Caerphilly Socialist Party member, speaking for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition which truly follows in the footsteps of the Chartists and is made up of working class people like those that fought and died for the vote.
We aim to build a new force, and a real party for the workers built by the workers.
- Valleys Rebellion can be seen on BBC iPlayer until 24 March.
In The Socialist 11 March 2015:
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