Over the course of six days this June, supporters of the cross-party political movement Make Votes Matter walked from Grasmere in the heart of the Lake District to Preston, Lancashire. The group, which campaigns for proportional representation in the House of Commons, recreated the theme and part of the route of the 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage, when supporters of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies set off from all corners of England and Wales to march on Hyde Park for a rally calling for votes for women. Chris Scaife joined the Equal Votes Walk for two days through the Lake District.
Walking as a means of putting across a political message is an age-old tradition. "There's something very intentional about walking, particularly long-distance walking" explained Jo Stocking, one of the oranisers of the Equal Votes Walk from Grasmere to Preston.
"When a group of people who feel strongly about something set off together to walk a long distance with a common purpose, then the walking itself seems to embody that intention and determination perfectly."
"There's also the historical context of all the political marches that have made up the fabric of our democracy" adds Jo "from Peterloo and Jarrow to the miners and the Greenham Common women."
I travelled to Grasmere by bus to join the group from the Make Votes Matter campaign, and soon found them gathered around a stall in the village centre. Some were dressed in 1913 garb and holding banners in the Suffragist colours – purple, green and white. There were polite and informative speeches by representatives of the group and by a local councillor. The orators told the assembled crowd about the 1913 pilgrimage, and explained the imbalance in our current first past the post voting system, under which not all votes are weighed equally. A telling example of the flaw in our democracy is the 2019 General Election, when the Conservative Party gained one MP per 38,300 votes, whereas the Green Party got just one MP per 864,743 votes.
The 1913 Great Pilgrimage was a march against an unfair system in which women had no voice. Our current voting system also makes many people feel they don't have a voice. No government since the 1930s has got into power with a majority of votes
We walked out of Grasmere, following the Coffin Route above Rydal Water. This bridleway was well suited to the purpose of putting the message across, as it allowed the group to engage with numerous other walkers. I was surprised by how many passers-by knew about the campaign already. One family we met were from London, on holiday in the Lake District, and were members of their local Make Votes Matter group. Many others who were unaware of the movement asked questions and were supportive.
I asked Jo Stocking to tell me more about the campaign.
"Make Votes Matter is the national movement for proportional representation", she explains. "They campaign for a change to the voting system for general elections and believe that the number of MPs each party gets in Parliament should more closely match the proportion of votes that party gets. Most importantly, it is a cross-party campaign. The Make Votes Matter Alliance brings together all the political parties, organisations and public figures who want proportional representation, to coordinate cross-party campaigning on this single issue."
But why the walk?
"Walking costs nothing" says Anne Margaret Smith, another of the organisers: "It's something that's available to rich and poor alike. That might help to explain why it features so much in our social history, but I think it goes back further than the history of Britain. Walking is something that is fundamental to humans, and over millennia, across the globe, we find examples of organised mass walks (protests, migrations, pilgrimages). Choosing to take part in these organised walks, or choosing not to, has always been a political choice in the broadest sense."
We walked past Wordsworth's old home at Rydal Mount, then continued on the Coffin Route into Ambleside, before following a pavement beside the A591 to Windermere. This section was perhaps not the most scenic of routes, but one of the main purposes of the walk was to be visible. There was a bizarre moment between Ambleside and Windermere, when a passing motorist wound down his window and shouted, "Come on England!" I have no idea who he thought we were: perhaps a foreign football team whose national dress is the outfits worn by 1913 Suffragists? But as my wife pointed out, proportional representation would benefit the people of England, so it's possible that was just his roundabout way of showing support.
People are impressed with the distance we are walking, and that seems to help them understand our commitment to the cause, so that they start to take it seriously too
Dressing in 1913 outfits and carrying flags and banners certainly seems to have helped to pique the curiosity of those we passed. As Anne Margaret points out, there are many parallels between today's campaign and that of the Suffragists in 1913.
"Some people have told us we are wasting our time, that we will never get anything changed because the political elite will not permit it", she says. "However, lasting social change does not come from above; it comes about when ordinary people get together, organising protests and supporting each other. The Suffragists were perhaps the best-known example of succeeding in this way, and we wanted to align our campaign with theirs."
"On the 1913 Great Pilgrimage, women and men were marching against an unfair voting system in which women had no voice", explains Jo. "Our current voting system also makes many people feel they don't have a voice. And there's a reason for that – no government since the 1930s has got into power with a majority of votes, so the majority are not represented.
"In 1913, the world was changing - other countries like Finland, Australia and New Zealand had already given women the vote, and women in the UK wanted it too. Today, over 80% of economically developed countries use a system of proportional representation. Evidence shows those countries have less income inequality, better environmental policies, more women elected to office, better standards of living – we want those things too. They're absolutely what we need in 2022! In 2022, as in 1913, our democracy does not have to be frozen in time. Changing our voting system would be the biggest improvement to our democracy since women won the vote a century ago."
We finished the first day by walking into Bowness, where organisers had been running a stall, engaging with the public and gaining support. Richard Bendall, a cave explorer whose task for the day was manning the stall, told me that quite a few of those he had spoken to had seen us walking past during the day, then looked up Make Votes Matter online to see what it was all about. So all that walking beside the road had been worthwhile.
The day itself was slightly overshadowed politically by the small matter of current prime minister Boris Johnson's no-confidence vote [if you missed that debacle, another will be along shortly - Ed.]. It was pointed out by one or two walkers that, had he lost, there would have been a party leadership contest decided by proportional representation. It was also noted afterwards that what Johnson described as a "very good", "convincing" result actually had 41.2% of his own MPs voting against him as leader, whilst in the 2019 general election the Conservative Party received just 43.6% of the votes. Under our antiquated system, that gifted them a landslide majority.
A mostly new group of people gathered by Bowness Pier on day two. There were some who were involved in all six days, but most were there to show their support with a day or even just half a day of walking. There were also others who were unable to attend, but "donated" miles via the Equal Votes Walk Strava Club, walking closer to home but adding their distance to the online mileage tracker.
It was hot and sunny as we walked through Bowness into Windermere, then beside the A591 to Staveley. The population – and number of drivers – is of course much higher now than it was in 1913, so I asked Jo if any problems had been encountered in trying to recreate the historic route.
"We knew from old map records the towns and villages that were the starting and finishing points of each day of the original Pilgrimage", she told me. "But what we didn't have was a record of the exact paths or roads that they took between those towns. We knew from old photographs that they were accompanied by horse-drawn caravans and cyclists, so it was reasonable to assume they would have travelled along what were the main roads at the time."
"That led to the second problem though - those roads are very different now. The A591 through the Lakes for example, can be a really busy road in June! We needed to plan a route that maximised the visibility of our banners and costumes, while still ensuring the safety of the walkers. Route planning for this walk was quite different to what you'd normally focus on when planning a long-distance route – we spent an awful lot of time checking out the pavements running alongside main roads!"
Organisers had set up a stall at our lunch stop in Staveley, and again had spoken to numerous curious passers-by. From Staveley, we left the road and now took a much more serene route along the Dales Way. I understand the importance of being seen, but it really did feel good to be away from the traffic. The tree cover along this part was also a blessing on such a hot, sunny day. Trees make pretty good shelter on cold, windy days too; we should have more trees.
We arrived in Kendal early on the Tuesday afternoon, where a stall had been set up beside the war memorial. Some of those who had joined the walk on Monday were back to show their support, and as was becoming customary many passers-by voiced their approval. This was the end of my pilgrimage, but the Equal Votes Walk continued for four more days, stopping in Arnside, Lancaster and Garstang before the grand finale in Preston on the Saturday.
Although I spent only two days with the group, it was obvious to me that the walk was of great benefit to the campaign. As Anne Margaret says, "This has allowed us to gauge public opinion regarding proportional representation. That has been very reassuring, since the vast majority of people we have met have demonstrated a huge desire for change in politics. We've also noticed that people are impressed with the distance we are walking, and that seems to help them understand our commitment to the cause, so that they start to take it seriously too."