On the night of May 14 1649, at the height of the English revolution, Cromwell's troops overpowered a group of 400 Levellers in a surprise attack at Burford, Oxfordshire. What took then took place, argues Gawain Little established principles we are still trying to get to grips with in the modern Labour Movement.

A number escaped, including their leader Captain Thompson, but the rest were imprisoned in Burford church and eventually three were shot for mutiny.

This put an end to what was one of a number of Leveller uprisings which took place that year.

Others were stamped out in a similar manner, the civilian leaders of the Levellers were arrested and the Leveller movement ceased to pose a serious threat to Cromwell's rule.

Just two years earlier, in 1647, the Levellers had been at the height of their strength.

The movement had developed within Cromwell's New Model Army - England's first professional force - comprised of volunteers and with an openly political ethos.

Inspired by the parliamentary cause and by the ideas of John Lilburne, Richard Overton and other radical pamphleteers, and faced with the reality of pay arrears and unacceptable orders from Parliament, they quickly became radicalised and organised.

Their demands, set out in a manifesto called the Agreement of the People, included universal male suffrage, the frequent recall of Parliament, abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and the equality of all under the law.

These demands increasingly put the Levellers at odds with Parliament and its senior officers.

However, in the midst of the civil war, Cromwell could not afford rebellion in the ranks of the parliamentary army and the Levellers made some progress.

"Agitators" were elected by the soldiers in each regiment to represent their views to senior officers and an army council was set up to discuss the Leveller demands.

These discussions, known as the Putney Debates, essentially hinged on whether the franchise should be extended to all men or, as spokesmen for Cromwell and the other senior officers argued, restricted to those with property.

Almost 200 years before the birth of Chartism, the demand for universal suffrage - or at least universal male suffrage - had been raised.

But the Levellers' demands were not limited to the political sphere.

They understood only too well that democracy was meaningless if it did not extend into the economic sphere.

They began to call for an end to tithes and for land redistribution.

These demands in particular posed a serious threat to Parliament, dominated as it was by wealthy landowners.

Over 350 years have passed since the Levellers made their stand, but many of the issues they struggled with are just as relevant today.

While universal suffrage has been achieved, Parliament and the political process is still dominated by the wealthy, as the current government shows only too clearly.

The monarchy was of course restored, albeit in "constitutional" form and the House of Lords still ensures that privilege and heredity are directly represented in the governing of the country.

The most striking thing, however, is the extent to which the separation between politics and the economy has been maintained.

Few of our hard-won democratic rights extend into our working lives.

Trade unions, as the democratic voice of working people, are shackled by the anti-trade union laws which prevent them from adequately defending their members rights by imposing arbitrary legal restrictions on their actions.

The right to strike is increasingly under attack from the courts with legitimate strike action effectively being declared illegal in many cases.

And most importantly of all, working people have no democratic control over the economy on either a national or local basis.

But we can take inspiration from looking back to the struggles of the Levellers.

While the uprisings of 1649 were essentially the end of the Levellers' campaign, much of what they fought for has been achieved by others following in their footsteps.

While the Levellers' struggle was not successful in their own time, there are a number of lessons we can learn from their example.

Chief among these is the fact that their movement was about much more than simply democracy in the abstract.

It directly became a question about power - who exercised it and in whose interests.

These are questions which our movement will have to tackle if we want to go beyond defeating the current round of cuts and build a secure and sustainable future for all.

Gawain Little is president of Oxford & District TUC (www.odtuc.org.uk).