In the library last week I chanced upon Bob Holman’s biography of Keir Hardie: a curious coincidence since only that morning I had read an article by Melissa Benn written to mark the occasion of the centenary of Hardie’s death (on 26 September 1915). Though I have always had an interest in the exciting political history of the quarter-century before the First World War (a period that saw the rise of militant trade unionism, the movement for women’s suffrage, the spread of socialist ideas, and the genesis of numerous left-wing organisations that ultimately forged the Labour Party), I must admit that of Hardie I knew little more than that he became the first parliamentary leader of the Labour Party.

Bob Holman, Keir Hardie: Labour's Greatest Hero?
Bob Holman, Keir Hardie: Labour’s Greatest Hero?

So I took home Bob Holman’s book (regular readers of the Guardian like me will be familiar with his name since he’s a frequent contributor to the letters page: now 77, he’s a former professor of social administration who gave up that career to become a poverty campaigner and community worker in a run-down area of Glasgow). Reading it I not only gained an insight into the life and beliefs of James Keir Hardie, but also found some lessons for today’s Labour Party.

Holman had wanted to write about Hardie ever since moving to live in his part of Scotland – Lanarkshire and Glasgow – in the 1970s. He admits that he is unable to write objectively about Hardie, being ‘a long-time admirer and one whose own beliefs and practices have been influenced by him’. Several other biographies of Hardie have been written over the years (one by Caroline Benn, mother of Melissa who wrote that Guardian piece), but one thing that distinguishes Bob Holman’s contribution is the stress which he places on Hardie’s Christian socialism.

Holman argues that this aspect of Hardie has been underplayed by previous biographers, probably for political reasons. Yet, he insists, it is crucial to understanding his development, what motivated him, and also explains his break with Liberalism. Hardie’s Christianity was very much that of the sermon on the mount – fiercely egalitarian and not afraid to quarrel with church leaders who justified profit or turned a blind eye to the exploitation of workers. In 1910 he said:

The impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.

As a young man, Hardie was drawn to the temperance movement (which, as Holman points out, was not at the time the marginal or narrow-minded movement we might imagine it to be; with widespread support among sections of the working class, it ran non-alcoholic pubs and hotels, as well as social and leisure activities), and it was through the temperance movement that Hardie was drawn as a young miner (secretary of the district branch of the union) to evangelical Christianity. This was in contrast to his atheist parents who were influenced by the secular freethinker Charles Bradlaugh. Holman quotes a scrap of an entry in Hardie’s diary for 1878: ‘Brought up an atheist – converted to Christianity in 1878’.

Hardie was born into grinding poverty in a one-bedroom cottage in North Lanarkshire. He was first set to work as a message runner for a shipping company at the age of seven (the title of Holman’s opening chapter is ‘Never a Child’). By the time he was ten he was working as a trapper in the coal mines (operating the trap door that let air into the mine shaft). By twelve he had been promoted to leading and caring for the pit ponies underground. That same year he was involved in a pit accident that only narrowly avoided fatally trapping Hardie and the rest of the miners on his shift underground.

He worked a 12 hour day, six days a week – plus four hours on Sunday. Yet at the same time he taught himself to read and write, for a while attending a night school in the village where no light was provided so pupils had bring their own candles. By his mid-teens, Hardie was a fully-fledged coal hewer and cutter. By his early twenties, he educated himself and had read more widely than most miners, was a member of the temperance movement, had an interest in politics, and was a trade union official.

Keir Hardie at home
Hardie at home

Holman identifies the steps which led Hardie towards socialism: his illegitimacy, the impact of the poverty, terrible housing, sickness and unemployment that he witnessed every day of his life, and his involvement in the temperance movement which gave working class people the opportunity to develop the skills of debating, campaigning, organizing and speaking. His activities as a trade unionist, union official, radical Liberal journalist and committed Christian also shaped his political outlook.

Hardie soon became an inspirational public speaker and a trusted spokesman for his mining colleagues in disputes with management. The mine owners, on the other hand, saw him as an agitator and blacklisted him. Unable to work in the mines, Hardie was appointed as a full-time official for the miners’ union in Lanarkshire, organising a big strike in 1879, and eventually becoming president of the Scottish miners’ union.

At the same time, Hardie embraced a role as a journalist – one that he would maintain throughout his life. He went on to found two newspapers, The Miner and the Labour Leader, which he edited, helped finance and for which he wrote many of the articles.

Holman traces how Hardie’s socialism steadily led him towards his break with the radical Liberalism which was at the time dominant in working class politics. In the late 19th century, as the franchise was gradually extended to working class men, though not all workers supported the Liberal Party (many, especially in the textile districts of Lancashire, voting Tory), many were increasingly voted for ‘Lib-Lab’ candidates, a handful of whom were working-class men.

Although he started out a supporter of the Lib-Lab strategy – seeing it, as most trade unionists did in the 1880s, as the best way to achieve reform and get some working class representation in parliament – Hardie soon became disillusioned by the Liberal party’s slow progress on reform and consistent backing of mine owners and business interests. At a time when few regarded the establishment of an independent workers’ party as a practical possibility, he decided to run for parliament as an independent Labour candidate in a by-election in the Mid-Lanark constituency.

Hardie election poster
A Keir Hardie election poster

He finished bottom of the poll, but undaunted, in 1892 he tried again – this time in West Ham South in the east end of London. In his election address he announced he was standing as a Labour and Home Rule candidate, and that he favoured nationalization of the land, mines, banks, railways, docks, waterways and tramways.

All my life I have given an independent support to the Liberal Party, but my first concern is the moral and material well-being of the working classes, and, if returned, I will in every case place the claims of labour above those of party.

Hardie won convincingly, having forged a successful alliance of trade unions, radicals and socialists. He caused outrage when he entered the Commons dressed in a cap, tweed suit and red tie, refusing to conform to the dress code of black frock coat, starched wing collars and black top hat.

When he stood as a Labour candidate in the Mid-Lanark by-election, Hardie was not a member of a Labour Party – because no such party existed.  But, as Holman describes, following his defeat in that election, Hardie set about creating one – in Scotland at least. At a meeting of the new Scottish Trade Union Congress in 1888, he gave a speech on the need for labour representation through an independent party. Congress then voted in favour of establishing an independent Scottish Labour Party.

This was something I didn’t know: that the Labour Party was first established in Scotland. Which makes its almost complete parliamentary extinction there in the last election particularly dramatic.

Meanwhile, south of the border – with Keir Hardie elected in West Ham –  Labour had an MP, though still no party. The movement had a paper, too – the Labour Leader, owned by Hardie, who appointed the staff, raised donations from friendly trade unions and Christian socialist friends, and who wrote most of the articles. He had a fight on, since many of the bigger unions (including the Miners) were still firmly in support of representation via the Liberal Party.

But things were about to change – and this time the impetus came from Bradford where Labour clubs had begun to spring up over the city. Consequently, Bradford was chosen to host the national conference in January 1893 which formed the first national Labour party – the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Hardie chaired the conference attended by over 120 working class delegates. Like Hardie – and in contrast to some on the left, notably the Marxist Social Democratic Federation whose members included William Morris, George Lansbury and Eleanor Marx – the conference wanted the new party to be broad-based. Notably, it was the first political party to admit women members on the same terms as men.

Keir Hardie addresses a tailors' rally in Hyde Park
Hardie addresses a tailors’ union rally in Hyde Park

Although Hardie wasn’t the only working class MP, he was an isolated figure for the five years in which he represented West Ham, not only in respect of his dress. At the time MPs were unpaid, but he refused virtually all offers of money since most came with strings attached (such as money offered by the Liberals if he would become a tame Lib-Lab MP). He spoke fearlessly in support of workers striking for better pay, and in favour of measures to tackle unemployment and poverty. Most shockingly, he was not afraid to attack the royal family, opposing a Commons vote to congratulate the Duchess of York who had given birth to a son on the same day that 250 men and boys were killed in a mining disaster in South Wales.

Keir Hardie with his wife Lillie in 1908
Keir Hardie with his wife Lillie in 1908

By 1900 Keir Hardie was a well-known figure on the left, though less because of the short time he had served as an MP and more due to his reputation as an activist outside Parliament, travelling the country supporting strikes and campaigns for working class betterment. That year, however, things changed, both for Hardie and for the Labour movement.

In the general election in October, Hardie became the MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare. In February, Hardie had been instrumental in bringing together the TUC, the ILP and various other left groups to form the Labour Representation Committee – dedicated to establishing ‘a distinct Labour group in Parliament’. It was as a member of this group, the forerunner of the Labour Party, that Hardie took his seat. In 1906 the name of the group was changed to the Labour Party, with Keir Hardie as its first leader until he resigned the position in 1908.

Keir Hardie election address 1906
Keir Hardie election address 1906

In the 1906 general election, after a decade in opposition, the Liberals were returned to office on a manifesto that was clearly response to the emergence of the Labour Party and intended to retain the Liberals’ own working-class support. It included measures to tackle unemployment, poverty and ill health, and the introduction of old age pensions.

But these were a highly diluted version of the changes which Hardie saw as vital for the lives of working class people, while the fact that the Liberals would never contemplate supporting workers in industrial disputes further distanced him from the government. He was deeply critical of the political timidity of other Labour Party MPs in this period, depressed by how the party ‘hung from the coat-tails of the Liberals.’

I grow weary of apologising for the state of things for which I am not responsible… There are times when I confess to feeling sore at seeing the fruits of our toil being garnered by men who never were of us, and even now would trick us out.

Keir Hardie addresses a suffragettes’ meeting 1906
Keir Hardie addresses a suffragettes’ meeting in 1906

So, whenever the opportunity arose, Hardie would abandon Westminster to support strikes and campaigns. He had long backed suffrage for women, and condemned the low wages of female workers. He was a firm friend and ally of the Pankhursts, and was the only Labour MP to support the WSPU.

The Citizenship of Women A plea for Woman's Suffrage', by Keir Hardie MP, 1905
The Citizenship of Women: A plea for Woman’s Suffrage by Keir Hardie MP, 1905

Hardie was an internationalist who rejected militarism and imperial policy in the colonies. He opposed the Boer War and, in 1914, argued that war in Europe would not serve the interests of the working class, attempting to persuade the Second International to organise a general strike across Europe to prevent war. He was a staunch supporter of Irish home rule, opposed racism and segregation in India and South Africa, and caused outrage by suggesting that India should be governed by Indians.

The way in which Hardie refused to be confined to party manoeuvrings at Westminster is perhaps the most striking aspect of the man brought out in Holman’s biography. Although he was no Marxist, in the troubled years before the First World War, as a wave of strikes spread through the country, he always saw things in terms of irreconcilable class interests. During the national transport strike of 1911, after the Liberal government had sent troops into Liverpool and the South Wales coalfield, and ordered gunboats into the Mersey, he said these actions had shown the Liberal government in its true colours:

So long as it is a question of Insurance Bills that are being discussed the government is sweetness itself towards Labour and man are deceived. The moment Capital and Labour come into conflict … then the true affinity of the Liberal government is revealed.

Keir Hardie
Keir Hardie

Keir Hardie died in September 1915, just as British, French and German soldiers were dying in their tens of thousands in the Allied autumn offensive on the Western Front in increasingly futile trench battles. Sylvia Pankhurst later wrote that Hardie died from the trauma of the war, ‘martyred by perpetual consciousness of that carnage’, while George Bernard Shaw, in a tribute written for the Merthyr Pioneer, wrote that Hardie had been deserted by Labour colleagues and abused by government ministers:

I really could not see what Hardie could do but die. Everything that honest and humane men wish to defeat, discredit and destroy in Germany, Hardie wished to defeat, discredit and destroy there; and he proved his sincerity by spending his life trying to defeat, discredit and destroy here also.

Hardie died almost penniless; the ILP paid for his funeral. He may have died a man defeated by the nationalistic response of European workers to the war, yet in his lifetime he had achieved much, helping to build the Labour Party, based on the trade unions and socialist groups, as a powerful movement and growing presence in Parliament. He had held firm throughout his life to a belief in socialism that was based on ethical principles that led him to resist injustice and exploitation. He championed causes such as women’s suffrage, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and anti-militarism that put him on a collision course with the received wisdom of the day, even within the Labour movement.

Keir Hardie photographed by John Furley Lewis in 1902 (National Portrait Gallery)
Keir Hardie photographed by John Furley Lewis in 1902 (National Portrait Gallery)

So does Keir Hardie’s life offer a message for today? I thought it might. Although he was committed to pursuing the parliamentary road to  socialism, eschewing both the revolutionary Marxism and syndicalism, he realised that a party is not likely to be successful in galvanising opinion behind vague promises of being a bit nicer than the other lot. In his day that meant the Liberals, today it might be the ‘realists’ in the Labour Party who suggest that because the Conservatives won the last election and UKIP strengthened their position, the party should tack towards their positions.

Reading Bob Holman’s biography, I got a sense of Hardie being a realist – but one who recognised that realism should always be grounded upon clear principles and an abiding purpose. The principles of Hardie the socialist rested upon a fundamentally different conception of the human condition from that of neo-liberalism, or about about the need for the party to broaden its appeal to win the support of ‘aspirational’ voters.  Indeed, although Hardie would almost certainly understood the aspiration to get a better life and improve oneself, I don’t think Hardie the socialist and Christian would have equated aspiration with the acquisitiveness and ownership of consumerism.

Following the defeat of the first Labour government in 1931, RH Tawney, a fellow member of the ILP in Hardie’s time, wrote a powerful essay ‘The Choice before the Labour Party’ in which he argued that what was wrong with Labour was not ‘a failing in organisation or a weakness in programme’ but ‘its lack of creed’:

The gravest weakness of British Labour is . . . its lack of creed. The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants. There is a void in the mind of the Labour Party which leads us into intellectual timidity, conservatism, conventionality, which keeps policy trailing tardily in the rear of realities.

Since it had spent so much effort aping capitalism, Tawney asserted, too little had been done to persuade ordinary citizens of the benefits of socialism. Tawney’s lesson was an anti-fatalist one, based on the confidence that society and attitudes can be changed:

The fundamental question, as always, is: who is to be master? Is the reality behind the decorous drapery of political democracy to continue to be the economic power wielded by a few hundred thousand – bankers, industrialists and landowners? Or shall a serious effort be made – as serious, for example, as was made, for other purposes, during the war – to create organs through which the nation can control, in co-operation with other nations, its economic destinies; plan its business as it deems conducive to the general well-being; override, for the sake of economic efficiency, the obstruction of vested interests; and distribute the products of its labours in accordance with some generally recognised principles of justice? Capitalist parties presumably accept the first alternative. A socialist party chooses the second. The nature of the business is determined by its choice.

Has this anything to do with the Labour leadership election, the result of which will be announced this coming Saturday? Possibly.

It seems that most of Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues (along with the Tory press) are expecting that, if elected, he will be a failure as leader of the Labour Party. But, as Melissa Benn argues, there are many ways to fail:

A strong believer in representative democracy, Hardie nonetheless loathed the deal-making and elitism of parliament itself and was widely acknowledged as a poor leader of the party in the Commons for the very short period he undertook the job from 1906 to 1907. But then his near-contemporary, Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first prime minister, was a brilliant tactician who ultimately fell under the seductive spell of the rich and powerful and entered into a disastrous national government in 1931. When it comes to exercising power, it seems there are many ways to fail.

See also

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