Keir Hardie died 101 years ago today. A Socialist he cared about elections, for he was the first elected Labour MP.
When James Keir Hardie died on 26 September 1915 he was reviled by much of the political establishment but the past 100 years have seen his reputation grow as the man who broke the mould of British politics.
He was the first working class socialist MP and the first leader of the Labour Party in the UK parliament yet when he passed away not one word of tribute was paid to him in the House of Commons. No representatives from any other political party appear to have attended his funeral in Glasgow. Newspaper tributes were hostile and unforgiving, with one saying he was one of the most hated men of his time. Keir Hardie died virtually penniless and a public appeal had to be launched to help his family.
However, by 1956 a statue of him was placed in the House of Commons. At the time, Clement Attlee, the post-war Labour prime minister, said: “Mr Speaker, I think this is the first time that a bust has been placed in the House of Commons of a member of the working class. Hardie was not only born of the working class, he remained of the working class.” Atlee added: “Few members of parliament had a greater effect upon the House of Commons than Keir Hardie. Before the end of the 19th Century parliament consumed itself very little with the life of the common people of our country. The turning point came at the end of that century and Hardie symbolised that change.”
The Labour Party was founded to elect Parliamentary Candidates on 27 February 1900 at Caroone House, 8 Farringdon Street, London.
“After a debate, the 129 delegates passed Hardie’s motion to establish “a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour.” This created an association called the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), meant to coordinate attempts to support MPs sponsored by trade unions and represent the working-class population.”
The driving force in bringing existing left wing and Trade Union groups together was Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party. Born into poverty despite his father being a hard working carpenter, sacked from his job as a 10 year old for being late while looking after his dying brother and trapped in a mine accident whilst still in his teens. Hardie was a Union and Temperance organiser and lifelong pacifist. We know where our values come from.
Hardie’s life began in great poverty. He was born illegitimate on 15 August 1856, near Newhouse in Lanarkshire, the son of Mary Keir, a domestic servant, and William Aitken, a miner who wanted nothing to do with him. Soon Mary Keir married David Hardie, a ship’s carpenter, and James Keir took his stepfather’s name and became James Keir Hardie.
he family had to move from place to place as his stepfather failed to find regular employment and their poverty forced young Hardie out to work at the age of eight – first as a message boy, then at a bakery, then heating rivets in a shipyard where the boy next to him fell off a scaffold and was killed. In desperation, his father returned to work at sea. His mother moved back to Lanarkshire and at the age of 10, Hardie went down the mines where he worked as a “trapper”, operating the ventilation doors deep underground. “I am of the unfortunate class who never knew what it was to be a child,” Hardie wrote. “For several years as a child I rarely saw daylight during the winter months. Down the pit by six in the morning and not leaving it again until half past five meant not seeing the sun.”
Hardie had no formal schooling but his mother spent evenings patiently teaching him to read and write. And because of his stepfather’s drinking, his mother steered the young Hardie towards the temperance movement. In his teenage years he was a member of the evangelical union in Hamilton, an organisation with strong links to the temperance movement. His preaching helped him learn the art of public speaking and the mine workers of the area soon co-opted him to speak for their grievances. “He described himself as an agitator,” says Melissa Benn, writer and honorary president of the Keir Hardie Society.
His agitating got him banned by mine owners from working in the pits in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire but instead he turned his attentions to organising the miners in a trade union. He led a bitter strike in Lanarkshire which failed, but then accepted a call to relocate to Cumnock in Ayrshire to organise miners there. Hardie had been a supporter of the Liberal Party but when in 1887 a miners’ strike in Lanarkshire was broken because the iron companies imported the police into the coal field he decided radical action was needed.
Warwick University lecturer Fred Reid says Hardie was “absolutely furious” and realised the Liberal Party was not going to deliver fundamental social change. In a series of editorials in the Miner, a magazine that Hardie set up, he declared his new vision. Reid says: “Hardie says we need a Labour Party, pure and simple. He says in the same editorial it should have two aims. The first is it should aim to replace the historic Liberal Party and the second thing is he lays down a programme for this new party. It includes the legal minimum wage and the legal eight-hour day and it includes the nationalisation of the mines, minerals and railways.”
He tried to get elected to parliament in a Scottish seat but instead he finally succeeded in becoming an MP in West Ham in London in 1892. He became known as the member for the unemployed and helped create the Independent Labour Party in 1893. Keir Hardie caused consternation by entering parliament in a “cloth cap” at a time where everyone else wore a top hat.
A year later he became even more controversial when, after a mining disaster in Wales, he tried to amend the statement following the birth of the prince who would become Edward VIII with a message of condolence to miners families. No-one would second his motion and the speech made him deeply unpopular and may have contributed to him losing his seat in West Ham in 1895.
In the October 1900 “Khaki election” which came too soon for the new party to campaign effectively only 15 candidatures were sponsored, but two were successful; Keir Hardie in Merthyr Tydfil and Richard Bell in Derby. Hardie became increasingly disgusted by the behaviour of fellow MPs. He wrote: “More and more the House of Commons tends to become a putrid mass of corruption, a quagmire of sordid madness, a conglomeration of mercenary spiritless hacks dead alike to honour and self-respect.” So determined was Hardie to deliver a Labour Party in parliament that in 1904, he and Ramsay Macdonald, the future Labour prime minister, made a secret electoral pact with the Liberal Party and, as a result, 29 Labour MPs were elected in 1906.
“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”
This history of the Labour Party celebrates it achievements at the head of the Labour and Co-operative movements from its emergence in 1900 as a parliamentary pressure group. It has changed the way Britain feels about itself as a Nation with the establishment of the National Health Service, the enshrining in law of equality of opportunity for all and the creation and maintenance of an empowering welfare state – all Labour achievements.
Equally important has been the development of Labour as a mass membership party in the 1920s and 1930s, the modernisation of its campaigning techniques in the 1980s and the election of 101 Labour women MPs in 1997. However, the lessons to be drawn from history are not all positive. Labour was in government for just 23 of its first 100 years. On occasions they been the victim of division and disunity which, as we all know, has cost them dearly in electoral terms. It has allowed the Tories to win and undermine their achievements.
Labour’s history is one to be proud of. Since its formation, The Labour Party has grown from nothing into a formidable political organisation and one which has achieved major social and political reforms during the 20th century. The agenda for the future is to ensure that Labour values become rooted in British culture so it can achieve lasting social, economic and political change in Britain.
Labour is still a progressive force which has shaped the UK political landscape. Where would people in this country be without Labour, its achievements for ordinary working people and the balance it gives? You can criticise (and there is much material) but there is no realistic alternative to electing an alternative to the ConDems than Labour – everything else is purist wishful thinking. There are still many Labour members with fire in their belly to change society for the better – we can only make decisions about the future.
“Each class would have preached the importance of those virtues, for whose exercise there was no necessity in their own lives. The rich would have spoken on the value of thrift, and the idle grown eloquent over the dignity of labour.”
Oscar Wilde “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
The Labour Party is still there, warts and all, to represent the values of people who earn their living through their honest labour. It is still informed by the values of the Trade Union members, Co-Operators and reformers who fought to make Britain, the sixth richest economy in the world, a land of opportunity and mobility for all its people, not just for the few. It is still informed by the spirit of James Keir Hardie.
James Keir Hardie (15 August 1856 – 26 September 1915) Scottish Georgist, socialist, and Labour Party leader. First independent Labour Member of Parliament elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
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