KEIR HARDIE (1856-1915)
Born illegitimate and in poverty in 1856 and working in the coal mines from the age of ten. Yet Keir Hardie was to become the main founder of the Labour Party. An active trade unionist, he was sacked by the pit owners and became a trade union official, living in Cumnock with his wife, Lillee, where he was active in a local church.
1888-92 were vital years for him. There was no Labour Party and, like many miners, he supported the Liberal Party. In 1887, he realised that wealthy Liberal MPs would never do much for working people and that the latter needed their own working class party. Backed by miners, he stood in a by-election for Labour in Mid-Lanark with his manifesto ending with, “I ask you therefore to return to parliament a man of yourselves, who, being poor can feel for the poor.” With few resources, he was heavily defeated but acted with others of similar views to form the Scottish Labour Party. By this time he was a socialist and declared, “Socialism is not a system of economics….I am a socialist because socialism means fraternity founded on justice and the fact that in order to secure this it is necessary to transfer land and capital from private to public ownership.”
With a growing reputation as a speaker, he stood in the general election of 1892 for West Ham South. He gained a sensational victory over a Tory and, in the Commons, became known as “The MP for the unemployed.” He also had the courage to attack the rich and the monarchy. A year later, he was prominent in the formation of the Independent Labour Party.
At the next general election, he lost his seat. He continued to campaign all over the country and to edit The Labour Leader. He and his family often struggled for money but he refused bribes and mixed with wotking class much more than middle class people. In 1900, he was elected MP for Merthyr Tydfil and by 1906 Labour had 29 MPs with Hardie its first parliamentary leader. He had played a central role in winning over much of the trade union movement to support Labour. In turn, unlike most MPs, he usually gave his backing to trade union strikes.
In between all of this, he often campaigned abroad and his writings and speeches laid the foundation of India and other colonies eventually gaining independence. In South Africa, he was attacked physically for his demand that black workers be allowed to join trade unions.
He also gave early and long support to the Women’s Suffrage Movement and protested loudly in the Commons about the rough treatment handed out to them.
As a socialist and a Christian, Keir Hardie was an opponent of war and spoke out strongly against the Boer War. He foresaw the First World War, saying that Britain would fight to preserve its colonies, a rich source of trade, and that private arms dealers wanted the opportunity for enormous profit.
With war approaching, he spoke at an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square on Aug 2nd, 1914. When introduced he had to wait minutes before the cheering allowed him to speak. A day later, the Commons debated the possibility of war with Hardie stating that Britain had no quarrel with any of their likely enemies and that the war would inevitably increase the poverty of the poor. The next day, war was declared. A mass hysteria supported by most MPs and press rejoiced that Germany would be destroyed. On August 6, Hardie at a meeting in Merthyr was jeered and attacked. He walked, head upright, to the house where he was staying. Once inside, crowds called “Turn the German out”. A heart-broken Hardie stated his long remembered words that” he understood as well as any man what Christ had suffered at Gethsemane.”Early in 1915, he suffered a stroke. On 25 Feb, his last speech in the Commons had him attacking the taking of children from schools to work on farms and factories to replace men in the army. He wept at the thousands of young Scottish men being slaughtered. Following a stroke, he died in Glasgow on 26 September, 1915.
He received no tributes in parliament. But his funeral in Glasgow was followed and watched by hundreds of working class people, especially by women who valued the backing he gave to the women’s movement. Hardie left little and his funeral expenses were paid by the ILP. Many meetings were held to honour him. One in Glasgow was attended by 5,000 with many unable to get in. At this the trade union leader Mary McArthur told that, when the leader of a struggling union of telephone girls, she sought Hardie’s help in the Commons. She said, “As he was speaking to me, one of the great and mighty ones came up and began to talk to Hardie, praising something he had done. Hardie looked at him stiffly and coldly and said ‘I am engaged just now’”. That very night he went to help the women. Typically, he was offended by the mighty and welcoming to the needy.
He should also be praised for the life he led.He put principles into individual practice. He lived modestly and never used politics to enrich himself. He wanted no honours. He spent little time with social elites and always kept in touch with ordinary people. We need his like today.
In his last days, Hardie felt he had failed. Most Labour MPs supported the war. The larger pro-war Liberals and Tories seemed certain to win post-war elections. Yet by the end of the war, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, mass unemployment and continuing poverty prompted a Labour surge. By 1924, Labour had 191 MPs and formed the first Labour minority government. Much of the credit must go to Keir Hardie.
Bob Holman is a founding member of the Keir Hardie Society and the author of Keir Hardie Labour’s Greatest Hero?, Lion Hudson, 2010 which can be purchased here.