Speeches

Keir Hardie entered the House of Commons as the MP for West Ham South in 1892. He made his maiden speech on 7 February 1893.

MR. J.KEIR HARDIE (West Ham, S.)

Mr. Speaker, I rise to move as an Amendment to the Address, at end, to add— And, further, we humbly desire to express our regret that Your Majesty has not been advised when dealing with agricultural depression to refer also to the industrial depression now prevailing, and the widespread misery, due to large numbers of the working class being unable to find employment, and direct Parliament to legislate promptly and effectively in the interests of the unemployed. It is a remarkable fact that the Speech of Her Majesty should refer to one section of industrial distress and leave the other altogether unnoticed, and there are some of us who think that if the interests of the landlords were not bound up so closely with the agricultural depression, the reference even to the agricultural labourers would not have appeared in the Queen’s Speech. The proposal which I submit to the House is not one of those referred to by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Government as having “neither point nor issue,” and it is my intention to take the sense of the House upon it. The question of the unemployed is to me of such importance that I would be unfaith and untrue to every election promise I made if I did not insist on it receiving due consideration at the hands of any Government which may be in Office. As to the extent of the evil which passes under the term “the unemployed,” the monthly statement issued by the Labour Department of the Board of Trade—based on the returns made by the leading Trade Unions of the country—show that in those trades making returns 10 per cent of their members are in receipt of out-of-work pay. That means that 10 per cent of the well-to-do artizan class, who are members of their trades unions, are unable to find employment because of the depression in trade. If we take the number of industrial workers, as it is usually taken, at 13,000,000, it will be seen that this 10 per cent means 1,300,000, when applied to the workers generally; but we have to remember that behind the workers are their wives and children and others dependent upon them. Professor Marshall, who is a Member of the Royal Commission on Labour, stated inferentially the other day that 10 per cent of the population of the Country might be reckoned as the surplus population. That is to say, that for 10 per cent of the population no provision is made to enable them to earn for themselves and those dependent upon them the necessaries of life. Well, if that statement be true, it means that 4,000,000 of the inhabitants of these islands are without visible means of subsistence, not because of any fault on their part, but because our present land and industrial system denies them the opportunity of working for a living. In London alone it is estimated by those best able to form a judgment that 50,000 men are unemployed. This does not refer to those who are casually employed, and it does not refer to those usually spoken of as loafers and criminals. It refers exclusively to bonâ fide working-men who have been thrown out of employment in consequence of bad trade. We have in addition to these—and I. trust the House will admit it to be our duty to legislate even in the interest of the loafer and the criminal—we have in addition to these figures 300,000 who are classed as casual workers—as loafers and criminals—men whose earnings are intermittent and under I8s.per week. These figures, let me say again, refer to London alone. In addition to these, we have close on 400,000 whose earnings are under 21s.per week. In Liverpool the number of men unemployed who have reported themselves is 7,000; in Glasgow 15,000; in Hull 6,000; in Birmingham 5,000; in Sunderland 4,000; in Derby 2,000; in Stockton 1,500. I think, Sir, that these men have a right to look to this House for assistance in finding employment. It was stated in the House yesterday that the laws of this country permitted manufactures to be brought into the country from wherever they could he produced with the greatest cheapness. I admit that is so, and I do not object to its being so; but I submit that if the laws of this country are so framed as to throw men out of employment it is the duty of this House to enable these men to provide themselves with the means of subsistence. Can that be done? Remember that this question not only affects those out-of-work, but also those workers who are in employment. I believe all the horrors of sweating, of low wages, of long hours, and of deaths from starvation, are directly traceable to the large numbers of people who are totally unemployed or only casually employed. The worker in the workshop is fettered by the thought that outside his workshop gates there are thousands eager and willing to step into his shoes should he be dismissed in consequence of any attempt to improve his position. I therefore submit that in dealing with the problem of the unemployed we are dealing with the whole industrial problem, and those who object to long hours being limited by Act of Parliament should at least aid us in providing means for the absorption of the unemployed in order to give the workers employed a free hand in shortening the hours of labour without the aid of the Legislature. I know that the difficulty is to find a remedy for what everyone admits to be an evil of no little magnitude. Quite a number of remedies have been proposed and discussed. Amongst others, emigration long held the field; but it has been found that emigration is not a cure for the evil, that emigration sends out of the country the best part of our working-classes—the thrifty, prudent, sober and intelligent workers, the very men whom we desire to keep at home; and that we get in exchange for them the Jew, the poor degraded workers of the Continent, who come here to fill the vacuum left by our own people who leave our shores. But even emigration will not long avail as a remedy. America with all its broad acres is closing the door as rapidly as it may against the immigrant from all lands, and what is true of that land is true of many others. It may he said, however, that there is plenty of room in Canada. But in the Canadian industrial centres the unemployed problem exists as well as here, and if there is plenty of room in Canada it would be well for Canada to settle her own unemployed problem. It is also said that a turn for the better in trade will again absorb the unemployed. But I ask, is it right for this House, representing as it is supposed to do every section of the community, to coldly stand by, waiting for the return of good trade, while men, women and children are literally starving to death? Our present Poor Law system aggravates, but does not enable us to grapple with the evil, and it, is not human to expect that the men who are suffering will suffer in silence, waiting for the return of good trade. Then it has been suggested by, amongst others, the President of the Local Government Board, that the increase of municipal activity would help to relieve the distress now prevailing. I admit that it would do so; but the response to the Circular issued by the Local Government Board has not been encouraging enough to justify any high expectations being founded on this movement, and, besides, it is not fair to assume that municipal activity should be spasmodic in its operation, and should depend upon the prevalence of bad trade. We want municipal activity all the year round, and even then it will be found that there will be no lack of workers to meet any increased demand for labour. My Amendment has been objected to because it contains no specific proposal for dealing with the evil. Had it done so, it would have been objected to still more, because then I am certain that everyone who wanted to find an excuse for not voting for the Amendment would find it in the proposal it contained. I think the House will agree with me that we have a high authority in this House for not disclosing the details of our proposals until we are in a position to give effect to them, which is not quite in my power yet. I wish to say that I have no sympathy with, and no intention of supporting, any proposal for dealing with the unemployed question which means a return to Protection. I want to make that perfectly clear, in order to remove excuses behind which certain Members intend to shelter themselves when we come to vote on this Amendment. I would resist as strongly as any Member of this House any attempt to again impose Protection in any shape or form on the trade and commerce of out country. It would aggravate every social and industrial evil and divert the minds of the workers from what I believe to be the true solution of this problem. But whilst abstaining from making any specific proposal in my Amendment, I wish to enumerate one or two things which the Government might do in order to immediately relieve some of the distress now prevailing. The Government is a very large employer of labour. It has its dockyards, its arsenals, and its other departments in which large numbers of workers are employed. I have had occasion recently to go amongst the workers in several of these departments, and I heard the gravest complaints made against the system of overtime which is allowed to prevail in the Government Departments. There are two reforms which the workers in these departments demand, and which, if established, would bring credit to the Government, and be a slight step in the direction of solving the problem of the unemployed. First, there is the increase of the minimum wage for labourers to 6d.an hour; and, secondly, the enactment of a 48hours’ week for all Government employés. It may be said that the workers do not desire these reforms, and that it is not the duty of the Government to force them upon the workers. I hold in my hand a copy of a Petition addressed to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty by the workers under their con- trol, and amongst the demands made in that Petition are the following:— We pray your Lordships to abolish the system of overtime, and to allow extra time only to he worked in cases of emergency. We pray your Lordships to reduce the hours of labour to 48 per week by closing the workshops at 12 o’clock noon on Saturdays. Then, again, there is the question of keeping contracts for Government work at home. This House is under an obligation in that matter despite the answer given by the First Lord of the Treasury in reply to a question addressed to him on the Friday of last week; for by a Resolution passed in this House on the 13th February, 1891, it was declared to be the duty of the Government in all Government contracts to make provision against sweating and all necessary conditions, to prevent the abuses arising front sub-letting of work, and to ensure the payment of the wages current in each trade for competent workers. I submit to the Government that it is not consistent with the spirit of that Resolution to go to Bavaria, or anywhere else outside Great Britain, for the supplies of the Post Office. The Government have no means of ascertaining whether this Resolution has been applied on the part of the firms with whom they deal abroad. Dealing with firms at home they would know whether the terms of the Resolution were enforced; and if they were not enforced, they would know how to apply the remedy. But when they go with their work to other lands, they pass beyond the sphere of their own influence, and are powerless to carry out the spirit of the Resolution. If the Government got their supplies at house, additional employment would also be given to our own people in the production of those supplies. Then there is the case of the Post Office, where there have been many reforms, but where there is room for many more reforms in the direction of shortening the hours of labour and employing extra workers. Then there is a consensus of opinion that the time is ripe for dealing with the hours of labourers on railways, in tramways, and labourers engaged in modes of transit generally. It has been estimated by competent authorities that were the hours of railway servants reduced to eight per day employment would he found for 150,000 additional working men, and that surely is an item worthy of being taken into consideration by the Government. The Government might also establish what is known as home colonies on the idle lands about which we have heard so much discussion in this House. This is not a question of theory, for it has been tried with the most satisfactory results. I do not refer to the penal and beggar colonies established by some Continental countries; I refer to what has been tried at home. Some years ago, at Newcastle, the Board of Guardians made provision for finding employment for the paupers in the workhouse. They were the ordinary class of paupers, belonging to all trades and occupations, and to no special trade or occupation. The Guardians set them to work, first to pull down and rebuild the workhouse, which they did to the satisfaction of all concerned; and afterwards the paupers were set to making; their own clothing and everything necessary for carrying on the workhouse. A Report was made on the experiment; which stated that in every department it was found that the production was far more than the house needed. “Everything,” said the Report, “in the house is made—from an ambulance to a the plate.” The Guardians also put into cultivation 14 acres or land in their possession, with such good results that the net profit on the sale of the produce in three years was £338. If the Guardians of Newcastle could do this, is it not reasonable to suppose that every Board of Guardians in Great Britain could do the same in their own locality? There is no lack of vacant land—land capable of producing for the people who are starving; and I submit that this House, as representing the nation, should give these men who are out of work the opportunity of employing themselves through this system of home colonisation. It would prevent the fearful demoralisation which being out of work never fails to bring in its train. One of the most harrowing features connected with the problem of the unemployed is not the poverty or the hardship they have to endure, but the fearful moral degradation that follows in the train of the enforced idleness; and there is no more pitiable spectacle in this world than the man willing to work, who, day after day, vainly begs a brother of the earth, To give him leave to toil. I am anxious that the Government should have the fullest opportunity of getting to work with their legislative proposals, and I hope that one of them will include something at least being done for the unemployed, because I would again point out that this is not merely making provision for men out of work during periods of bad trade. In every season of the year, and in every condition of trade, men are unemployed. The pressure under which industry is carried on to-day necessitates that the young and the strong and the able should have preference in obtaining employment; and if the young, the strong, and the able are to have the preference, then the middle-aged and the aged are of necessity thrown out upon the streets. We are now discussing an Address of Thanks to Her Majesty for Her Speech. I want to ask the Government what have the unemployed to thank Her Majesty for in the Speech which has been submitted to the House? Their ease is overlooked and ignored; they are left out as if they did not exist. Their misery and their sufferings could not be greater, but there is no mention of them in the Queen’s Speech. I take it that this House is the mouthpiece of the nation as a whole, and that it should speak for the nation—for the unemployed equally as for the well-to-do classes. But this House will not be speaking in the name of the nation, but only in the name of a section of the nation, if something is not done, and done speedily, for those people whose sufferings are so great, and for whom I plead. I observe that a certain section of what are called the London Liberal Members have declared their intention of voting against this Amendment. They are, of course, free so to do; but I promise them a full exchange value for the vote they will give against the Amendment. I would remind the Government, too, that what lost them Huddersfield was the absence of the unemployed question from their Programme, and the absence of a candidate in sympathy with labour; and unless they desire the experience of Huddersfield to be repeated in the various constituencies where vacancies now exist, they would do well to give heed to a question which is so pressing as the one we are now engaged in discussing. I am sure that if the election addresses and election promises of gentlemen on both sides of the House were examined, it would be found that during election contests they had plenty of professions of sympathy for the unemployed. I ask of them to-day that they should translate these professions into practice. It is said that this Amendment amounts to a Vote of Want of Confidence in the Government, and that, therefore, hon. Members opposite will not vote for it. The Government that does not legislate for the unemployed does not deserve the confidence of this House; and Members representing London constituencies will take care not to go to their constituencies with these arguments on their lips. If the Queen’s Speech contained any reference to this question of anything like a satisfactory nature, I would not have raised it on the present occasion; but having raised it, I will, as I have said, take the sense of the House upon it. It may be pointed out to me that the Queen’s Speech does contain promises of many great and useful measures. That may be so; but if the Queen’s Speech did not contain an allusion to the question of Home Rule, we should have an Amendment proposed protesting against that omission. The unemployed number 4,000,000, which is nearly equal to the population of Ireland, and am I to be told that a question affecting 4,000,000 of people—affecting, not only their patriotism, or their comfort, but affecting their very lives—is of less consequence than the question of Home Rule for Ireland? And if the hon. Gentlemen who represent the cause of Nationalism in Ireland would have felt justified in risking the life of the Government on the question of Home Rule, I claim to be more than justified in taking a similar risk in the interests of the unemployed. I beg, Mr. Speaker, to move my Amendment.