September 2010, Week 3


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Sun, 19 Sep 2010 22:23:30 -0400
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Methodism, Marxism and Miners Forging a 
Working-Class Party
by Glyn Ford
Tribune Magazine
August 9th, 2010

Keir Hardie: Labour's Greatest Hero?
by Bob Holman
Lion, £10.99

James Keir Hardie was central to the founding of the
Labour Party. Born in 1856, the illegitimate son of a
miner and a farm servant, he was brought up an atheist
by a kindly stepfather (save when he was with drink when
the boy was called a "bastard".) He started work at
eight and, by ten, was the family breadwinner with his
stepfather unable to work following an industrial
accident. Sacked by the local baker for lateness, when
his younger brother was ill and his mother in the late
stages of pregnancy, he was forced down the mines where
he stayed until, in 1878, he became secretary of the
Hamilton District Branch of the Lanarkshire Miners

Class war had been declared - by the employers - and
almost immediately the family was collectively punished
for his trade union activities, with he and his two
younger brothers first dismissed and then blacklisted.
It was then that Keir Hardie became a Christian and a
journalist. As a Christian he was close to the
Evangelical Union, a breakaway sect of the
Congregational Church that believed God loved all men
and hated the "demon drink", while as a journalist his
copy was radical Liberal, attacking the consequences of
Lib-Lab MPs such as Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald
being elected under the sufferance of the Liberal Party
and, therefore, forced to toe their line - where labour
was subservient to capital and government left well

It was the consequences of this and the hypocrisy of
church-going charity-giving wealthy Christians devoted
to the Lord's Day Observance Society but making their
own workers slave seven days a week for a pittance that
meant he became, in 1887, a socialist. His brand,
despite an early acquaintance with Frederick Engels and
Eleanor Marx, was in the moral not physical force
tradition; not that he was against some healthy

But for Hardie it was the long march of the
parliamentary road to socialism - unencumbered by
clinging Liberals. He started to proselytise his message
around Britain to workers and trade unionists. As a
result, he was elected MP for West Ham in 1892 and, in
1893, helped with the trade unions to formally establish
the Independent Labour Party and then, in 1900, the
Labour Representation Committee, allowing affiliation by
socialist societies, trade unions and labour churches.

The next election saw Hardie lose his seat as the ILP
fared badly, but the crowing obituaries of the enemies
of both the man and the party he represented were
premature. At the 1906 election Labour won 29 out of the
50 seats it contested and Hardie was back as the member
for Merthyr. And within 40 years Labour would form a
majority government. Hardie himself died in 1915,
harried and hounded by press and public for his fierce
opposition to Britain's latest imperialist war.

His anti-war stance was a reflection of both his
religion and his politics. He was in favour of the
nationalisation of major industries, the regulation of
smaller ones, provision of social security in the form
of sickness and injury benefit and the payment of old
age pensions. A supporter of women's rights and the
militant Women's Political and Social Union - he was
rumoured to have had an affair with Sylvia Pankhurst -
better and equal treatment in the colonies, and animal
welfare, he opposed deployment of the army by government
on the side of the employers in industrial disputes as
class war and was also a staunch republican, as early as
1893 trying to move a motion deploring the House's
congratulations on the Duke of York's marriage.

All of which would not make him such an obvious recruit
to what the party he founded has become, although he
might have lived with that. But I suspect what would
shock him most is the class nature of the leadership.
Because, for him, "at heart the Labour Party was to be a
working-class party". Our greatest hero? I would answer
Bob Holman's question in the affirmative.


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