The Scottish Labour party, cofounded by Hardie in 1888, also sought the abolition of hereditary power in the House of Lords (again, not tackled until Blair), nationalisation of minerals, land, railways, canals and tramways, free education (implemented post-1945), free school meals (hence the historic importance of recent Ed Balls-Jamie Oliver campaigns) and progressive income tax. Many of these aims have been achieved, in some cases, decades ago. Were Hardie alive today, in a Britain of gas central heating and negligible coal mining, he would perhaps regard the nationalisation of minerals as less important.
Two other great issues of the 1890s impelled those who assembled in the Farringdon Memorial Hall in 1900 to create a Labour Representation Committee. The first was the lack of health and safety provision for working people in Britain, and with it the lack of support for those maimed or widowed by industrial injury. ‘The cry of the toiling millions’, Hardie called it: ‘the cry of the 1,200 miners done to death every year in the bowels of the earth simply for lack of proper legislation.’ The second issue – the consequence of the boom and bust of unfettered capitalism – was massive cyclical unemployment that rendered millions of Britons, as Hardie put it, ‘without visible means of subsistence, not because of any fault on their own part, but because our present land and industrial system denies them the opportunity of working for a living … 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 bona fide working men who have been thrown out of employment in consequence of bad trade…’ As remedies Hardie called for a minimum wage, a 48-hour maximum working week, and agricultural ‘colonies’ on vacant land. Not for Hardie was the primary solution more generous out-of-work benefits – though he condemned passionately the Victorian Poor Law then operating and would have welcomed Beveridge’s reforms in the 1940s. For Hardie and Labour’s founders, the greatest priority was to make work pay, through a minimum wage and educational opportunities, and to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to work.
For Hardie and his comrades in arms, those who needed benefits were essentially those too old and infirm to work – and this is why pension provision became such an important and totemic issue for Labour’s founders, many of whom represented trade union members in manual trades.
At Labour’s 1906 election victory rally, Hardie expounded the issue with passionate clarity: ‘there [are] pensions for the idle rich, pensions for the well-paid officials of the state, but for the men and women who toil there [are] no pensions … it [is] the business of the Labour party to find ways and means to produce the money whereby pensions could be given to their aged fathers and mothers, who had brought up families in credit and respectability …’ Not for Labour’s founders would there have been support for senior public sector managers and local authority chief executives enjoying gold-plated pensions at the expense of plumbers, electricians, engineers, truck-drivers and shopworkers who lacked access to a system of equivalent generosity. Labour leaders today should take note.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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