This fascinating collection of essays is a timely reminder of Keir Hardie’s sheer achievement of founding the Labour party and the doggedness and courage it took. Essays emphasise his moral voice, the depth of his determination to overcome adversity, his Christian faith, and his socialism. Hardie was ‘a socialist not a statist,’ writes Melissa Benn. She concludes that Hardie, ‘found parliament an uncongenial place and the more nuanced, diplomatic or compromising aspects of parliamentary leadership, repugnant. It was generally agreed that he did not perform well as the Labour party’s first leader in parliament’.
Essayists also seek to draw lessons for today. That is harder. Dave Watson characterises Hardie’s commitment to Home Rule as, ‘socialist not nationalist’. For Jeremy Corbyn, who contributes a chapter, Hardie’s ‘real tradition … was carried on by George Lansbury.’ Their successor contrasts this with ‘the other Labour tradition of virulent anti-Communism dating back to the 1920s’.
So what would Hardie have said today? The Scottish Labour party, cofounded by him in 1888, sought the abolition of hereditary power in the House of Lords (not tackled until Tony Blair), nationalisation of minerals, land, railways, canals and tramways, free education (implemented after 1945), free school meals (hence the historic importance of the Ed Balls-Jamie Oliver campaigns) and progressive income tax. Many of these have been achieved.
Other great issues impelled Hardie including the massive unemployment that rendered millions of Britons, as Hardie put it in his maiden speech to parliament in 1893, ‘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 … This … does not refer to those usually spoken of as loafers and criminals [but] to bona fide working men who have been thrown out of employment in consequence of bad trade’. Hardie called for a minimum wage and a 48-hour maximum working week. Not for him was the primary solution more generous out-of-work benefits – though he condemned the Victorian Poor Law. The priority was to make work pay, through a minimum wage, education, and the opportunity to work.
For Hardie, those who needed benefits were essentially those too old and infirm to work – and this is why pension provision became so totemic 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’ Not for Hardie would there have been support for senior public sector managers enjoying gold-plated pensions at the expense of plumbers, truck-drivers and shopworkers who lacked access to a system of equivalent generosity. Labour today should take note.
Greg Rosen is chair of Labour History Group
What Would Keir Hardie Say?
Pauline Bryan (Ed)
Luath Press | 192pp | £9.99
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