Keir Hardie, socialist pioneer

Thursday 29 September 2011, 14:46

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

On 2 October 1900 James Keir Hardie became the socialist MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare.

At that time the Labour Party did not exist, but earlier in the year Hardie had been instrumental in forming the Labour Representation Committee. It was as a member of this group, the forerunner of the Labour Party, that Hardie took his seat in parliament.

Keir Hardy

Keir Hardy

James Keir Hardie was born in Holytown near Motherwell in Scotland on 15 August 1856. He was the illegitimate son of a domestic servant and a ship's carpenter who, in order to be close to his family, gave up the sea and attempted to earn his living in the shipyards along the Clyde.

Hardie had no formal education, the family's finances being so parlous that he was forced to take his first job - as messenger boy for the Anchor Line Shipping Company - when he was just seven years old. His parents taught him to read and write in the evenings and, in due course, the young Keir Hardie moved on to work in the coal mines of the area.

He was a devout evangelical Christian and supporter of temperance. Hardie became skilled at public oratory and soon his colleagues in the mines were looking on him as a spokesman in their disputes with management. The mine owners, on the other hand, saw him as an agitator and duly blacklisted him. Unable to work in the mines, Hardie quickly moved on to working for the miners' union.

In 1879 he was a delegate to the National Miners Conference in Glasgow and then became a miners agent. He was active in all the many strikes that took place in the closing years of the 19th century and he and his wife, Lillie Wilson, a fellow evangelical and temperance campaigner, actually ran a soup kitchen out of their own house.

Originally a Liberal, Hardie soon became disillusioned by the party's slow progress on reform and help for the working man. He decided to run for parliament as an independent for a Midlands constituency but finished last in the poll. Undaunted, he soon tried again. This time the scene of political battle was to be West Ham South in the east end of London.

Standing in a by-election where the Liberals decided not to field a candidate, in 1892 Keir Hardie was elected as an Independent Labour candidate for West Ham, defeating his Conservative opponent by 1,000 votes. In 1893 he formed the Independent Labour Party and, as its leader, spent the next two years agitating for better conditions for working people.

In 1894, after a colliery explosion at Pontypridd killed 251 miners, he asked that a message of condolence for the families of the dead should be added to the congratulations being sent by parliament to the crown on the birth of the future king, Edward VIII. When this request was refused Hardie stood up and delivered a vitriolic attack on the monarchy. The house was in uproar.

Keir Hardie lost his seat in the 1895 election and duly spent the next five years laying the foundations of the future Labour Party. He was a fervent supporter of female emancipation, a friend of the Pankhursts and was actually arrested during one Suffragette meeting. He was never prosecuted, however, as the government was too concerned about the effect on the public should the leader of the Independent Labour Party end up in jail!

Hardie returned to parliament in 1900, the first MP of the Labour Representation Party. In 1906 the name of the group was changed to the Labour Party, with Keir Hardie as its first leader. He resigned this position in 1908, being replaced by Arthur Henderson, but continued to serve as MP for Merthyr and Aberdare.

He continued to battle for the oppressed and under-privileged all his life, and was a staunch supporter on home rule for India and of bringing to an end all forms of segregation in South Africa. When World War One broke out in 1914 he was, as a pacifist, firmly opposed to the war and to the jingoism that accompanied it. His efforts to bring the conflict to an end were, however, totally unsuccessful.

His work in helping others had, by now, worn him out and on 26 September 1915 he suffered a series of strokes and died. Hardie was buried in his native Glasgow but has never been forgotten in Merthyr and Aberdare where he is still revered as Britain's first truly socialist MP.

There is an interesting footnote to the story. Keir Hardie became MP for Merthyr and Aberdare on 2 October 1900. Eighty-three years later, on 2 October 1983, Neil Kinnock became leader of the Labour Party, the party that Hardie had been instrumental in founding. Perhaps that day, the 2 October, has a significance only the Labour Party understands.

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