Keir Hardie becomes 1st Labour MP
The most respected name among those who began the Labour Movement in the late Victorian era , James Keir Hardie’s story is a moving and inspiring one.
The illegitimate son of a servant girl, Mary Keir, James was brought up in the most deprived of circumstances. His step-father, David Hardie, was a carpenter by trade and was often unemployed. His mother suffered from poor health. He had to watch his own younger brother die, and lost his job as a baker’s delivery boy – and was docked a week’s wages - because he was late for work one day, having tended to his brother. He was just eight when he began work for the baker.
From the age of 11 Keir Hardie worked in the mines of Lanarkshire . In a family where he was often the only bread-winner James had no time for schooling, and only learned to read in his teens. His reading alerted him to the nascent union movement, and he organised a strike at his pit in 1880, losing his job and being black-listed throughout the industry for his pains.
Excluded from his trade as a miner, Keir Hardie began work as a journalist, and by 1886 was able to combine his old role and new as secretary of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union, moving on shortly to head the Scottish Miners’ Federation. Never the greatest of organisers, he was however a formidable speaker and motivator, and his fame spread through the then amorphous labour movement.
Hardie was put off by a dismal showing in his first attempt to get into Parliament, standing as an independent labour candidate in Lanarkshire in 1888. Indeed, it demonstrated to him the need to organise into a more disciplined and supportive body, and he was one of the leading lights in the formation of the Scottish Labour Party later that same year. He had once thought the Liberal Party would help the working man, but having seen Gladstone do little for the country’s workers he was convinced a separate party would be needed to fight for social justice.
In 1892 Hardie, by then a well known figure nationally within the labour movement, was asked to stand for the seat of West Ham South. The Liberals had an ambivalent view of the labour movement – worried by the probable loss of working class votes to the Socialists, but happy to see them win seats from their great rivals the Conservatives. They thus offered no candidate in the seat to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote, but gave no tangible support to Hardie’ campaign. Hardie won the seat and caused uproar in Parliament when he attended dressed in a cloth cap and tweed suit, refusing to conform to the standards of dress set by those he regarded as enemies of his class.
Hardie lost the seat in 1895, having been vilified by the press after attacks on the royal family in Parliament. He learned his lesson in practical politics, and toned down his approach, a mellowing accelerated by his conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1897. Between losing his seat in 1895 and the election of 1900, Keir Hardie devoted himself to improving the machinery of the working class movement, uniting the disparate unions and political groupings into a coherent force. In 1899 the Labour Representation Committee was formed to this end.
In the general election the following year two Labour Party MPs were elected, one of them being Keir Hardie, who took the industrial seat of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. In October 1900 then the Labour Party as such was represented in Parliament by its greatest founding father. In the 1906 election his pact with the Liberals would see the party increase its representation to 29 seats.
Others would take the party further, but Keir Hardie remains a figure of almost mythical power in the Labour Movement . He was a man who had suffered the privations of a pauper’s upbringing and gone on to wrest some power away from the establishment, a politician who had actually got his hands dirty in the world of work before representing those forced to spend their whole lives labouring in pits, factories and fields.
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