A working-class hero or Labour myth?: One hundred years ago today, a 'man in a cloth cap' was elected to Parliament - Labour's first MP. Nicholas Timmins reflects on his legacy

Nicholas Timmins
Friday 03 July 1992 23:02

'KEIR HARDIE personifies the necessary myth of the British labour movement,' Kenneth Morgan, the Labour Party historian, says of its first and founding MP.

A man of the apocalypse, dubbed the Moses who led the labour movement to the promised land of its own party, he was seen as an incorruptible idealist by his followers. His enemies believed him a wild extremist. In Professor Morgan's words, he remains 'the one undisputed hero for the British labour movement . . . Years after his death (in 1915, aged 59), Labour Party conferences could be galvanized into fraternal unity, if only for a time, by intoning, 'If Keir Hardie were alive today' . . . '

An illegitimate, virtually uneducated young Lanarkshire miner, he taught himself shorthand down the mines scratching the characters on blackened slate with a wick wire before becoming a journalist, propagandist, trade unionist and MP. He entered Parliament flamboyantly, preceded by someone playing the Marseillaise on a cornet. Once there he raged against unemployment, advocated socialism, feminism and pacifism, and attacked the Queen and the Royal Family. He failed, bitterly, to start an international general strike against the First World War.

His achievements include persuading the trade unions to break with Lib-Labism; the Fabians to drop - in favour of the union link - their drawing-room efforts to achieve socialism through the Tory and Liberal parties; and taking the Independent Labour Party, of which he was a founder, into the 1906 Labour Representation Committee. It was that mix of trade unions, Fabians and the Marxist Social Democratic Federation - who soon left - which mutated into the modern Labour Party, with Keir Hardie its first chairman.

But would he recognise the modern Labour Party?

'Well, no,' Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Grimsby and television presenter, said. 'He wouldn't have a double-breasted suit, a red rose, or have been carefully colour-coded. We are too yuppified for him, now. We are far too busy cuddling up to the City and being the party of Europe to be the sort of socialist party he would have wanted.'

But would Labour recognise him? 'Oh yes,' Mr Mitchell said. 'Dennis Skinner is still here. There is a fundamentalism that's still present in the Labour Party and is still necessary. But the leadership have decided it isn't the kind of appeal they want, particularly in the South. They regard it as non-marketable.'

Peter Mandelson, Herbert Morrison's grandson and Labour's chief image-maker, turned MP for Hartlepool, said: 'He'd be rather pleased with Labour. It is still motivated by the same ideals that brought him into politics. It still has a strong base among the working people for whom he spoke, but its more broadly based, has many more MPs than he might have dreamed of, and is certainly a more effective fighting machine than he probably imagined could be created.'

But red roses, glitz and pounds 500-a- plate fund-raising dinners? 'Keir Hardie was a thinker, organiser, builder of political alliances and great communicator,' Mr Mandelson said. 'He would have found the modern Labour Party a very easy place.'

A key difficulty with Keir Hardie, as Professor Morgan argues, is to cut through 'the swathes of legend' created by disciples and detractors, and the very ambiguity of his legacy.

The man in the cloth cap never wore one, for example - he preferred a deerstalker. While an agitator of genius, and of fundamentalist stamp, prepared to back almost any lawful grass- roots action, he was also a constitutionalist, devolver, builder of the broad church, according to Professor Morgan - tolerant and willing to subordinate doctrinal differences for specific objectives. Not a typical working- class man, Professor Morgan added, but 'a romantic, a Bohemian, a contemporary of Aubrey Beardsley and The Yellow Book and fin-de-siecle aestheticism'.

All wings of Labour can thus claim him today. Caroline Benn has just spent five years producing a biography of Keir Hardie. Tony, her husband, did not really want to talk about Keir Hardie on the phone. 'Too serious,' he said. But the man who has packets of his letters, his chair and other mementos, did venture that nothing ever changes. 'He was disowned by the TUC, you know. He was fighting then about unemployment, health and safety, the minimum wage. Things are really very similar. There have always been some socialists in the Labour Party. Not a large number, but some. There's always a struggle between socialists and those who just want power.'

Tony Banks, MP for Newham North West and thus part-inheritor of Keir Hardie's first seat (West Ham South) before he moved to Merthyr, said: 'He would probably be expelled from the modern Labour Party. But since he started out as a Gladstonian Liberal he might have some sound advice to offer us about the kinds of bridge- building that are going on between Labour and the Liberals at the moment. He was very much against Lib-Labism and he was right. He would have recognised the economic problems of today and the unemployment - that's all remarkably similar to 1892. Would Labour recognise him? I think the real question is would he have wanted to join today's Labour Party? He would undoubtedly have been very much on the left - a member of the Campaign group'.

Frank Dobson, the party's energy spokesman, believes today's Labour Party would recognise Keir Hardie, although he adds: 'He was a pacifist. That might be a bit of a problem.'

'Of course he'd recognise Labour, no trouble,' Jack Straw, shadow Secretary of State for Education, said. But designer socialism? 'He was of the time of Bernard Shaw, the Fabians and the Webbs,' Mr Straw added. 'He'd certainly have recognised drawing-room socialism through the then Fabian Society. He might have been bemused by the Filofaxes and the mobile telephones. But I tell you - the party he wouldn't recognise is the Tory party; the party of second-hand car salesmen and failing estate agents in place of the Tory gentry of his day. That's what he wouldn't recognise.'

Labour People: Hardie to Kinnock, Kenneth Morgan; OUP Paperbacks; pounds 7.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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