Keir Hardie: Evangelist and Strategist

In this chapter from a new book on Keir Hardie, BARRY WINTER argues that the Labour Party founder’s political life and ethical socialism can still serve as a beacon for the left in today’s increasingly unstable world.

I am fortunate to have known two ILPers who as children met Keir Hardie. From Waltham Forest, Bert Lea recalled how Hardie had once given him a penny to sell copies of his paper, the Labour Leader. Bert continued to do this for the rest of his long life: so that penny proved to be a good investment! From Bradford, May Allinson was among the children performing at a special concert for Hardie at the ILP’s Coming of Age Conference in 1914. She was so inspired by his speech calling upon his young audience to ‘Live for that better day’, that she gave a lifetime’s commitment to the ILP and to the Socialist Sunday School.

Hardie book coverPerhaps Hardie’s ability to connect with the young was born from his own difficult and impoverished childhood. He was eight years old when he started work to support the family. Two years later and for the next 16 years, he was employed in coal mining, with all the dangers this entailed. Certainly these formative experiences were etched into his character, into his early trade union activity and into his politics, as he progressed from being a Liberal to becoming a socialist. But his affinity with the young was only part of the picture. Hardie displayed a genuine affection for working people across the length and breadth of Britain, in Europe, Japan and the Americas and also for the British Empire’s subject peoples. For twenty-five years he spared no effort in taking his political message to audiences, often massive, to demand social justice, full employment, a minimum wage, an end to child poverty, a national health service, votes for women, slum clearance, collective ownership, opposition the Boer War and the First World War.

His record shows that first and foremost, Keir Hardie was a passionate, unstinting and unstoppable, political evangelist. His continuing engagement in the struggle to win hearts and minds for a socially-just society won him great respect from his audiences (except when he opposed war). It also made him many political enemies who viewed him as a dangerous extremist. For decades he was subjected to a stream of abuse from a hostile press, particularly after he was elected to Parliament. As soon as Hardie rose to speak in the Commons the dark mutterings against him would begin. A future Tory home secretary denounced him as ‘a leprous traitor.’ A Welsh Liberal wrote that politicians like Hardie were ‘corrupting working people’ and ‘were lowering the tone of the citizenship of my countrymen.’

His political apprenticeship began as a miners’ union official in the Ayrshire coalfield. Here he was to learn how resistant the Liberal Party could be towards selecting working-class election candidates, himself included. He also became deeply angered by the scant sympathy shown by Liberal politicians to the suffering in mining communities. As a result, he began to view the Liberals with profound distrust. This was reinforced by the Liberals’ evasiveness about the call for an eight-hour working day. He concluded that it was vital to create independent political agencies for social change. The radical evangelist had also become a deeply committed political strategist.

Hardie played a leading role in establishing the short-lived Scottish Labour Party in 1888, followed by the Independent Labour Party in 1893, and eventually the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. A year before the founding of the ILP, he was elected as an independent labour MP for West Ham South. Defeated in the general election three years later, he won the seat in Merthyr Tydfil in 1900, which he represented until his death in 1915. In addition to the Labour Leader, he founded and edited two other papers, first The Miner: a Journal for Underground Workers and finally the Merthyr Pioneer, all as means of spreading the political message. He did try to set up a daily, socialist paper but that proved too difficult even for him.


Set against this broad background, this chapter explores Keir Hardie’s influence as a political strategist. In particular, the decisive roles he played in establishing both the ILP and the Labour Party. For the rest of his life, he engaged with the opportunities – and indeed the tensions – involved in sustaining the creative linkage between them. In certain respects, his experiences prefigure many of the challenges that generations of Labour Lefts have faced in relation to the broader party – not least, the disappointments.

In the late 19th century the two-party system, dominated by the Conservatives and the Liberals both locally and nationally, was beginning to fracture. The gradual expansion of the franchise to working class men was part of that process. Not all workers supported the Liberal Party (particularly in Tory textile districts of Lancashire) but ‘Lib-Labism’, as it was known, was widespread. It also saw a handful of working-class men entering Parliament who loyally supported the Liberals.

Initially, so did the Fabian Society. Founded in 1884, the society was dominated by a London-based, middle-class elite, which saw itself as the intellectual pioneer for a better society. The Liberal Party was its chosen political agency and it was dismissive of very idea of a party of labour. At the other end of the spectrum, revolutionary socialist parties, defining themselves as Marxist, were emerging committed to insurrectionary change. The period was also marked by increasing industrial unrest, the New Unionism, and growing international competition.

Into this flux the ILP was born. As the historian, Edward Thompson, wrote:

‘The ILP grew from the bottom up; its birthplaces were those shadowy parts known as the provinces… When the two-party political system began to crack, a third with a distinctly socialist character emerged… amongst the mills, brickyards and gasworks of the West Riding.’[i]

This is best exemplified by the fierce industrial struggle that took place in Bradford in 1890­­­-1 at the Manningham Mills. Facing severe wage cuts 5,000 workers, mostly women, went on strike. After five long, hard hungry months, they were defeated and driven back to work. While they had received solid support from socialists and trade unionists, they were confronted by the complete hostility of Bradford City Council. Liberal councillors as well as the Tories backed the employers. The council even called out the military to break up a public meeting. As a result, the strike leaders concluded that they needed their own independent party. First they set up the Bradford Labour Union which soon became the Bradford Independent Labour Party.

Hardie 1892Labour clubs began to spring up over the city and, as a result, Bradford was chosen as the birthplace of the national ILP. Presiding over the founding conference attended by some 120 delegates was Keir Hardie. Among those present were members from already established branches of the ILP. Like Hardie and in contrast to some on the left, the conference wanted the new party to be broad-based. Notably, it was the first political party to have women members on the same basis as men. It also welcomed trade unions and trades councils, campaigning organisations and labour clubs. Again in line with Hardie’s thinking the party adopted a socialist programme, including the collective ownership of production and land. However, its name was designed to reach out to wider audiences, defeating a move to identify it as an explicitly socialist party. In her biography of Hardie, Caroline Benn wrote, ‘The new movement was a product of many minds but it had Hardie’s stamp. It was to be evangelising, with a massive national membership, inclusive rather than exclusive, and only loosely organised by a National Administrative Council.’[ii] She added that it was not just a party but for many it was a ‘great socialist fellowship’ and that in ‘setting up the ILP for others, Hardie had also fashioned it for himself.’

That did not always mean everything was always sweetness and light. Members still fell out and had fierce disagreements, Hardie included. However, the new party, derided by its critics as the Impudent Little Party, began on a creative and optimistic note.

Nor was it narrowly political. As the historian, David Howell put it, ‘The ILP was not so much a party, more a way of life.’ Members also wanted to embed their vision of a better society within a very broad range of cultural, educational and social activities: to borrow Gandhi’s phrase ‘to be the change they wished to see.’[iii]

That passionate moral fervour was very much in keeping with Hardie’s outlook and helps explain his deep and abiding affection for the ILP. Despite the ups and downs, it remained closest to his heart.

The ILP’s early optimism was soon to take a hard knock in the 1895 general election. Here the wider political reality proved far more resistant to change than many of its youthful members had imagined. Not only did Hardie lose West Ham but none of the ILP’s 28 candidates were successful. The leading Fabian, Beatrice Webb, wrote with some pleasure, ‘The ILP has completed it suicide. Its policy of abstention and deliberate wrecking has proved to be futile and absurd.’[iv] Another Fabian, the playwright George Bernard Shaw thought otherwise, noting that the new party had polled 44,594 votes. Hardie’s practical conclusion was the ILP ‘must learn to win elections.’

He was not entirely sorry to lose his seat in the Commons, however, admitting that he felt ‘a sense of relief… at having been released from three years’ of solitary confinement.’ He had certainly fought his political corner there. So much so that was dubbed as the ‘Member for the Unemployed.’ This was first used as a term of abuse but he bore the title with pride. One thing he did hope was that if he was to be returned to Parliament, he did not want to be so politically isolated. However, he had no illusions about the limitations of the parliamentary system. As he said on another occasion: ‘Parliament responds to pressure, not to arguments.’ For him, that meant stirring up militant activities in the constituencies. As both a radical and a pragmatist, he sought to transform rather than overthrow the state. But that meant more than merely seeking political representation in the Commons.

The Labour Alliance


The ILP’s reception during the 1895 general election and in the Barnsley by-election brought to the fore Hardie’s other goal: the need to build a broad-based alliance with the trade unions to break the Liberal Party’s hold. This meant calling for a ‘labour alliance’ at the Trade Union Congress (TUC). On several occasions, he had tried to do so but without success. Indeed, it resulted in him being prevented from attending future TUC meetings.

The parliamentary committee of new Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), chaired by his close childhood friend, fellow ILPer and miners’ leader Bob Smillie, had called for trade union support for working class parties. Hardie was allowed to participate in proceedings and at the STUC’s third annual conference he gave a 10-minute speech on the need for labour representation. A motion was then passed in favour of independent parliamentary representation

At the 1899 Trade Union Congress the resolution calling for the formation of the Labour Representation Committee was adopted. The historic motion was proposed by ILPer Tom Steels of the Doncaster Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (later the National Union of Railwaymen). The coal and cotton unions strongly opposed the proposal but it was backed by many of the newer, smaller and more radical unions.

Hardie signature headshotAfter the decision, it became widely accepted that there was something inevitable about the result, perhaps even Hardie felt this way. But this approach diminishes the scale of his – and the ILP’s – persistence and achievement. Hardie’s biographer, Kevin Morgan writes that his ‘directing role was clearly a crucial one. Without the unique combination he showed of personal charisma and close-quarters flexibility, it is difficult to see the link between the trade unions and the socialist societies being so easily established. He and the ILP were the decisive instruments in forging the common front.’[v]

Over 100 trade unions attended Labour’s founding conference, together with the ILP, the recently converted Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SDF called for the ‘recognition of the class war’ and for the ‘the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.’ Not surprisingly, this was defeated.

It was Keir Hardie who moved the successful resolution defining the party’s purpose as being the establishment of ‘a distinctive Labour Group in parliament.’ This was as far as the trade unions were prepared to go. While it represented an organisational break from the Liberals, the political distinctiveness sought by Hardie, was a long way from being achieved.  Membership of the party was indirect: either through an affiliated trade union or one of the socialist societies (although the SDF did not tarry long). The ILP and the Fabians also had representation on the party’s national executive but the unions had a clear majority. Likewise the block vote gave the unions the dominant voice at party conference. However, the ILP did provide the main channel for people joining the party at a local level (until Labour’s constitutional reforms of 1918 when individual membership was established).

The general election of 1906 saw some 40 LRC candidates elected, including Ramsay MacDonald (who, only 18 years later, was to become Labour’s first Prime Minister) and Philip Snowden (who became the Chancellor of the Exchequer). Both were ILPers. That year the Labour Representation Committee simplified its name to the Labour Party. Hardie was no longer alone but even the modest electoral gains raised issues about the nature of the relationship between Labour’s parliamentarians and the wider party. In addition, the former Lib-Lab MPs were now officially Labour MPs but their politics remained the same. To add to his travails, Hardie was elected chairman of the parliamentary party, a role for which he was ill-suited given his general discomfort with parliamentary proceedings. MacDonald, who Caroline Benn[vi] depicts as the outsider who wanted to be an insider, was comfortable with his role as secretary of the parliamentary party, doing electoral deals with the Liberals, and generally operating in the Palace of Westminster. Hardie remained and preferred being an outsider.

In the 1906 general election, the Liberals were returned to power after a decade in opposition, winning 400 seats. Their programme clearly sought both to respond to the emergence of the Labour Party and to retain its own working-class support. It included measures to tackle unemployment, poverty and ill health, and the introduction of old age pensions. While these were a highly diluted version of what Hardie saw as vital changes to enhance the lives of the majority, the Labour Party largely backed them. What the Liberals would not contemplate, however, was supporting workers in industrial disputes.

Labour’s lacklustre performance in the Commons in these early years deeply depressed Hardie. Even the modern Labour Party’s website, Our History, fully acknowledges that Labour in Parliament at this time was ‘hanging from the coat-tails of the Liberals.’ (Yet Hardie himself receives only one cursory mention in this supposed ‘history.’) So, whenever the opportunity arose, he would be either campaigning or travelling.

Hardie remained deeply critical of the Labour Party’s political timidity. So much so that on one occasion he was moved to write: ‘I grow weary of apologising for the state of things for which I am not responsible… There are times when I confess to feeling sore at seeing the fruits of our toil being garnered by men who never were of us, and even now would trick us out.’ Still, he was not going to let go.

Many ILPers shared Hardie’s discontent with the Labour Party and its parliamentarians. So when in 1907 the flamboyant, political maverick, Victor Grayson, stood in the by-election in the Colne Valley against the wishes of the Labour Party, the local ILP supported him, as did Hardie. Grayson won the seat. However, he soon proved to be a politically divisive figure. He tried to channel the ILP’s discontent with the Labour Party into direct opposition to Hardie himself, among others. Grayson even refused to share a public platform with Hardie. This demonstrated to many ILPers that this was going too far. The tensions also led to Hardie resigning from the ILP NAC, along with MacDonald and Glasier, in 1913. They wanted to make the point that the ILP could have been more supportive of them during the dispute with Grayson. Some years later, Grayson disappeared from the political scene but not before he had backed Britain’s involvement in the First World War.

In the 1910 general election, the Liberals were returned to office. However, this was a time of growing industrial discontent which sharpened the gulf between the government and many working people. These disputes brought Hardie into direct conflict with the then Liberal Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.  When workers at the colliery in Tonypandy went on strike for the same rates of pay as other miners in the locality (basically the minimum wage), the government sent in the police. Later it despatched the cavalry to patrol the streets. Hardie denounced these actions, accusing the Liberals of siding with the employers and of militarism. Churchill called him a ‘disgrace’. The following year, several miners were shot by the army in two other disputes. Again, Hardie stood almost alone in parliament in condemning these actions. His earlier hope of being less politically isolated in the Commons remained largely unfulfilled.

The First World War and Beyond

The outbreak of the First World War highlighted deep political differences within the labour and socialist movement. The trade unions and Labour Party backed Britain’s involvement (although MacDonald did not) and later Labour was to enter the wartime coalition. In vain Hardie called for workers internationally to take strike action to prevent the bloodshed. The ILP was also strongly opposed the conflict and, when wartime fever was at its height, its public meetings attracted fierce public hostility. The Glasgow offices of the Labour Leader were set on fire. The party was also at the forefront of contesting conscription which was introduced in 1916 – and many of its members were jailed for refusing to take up arms. But, by then Keir Hardie was dead, broken by what was happening. Never had he imagined that workers from different countries would so willingly slaughter each other at the behest of their governments.

Still despite the tensions, the links between the ILP and the Labour Party survived the war. After 1918, Labour began to attract increasing electoral support, even holding office between 1924-6. The ILP’s parliamentary presence also strengthened in this period.  But, this raised the question of where its MPs loyalties lay. Were they to be subject to the Labour Party’s whip or free to act in accord with the ILP’s more radical politics?

In 1918, under the guidance of the Fabian Society, the Labour Party also rewrote the constitution which included the Clause 4 commitment to public ownership. For some, like Philip Snowden, this put into question the continuing need for a separate ILP. In the 1920’s, there was a strategic attempt from the ILP to develop a constructive relationship with the Labour Party while also keeping alive the radical vision.  However, widening political disagreements led to the ILP’s unfortunate disaffiliation in 1932 led by Jimmy Maxton MP (with the ILP returning to the party as Independent Labour Publications in 1975).

Reconstructing Labour

At a time when the two-party system is again becoming increasingly unstable, drawing conclusions from Hardie’s political experiences over a century ago poses a challenge. However, it is worth at least trying to see whether his successes and failures offer guidance to the democratic left today.

It seems to me that a progressive left still needs its evangelists and its strategists. Hardie’s life shows how well he combined both roles. However, once the Labour Party was formed, his strategic vision became less clear; perhaps declining health and premature aging, plus the sheer pressure of events, made this increasingly difficult.

That said, he opposed the temptation that many felt to break away from Labour because of its limitations. He recognised it was needed to make connections with the wider society which was so often in thrall to hostile, dominant ideologies. He also managed to avoid the lure of the parliamentary politics that has seduced so many others. Labour’s electoral politics is itself always inclined to encourage short-term politics at the expense of longer-term goals. Even sustaining a coherent left-wing presence in the Labour Party has often proved difficult – and, at times, it was impermissible. Subsequent leaders of the Labour left have continued to face the difficulties of being strategists and evangelists with varying degrees of success.

But what is needed today? First, we have to restore both a clearer vision and a sense of purpose to Labour’s politics and to our own. The Labour left could usefully take the initiative by encouraging the party to step back from the day-to-day pressures and deliberate on how best to reconstruct itself. There needs to be a broad and inclusive dialogue, a Big Conversation (to steal David Marquand’s term), about how to respond to a society where so many feel disenchanted, disempowered and insecure. Not only do we have to re-democratise the party but we need to democratise the way Labour acts in local government and in national office. This also suggests the need for a new constitutional settlement.

So to conclude, perhaps we should sometimes remind ourselves what we are meant to be about. In this respect, Keir Hardie’s political life and ethical socialism can serve as a beacon for us. And, as he was among the first to recognise, we have to inspire the next generation. That’s what he was trying to do at that ILP conference in 1914 when speaking to the young people gathered there.

Here Fenner Brockway, later to be jailed for refusing to fight, records to what took place. He wrote:

‘Hardie was speaking. Suddenly he turned to the children and addressed them directly. I was sitting near the children and saw his face; never during all the times I had heard him speak had I seen it like this – the glow of his face was unearthly…

‘He appealed to them to love flowers, to love animals, to love their fellows, to hate injustice and cruelty, never to be mean and treacherous to their fellows, always to be generous in service. He pictured the loveliness of the unspoiled world and the loveliness of the world as it could become. He told them how unnecessary are poverty and war and how he had tried to pass on to them a world where happiness and peace would be theirs. He and those who had worked with him had failed, but they – they, the children – could succeed.’[vii]

Then Hardie concluded: ‘If these were my last words I would say them to you, lads and lasses. Live for that better day.’


Hardie book cover smallThis is taken from What Would Hardie Say?, a new book of essays to mark the 100th anniversary of Keir Hardie’s death. Edited by Pauline Bryan and published by Luath Press, it is available to pre-order here for £9.99.

The book will be launched at a fringe meeting at the year’s Labour Party conference in Brighton, just one of a series of events taking place to mark the centenary of his death on 26 September 1915. Details of all the events are available here.


[i] Winslow, C (ed); E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left ‘Homage to Tom Maguire’, Lawrence and Wishart Ltd; London; 2014; and to be published as a pamphlet by the ILP.

[ii] Benn, C; Keir Hardie; Richard Cohen Books; London; 1997.

[iii] Howell, D; British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 1888-1906; Manchester University Press; Manchester; 1983.

[iv] McBriar A.M; Fabian Socialism and English Politics, 1884-1918; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge; 1962.

[v] Morgan, KO; Labour’s Greatest Hero: Keir Hardie; Weidenfeld & Nicholson; London; 2008.

[vi] Benn, 1997.

[vii] Brockway, F; Inside the Left; Oxford University Press; Oxford; 2004 edition.


1 Comment

  1. Kenneth Curran Snr
    1 August 2016

    It may be of interest to Barry Winter to know that my father as a 10 or 12 year old took messages out to the Miners Rows Cottages around Cumnock Ayrshire in the late 1890s. My Grandparents and their Sons were known as political agitators among the Miners & Farm Workers. My father was an early member of the ILP.

    On Monday the 15th of August it shall be the 160th anniversary of Keirs Birthday born 1858.

    Kenneth R. Curran

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