James Keir Hardie, the Labour Party founder and statesman, died on the 26th of September, 1915.
To say that James Keir Hardie came from a very humble background is an understatement of almost epic proportions. Having entered this world as the illegitimate son of a domestic servant in 19th Century Scotland, Hardie could have had hardly a more lowly beginning and nobody would argue against his status being amongst the poorest of the poor. His upbringing was harsh to say the least, but it was the making of the man and his principles. He knew what it was like to be poor and to be treated like an underclass, with no rights and certainly no privileges. He had watched a younger brother die, because his family was so poor and he saw at first hand, through his own experiences in the mines, how the working class was so abused and exploited. That background forged his politics, which were fundamentally and devoutly socialist. Unlike today’s professional politicians, Keir Hardie had the experience. He had ‘walked the walk’; he had ‘got the tee-shirt’; he had “been there, done that” and he was entitled to be a socialist. He was the founding father of the modern-day Labour Party and is seen as its ‘greatest pioneer and hero’.
James Keir was born on the 15th of August, 1856, in a one-roomed cottage on Legbrannock Road in Holytown, near Motherwell. Later, when his mother Mary Keir married David Hardie, James was given the second surname. He became known as ‘Keir’ during his teens. James never attended a school, instead having to work from the tender age of seven to help support his family. Amongst the low paid jobs he was able to do was that of delivery boy for a baker in Partick. He earned three or four and a half shillings per week for a twelve and a half hour day at a time when the average adult weekly wage was around £1 and four shillings. By late 1866, when he was eleven and still illiterate, James was working underground as a ‘trapper’ in Newarthill Colliery. He also worked in the mines as a pony driver and throughout his life he carried an old silver watch, which bore the teeth marks of a pit pony that had tried to eat it.
There are apocryphal stories about Keir teaching himself to read and write, but it seems that in addition to his mother’s help, he attended a night school in Holytown. Philip Snowden, a friend of Hardie’s, wrote in his autobiography about what had driven Keir to learn to write. Keir had told him that when he was a youth, he had gone to join the ‘Good Templers’, which belonged to the Temperance Movement, and had been so ashamed of being unable to sign his name on the membership pledge. James Mavor wrote that “Although his early education had been somewhat neglected, he was the only really cultivated man in the ranks of any of the Labour parties.” Not bad for a laddie frae Lanarkshire who started on the political trail by becoming a spokesman for the grievances of fellow miners. The demand for unionisation increased throughout the late 1870s and, largely through the efforts of Keir Hardie, the Ayrshire Miners’ Union was formed in 1886, with him as its Organising Secretary. In between, he had organised strikes in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, albeit with little direct success in terms of concessions, gained a reputation as an agitator and been blacklisted from working in the mines. As a result, the man who hadn’t gone to school ended up working as a journalist for the ‘Cumnock News’. By then, his political career path was emerging as he was paid a salary of £75 per year by the Union and had joined the Liberal Association. In 1887, Hardie started a newspaper called ‘The Miner’. It was intended to educate the miners on political matters and eventually morphed into the ‘Labour Leader’.
Keir Hardie first tried to become an MP in 1888, when he stood as an independent socialist candidate. At that time, there was no Labour Party, just the Tories and the Liberals, with the latter paying lip service to socialist issues purely as a means of securing the working class vote. Hardie decided to run for Parliament in order to fight for reform and when he failed to get elected for the constituency of mid-Lanark, he helped form the Scottish Labour Party. Hardie was its secretary and R. B. Cunninghame Graham, the first socialist MP and later founder of the National Party of Scotland, its President. Four years later, Hardie did get elected and served the people of West Ham South until the election of 1895. In 1893, Hardie helped form the Independent Labour Party and was elected as its leader and chairman. Having lost his seat in 1895, the first ever Labour MP got elected again, in 1900, as the junior MP for the dual-member constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare. That same year, he helped to form the Labour Representation Committee, with J. Ramsay MacDonald as its secretary. That was the embryonic Labour Party, which grew up to become after the 1906 General Election. Thanks to a Lib-Lab pact, that election returned twenty-nine Labour MPs, including fellow Scot and future Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. Keir Hardie was elected Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and, in effect, its very first Leader. From that small, working class revolution of a beginning, the Party grew until it won power for the first time, in 1924.
Sadly Keir Hardie didn’t live to savour that success as he died in Glasgow on the 26th of September, 1915. Some say that it was the tragic, ‘imperialist bloodbath’ of the First World War that killed his spirit. Most certainly, he crusaded for peace and campaigned for general strikes as a means of preventing war – and the world let him down, even to the extent of branding him a traitor. In the House of Commons, Hardie fought with unswerving devotion and the utmost integrity in the socialist cause; policies that went right back to Tom Paine and ‘The Rights of Man’. Hardie argued for graduated income tax, free schooling for the working class, a minimum wage, a national health service, and old age pensions; things that we take for granted today. He also campaigned for Parliamentary reform, such as the abolition of the House of Lords, and he was a fervent supporter of the women's suffrage movement. According to the biographer, Kenneth O. Morgan, without Keir Hardie there would not be a Labour Party. His was an inclusive brand of socialism as his aim was to “blend the classes into one human family” and he viewed his great socialist task as “a war against a system, not a class.” James Keir Hardie was an extraordinary man who rose from the pits of Lanarkshire to become a hero to the socialist movement, not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout the world.