Jayne Dawson: How Keir Hardie signalled birth of a new era

Keir Hardie addresses a crowd.
Keir Hardie addresses a crowd.
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A century after his death, he remains a political hero for believing that everyone should be able to live with dignity.

NO one could deny that the Labour Party is currently in turmoil but it is also showing superb dramatic timing, having put on quite the leadership show as it marks the centenary of the death of its founding father.

The left-wing outsider Jeremy Corbyn finds himself at the helm of a bemused party 100 years to the month after Keir Hardie, the colossus of socialism, died aged just 59 on September 26, 1915, worn down by an extraordinary life in which he dragged himself from pit to Parliament by sheer force of will.

There are parallels between the two men. As Corbyn is being howled down for not singing the National Anthem and appearing doubtful about the necessity of kneeling before the Queen, Keir Hardie too was vilified for his republican views.

Newspapers roared their disapproval and Parliament was scandalised in 1894 when he asked that a message of condolence to the families of 251 miners, killed in an explosion, be added to an address of congratulations on the birth of a royal heir.

Like Jeremy Corbyn he was also a pacifist and heckled for his anti-war speeches as the country headed inexorably into the First World War. He died a year into the war.

But there the similarities end. Whereas the new leader of the Labour Party had been an MP for decades before coming to prominence, Keir Hardie was a boy who hit the ground running, a man who blazed a socialist trail that improved life for millions to follow, a hugely charismatic, pioneering and inspirational figure who took on the establishment against impossible odds.

So, a century on, what does he mean to a lifelong Labour voter?

I discovered Hardie in 1980, at the beginning of a decade when, though I did not yet know it, my admiration would run against the prevailing trend.

For this was the greedy decade. We were one year into Margaret Thatcher’s government, Yuppies were about to be unleashed, lunch was about to become for wimps but dinner could be a spectacular matter – certainly as enjoyed by wealthy youngsters David Cameron and Boris Johnson, then lounging around restaurants in tailcoats as part of the notorious Bullingdon Club.

But that was not my world. I was at Leeds University and I was, as Neil Kinnock once said, the first of my family in a thousand generations to get there. And not because the rest of them had been thick, either.

James Keir Hardie, to give him his full name; the man who became the first socialist MP in 1892, was not on my prescribed reading list. I found him accidentally in the library, on my way to the recommended Marxist section.

I discovered a man who helped create a more just world, despite a start in life that would have crushed most of us.

This Scottish boy was born into poverty and had to teach himself to read and write before he transformed into a brave leader for the poor and exploited. School was out of the question because from the age of seven he was working as a messenger boy, and by 10 he was down the mines. After a 10-hour shift he would take himself off to night school.

As he grew older, he went from speaking up for his workmates to becoming organiser of a fledgling trade union. He joined the Liberal Party but, after deciding it would never do a thing for people like him, stood for Parliament as an Independent Labour Party candidate.

He entered the House of Commons just before his 36th birthday, wearing the clothes of a working man instead of the customary frock coat, and duly receiving a pasting in the press.

He became my instant political hero and I picked him for my hospital maternity bag, for a little light reading when the time came.

Did I mention I was pregnant? In 1980, I was a pregnant student, spending my summer cleaning trains to pay for baby stuff. There were night shifts, it was hard work, my morning sickness came at all hours. I was definitely in the mood for some passionate, visionary socialism.

Keir Hardie didn’t convert me though, my views had already been formed. Forged in the fire of working class life I would say, if it didn’t sound overly romantic. But he did embody them.

My tribe, obviously, was Labour. Margaret Thatcher had already made my mother cry when, as Thatcher the Milk Snatcher, she had stopped free school milk for my younger sisters. It doesn’t take a lot to make you cry when you are spreading the money too thinly.

I came to hate the ethos of the 1980s as much as I admired the vision of Keir Hardie but, when the family generations gathered, we still had a laugh, guffawing at our familiar stories.

“There wasn’t a door or a complete piece of furniture in the house. Everything had had its back sawn off for firewood,” my mother would chortle about her grandmother’s home.

There were tales of more recent moonlight flits, of the time they lived in a cellar, of the room where the floor had fallen through, of the period they lived next to a stable with only a thin wall between them and the horses would kick it just to be annoying.

But Keir Hardie helped end all that. He began the movement that ended with Clement Attlee’s welfare state, which gave people like me and mine a chance. To give you a flavour of the man who inspired me, here’s a bit of his 1910 message to his Merthyr Tydfil constituency: “The military and police have been sent in to help the masters crush the men. The trick won’t succeed,” he thunders.

And that’s him being polite. Politics now, even in this new era, is so very tame. So that’s why, right there in the Brotherton Library in 1980, my younger, pregnant self decided that, should my first born be a boy, he would be Keir.

He would be named after the man who believed everyone, and he even included women, should be able to live their one short life with dignity.