During the past year or so Gordon Brown, the former leader of the British Labour Party, has been in the headlines.
The first occasion was in August of last year, when he broke nearly four years of political silence to give an impassioned speech urging residents of Scotland to vote against Scotland becoming independent from the United Kingdom. Whether due to his eloquent appeal or not, Scotland remains within the UK.
His second foray into renewed public prominence was his recent address to the Fourth Estate. Here he was urging the Labour Party to be very careful about whom it will shortly elect to be its new leader. Though he did not mention any names, it was the view of most commentators that Brown was seeking to alert the Labour Party as to the dangers, as he saw it, of electing Jeremy Corbyn, the genuinely left-wing candidate for the leadership.
Mr. Brown took this calculated course despite, perhaps in spite of, the popular appeal Mr. Corbyn seems to have and the support he is attracting.
With the above in mind, this week I read a magazine article called “Heirs to Hardie” in which Mr. Brown argued that Keir Hardie, the very first leader of the British Labour Party, “has a lesson for today’s pretenders” to this high office. Brown was quite fulsome in his praise for the first Labour leader stating that, in his view, Hardie was certainly the party’s greatest hero (a straw poll at the 2008 Labour Party Conference in Manchester confirms this opinion).
The magazine article immediately caught my attention as for seven years in the 1970’s I worked and lived in Plaistow, Newham South. This is the location of the political constituency that first elected Keir Hardie to Parliament in 1892.
The name of Keir Hardie still echoes through the streets and estates of the London Borough of Newham, particularly in the Keir Hardie Estate in Canning Town. Further, when I began my residence in Cumberland Road, Plaistow, I was told that I lived opposite the site where the Keir Hardie Hall, the first meeting place of the Newham South Labour group, was situated (now a modern, residential, Community Centre).
Gordon Brown informs his readers that Keir Hardie was the illegitimate and unloved son of a Lanarkshire coal-miner and that he worked in the mines from the age of ten. After becoming acquainted with the Evangelical Union, he taught himself to read. Hardie was apparently impressed by the EU’s emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. Believing that the liberal virtues of honesty, temperance, frugality and hard work were qualities to be cultivated (shades of Brown himself), Hardie’s early political associations were with the Liberal Party
However, Keir Hardie was a trade union leader (as was, coincidentally, my Scottish father) and, in this, received little practical support from the Liberal Party. His conversion to socialism was sudden but sincere. He campaigned for a minimum wage, an eight hour day, nationalisation of the mines and railways, and power for workers in the face of confrontation with local employers.
Hardie was clear as to how he should dress and behave as a parliamentary MP. The representatives of the workers “should wear working men’s clothes, speak in ordinary language and refuse to be in thrall to out-of-date parliamentary conventions.” Parliament was not the place for airs and graces. Keir Hardie he was in favour of Indian independence, votes for women and, as a convinced pacifist, opposed the First World War.
His principled opposition to WW1 caused Hardie to lose many friends and parliamentary colleagues. Indeed, there are political historians who consider that this bold stand signalled the end of Keir Hardie’s political career and, eventually, led to his premature death.
The historical record shows that Hardie was a co-founder in 1893 of the Independent Labour Party and became its first chairman and leader. Later, in 1899, he was a member of the Labour Representation Committee. This eventually became the Labour Party.
Some of foregoing important historical and institutional links are not mentioned in Gordon Brown’s article. So too, Brown omits the fact that Hardie was pro-republican. He lost his Newham South parliamentary seat in 1895 as a consequence of a controversial speech in the House of Commons in which he criticised the monarchy for its self-interest and self-indulgence.
Nevertheless, he remained indefatigable in his work for the labour movement, subsequently being returned to Westminster in 1900 as the Labour representative and junior MP in the dual member constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare in the South Wales’ Valleys.
A further quote from Brown seems to get to the heart of his article and the incipient warning it seeks to convey: “While Hardie is thought of as Britain’s first socialist, his uniqueness was that he was the first to build a Labour alliance to win power.” That may be the case, but it is also very important to remember that Keir Hardie “knew that you could not deliver in power without principles (even if) you could not deliver on principles without power.”
This is a classic political dilemma, as important today as it was a century ago. The play-off between principles and power is a key debating point in the present-day Labour leadership election.
Keir Hardie died of pneumonia in Glasgow in1915 – a century ago almost to the day. He died in that part of Glasgow, Partick, where he had spent his boyhood – a stone’s throw from where I had spent the first few years of my life. Hardie had materially very little to leave his widow, sons and daughter. His lifetime was spent in the poverty against which his politics railled, as the title of his book “From Serfdom to Poverty” exemplifies.
However, to refer to a key point in Brown’s article, this did not prevent Hardie from creating a Labour Party that “was dedicated to winning power by winning popular support. Labour had to become electable if it was to make any difference to people’s lives.”
The sentence which concludes Brown’s article, echoing as it does his previous speech on the matter of the Labour leadership (see above), leaves no doubt as to where his sympathies lie: “It (Hardie’s principle about winning power by winning popular support) is a lesson that some who see themselves as Hardie’s heirs might do well to recall.”
There is much in Gordon Brown’s article with which I could agree.
However, unlike Mr. Brown, I am convinced that, based on his article and a further study of Keir Hardie’s personal circumstances and his career as a politician, his achievements and faithfulness to the cause of working people, the only candidate among the four in contention for the current Labour leadership that gets nearest to imaging the Hardie mould, the rightful heir to Keir Hardie, is Jeremy Corbyn!
Touché, Mr. Brown?