Keir Hardie and Labour’s Socialist Roots


We can all ponder the Labour Party’s future, but do we know of its past? The Labour Party was built as a Socialist party, and until recently had all but abandoned the principle.  Yet its founder, like today’s Labour Leader, was a Socialist utterly rebuked by the establishment. Many of Hardie’s ‘lunatic’ policies are considered common sense today, and so we ask: Who was Keir Hardie, and where does Socialism fit into Labour?

James Keir Hardie (1856-1915), born in the mining town of Lanarkshire Scotland, was to become a key figure in the struggle for worker’s emancipation. His route to improving the lives of the poor was not an easy one, and from a young age his class consciousness was etched into his being through seeing the exploitative conditions of everyday life.

After working numerous jobs from the age of 7, at 10 Hardie was the family’s sole provider, working from 7:00am to 7:30pm each day in a high-class Glasgow bakery to support them. Fired by the Master on two counts of lateness with his father away looking for work, he was aware how desperately his pregnant mother and ill brother needed his wages. He wrote:

That night the baby was born, and the sun rose on the 1st of January, 1867, over a home in which there was neither fire nor food.

Two years later his brother would die from fever and depravation. By 11 Hardie was working in the Lanarkshire mines as a Trapper, responsible for maintaining an air supply to miners by opening and closing doors. He recalls:

For several years as a lad I rarely saw daylight during the winter months. Down the pit by six in the morning, and not leaving it again until half-past five meant not seeing the sun… Such an experience does not develop the sunny side of one’s being

Hardie, taught by his parents as well as attending night-school, learnt to read and write short-hand. In his teens and twenties, he had joined the Temperance movement and gained popularity as a captivating speaker. Becoming more politically involved, he increasingly began to witness the brutal exploitation of the Capitalist class whilst urging the Lanarkshire miners to strike. Strikes were considered dangerous as the mining companies had built – and owned – the houses which the miners leased with their wages. There were no safety nets. If they were to strike they risked eviction or, worse, being ‘blacklisted’ so as to never again be employed for mining work. Hardie opposed Ramsay MacDonald’s popular ‘restriction of output’ protest method and payment on a ‘sliding scale’, where workers were paid based on market stability. These methods were easier than striking as workers kept their jobs, however they were too moderate and created little to no change as the Masters could simply ignore the worker’s demands. Hardie continued pushing for strikes which divided support amongst the Miner’s, although later years would see strike action grow in support as ‘restriction of output’ failed. However, for being an ‘agitator’ Hardie was quickly backlisted.

For most of Hardie’s adult life until his parliamentary years, he worked as a Journalist writing for The Cumnock News, The Miner, and later The Labour Leader. He continued a vigorous support of the Miner’s struggles, occasionally causing tensions and disagreements with the editors, even signing his column as ‘The Trapper’ instead of his name. During this time, he continued in the Temperance movement, preaching abstinence from alcohol as he believed heavily in self-improvement. Hardie befriended some MPs from the Liberal Party who, along with the support of various trade unions and associations, helped him to become one of the founding members of the first party to represent workers: The Labour Party.

Hardie  wanted a Labour party independent of the Liberal’s influence, achieved by 1893. The main party goal would be “to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, later to be adapted into the 1918 Labour Constitution as the famous Clause IV, removed by Tony Blair in his declaration of a ‘New Labour’. Until Jeremy Corbyn, Socialism seemed cast into the wilderness. Tony Benn once said that when Margaret Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement she said, “New Labour”, as it symbolised Socialism’s end. But Hardie had showed he was not afraid to be divisive in his commitment to Socialism, saying:

Above all, Labour representatives should remember that all the Conservatives and Liberals are joined together in the interests of capital against Labour

Once elected to Parliament in 1892 he arrived at the Commons in a tweed suit, a red tie, and a flat-cap rather than the traditional black suit and top-hat, causing controversy in the House. Like Jeremy Corbyn, both these bearded leaders rejected the traditional gentrified fashion of Parliament and were vilified for it. Hardie continued to fight on Socialist principles in the interests of social justice for everyone. Arthur Scargill once said “There is only one class, the Working Class”, and Hardie never abandoned them despite the backlash he received. This was felt profoundly in his opposition the 1st World War where he was branded as “Un-patriotic” for which he suffered great public and Parliamentary hostility, like Corbyn in his reluctance to permit use of nuclear weapons.

Hardie had seen first-hand the brutal, naked, shameless exploitation of ordinary people. Many of his campaign policies, such as the 8-hour workday, the minimum wage, and votes for women were eventually put into place, and far from being controversial are held as common sense today. Socialism, with its belief in equality brought about the NHS and welfare state, protecting so many of us from the unforgiving nature of a Capitalist system with values based on profit and loss, not right and wrong.

The ongoing exploitation would have continued if brave men and women hadn’t the courage to risk everything for a better world. People today still suffer over housing, medicine, working conditions, mental trauma, and even to afford to eat. Hardie’s life serves as a testament that the worker’s struggle against capitalism will continue until it is won. We must work in the interests of Labour against capital, not the other way around. As Hardie wrote in reformist optimism in 1887’s The Miner:

Labour representatives should create opinion, both in the House and out of it, and this can only be done by activity, by violent activity. Their present duty is to agitate; and when they make their power felt as agitators there will be no lack of willing legislators.



Radical journalist interested in Art, Politics, and other creative disciplines.

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