What has Keir Hardie, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party got in common with each other? Unlike in earlier blogs that bring together different, seemingly unrelated, subjects in the same title, there is no prize for guessing the correct answer. Both Hardie (was) and Corbyn (is) the leader of the Labour Party. Hardie was the first and Corbyn is the last, albeit the party has changed a lot in the interim, even though some of the same principles, e.g. around addressing social justice issues, remain. For the more discerning, there are other common factors besides that of Hardie and Corbyn both having beards. In my Labour leader watching from Hugh Gaitskell until the present day, no Labour leader, other than maybe Michael Foot, has struck me as having so much in common with Keir Hardie, both in terms of style and core beliefs, than does Jeremy Corbyn.
As a child growing up in a Labour sympathizing household, Keir Hardie was sometimes referred to, usually in hushed and reverent tones. But until recently my knowledge of the great man (and I will explain why I use the word “great” in his case and not in many other cases) was fairly rudimentary. I have already reflected on how I look upon the Labour Party leadership and the Jeremy Corbyn factor in recent blog posts (see here and here) and it was while doing so I became more aware of the Hardie legacy and the notion that of recent Labour politicians that I can recall Corbyn has maybe done more to pick up Hardie’s baton than most. Given my own position as a wannabe Labour sympathizer, an awareness of Bob Holman (someone who shares many of my beliefs and concerns from a Christian perspective) who published a book (in 2010) on the life of Hardie and my own Evangelical sympathies that wanted to find the right balance with these and social justice concerns (both Hardie shared), I resolved to find out more about Keir Hardie.
I have just finished reading Bob Holman’s “Keir Hardie – Labour’s greatest hero?” and it has been a good read. As a historian, I enjoyed the way the author related the life of Hardie with the events and mood of the day. While there are many loose ends I would ideally like to tie up, but unlikely won’t, I am far better informed now on the life of Hardie, and what made him tick, than I was, say, two weeks ago. The author admits a bias (he clearly did see Hardie as Labour’s greatest hero and a great man taboot) and while he did mention his faults, e.g. his prickliness, he didn’t over dwell on these. Compared with other biographers, this author made a lot more about Hardie’s evangelical beliefs than they did, which I for one was grateful. While I suspect Hardie wasn’t a deep Bible scholar or theological thinker and seemed to attend church irregularly (he fell out, often with good reason, with a number) his motivation for the work he is best known for, advocating on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, was directly derived from his understanding of the character and will of God and the part that he needed to play.
I was captivated by the quote on the front cover by one of my own Labour heros, Tony Benn: “A wonderful introduction to Labour’s first, and in many ways greatest leader” and that on the back from Hardie himself: “I am an agitator. My work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong”. I knew it was a must read book when I read ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s foreword (worth getting the book just for this) when he recounted a story early in Hardie’s life of when he took to task and exposed the hypocrisy of one pillar and benefactor of the church, who despite his piety and giving of his money to good, church sanctioned causes, managed to callously exploit his large labour force, although Hardie’s own impoverished upbringing meant that he was no stranger to such things. This is but one of many experiences out of which Hardie became determined to fight for social justice despite the huge amount of opposition he faced (including by church people), rarely taking the easy option that was often offered to him.
I recall many years ago being exposed to a debate that was not satisfactorily resolved: “The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx – discuss”. I am only aware of one Methodist among Labour activists, although a number are Christians motivated in a similar fashion as was Hardie. I am also aware there are also a number who have no religion, but few I would describe as pure Marxists. It seems in recent years, New Labour has become the in vogue philosophy in its pragmatic seeking after the votes of “Middle England”, even at the cost of abandoning the pure socialism that those like Hardie advocated. My understanding was that Hardie was a socialist but not a Marxist and he wasn’t doctrinaire to the extent he would dismiss those that weren’t socialist, yet who shared his concerns over tackling social injustice. While there are a number of issues I would differ from Hardie on, for example his belief that the State should take over many of the industries, his over emphasis on the class struggle and his pacifism, there is a great deal I admire and recognize in many ways he was ahead of the time. He advocated Irish home rule; he recognized that Indians should determine the future of that country; he supported women’s franchise etc.
One of the sadnesses about Hardie is that shared by many pioneers. He blazed a trail against great odds and was often vilified, not just by the right wing press, powerful commercial interests and the establishment, but also from those who one might have expected to be a lot more supportive. His death, in 1915, was significant due to the timing, as he had already gone out on a limb criticizing the UK government’s position regarding the First World War. When he died, there was little that appeared to celebrate his life and his special contribution to public life. He was never well off and did not gain materially from his position as a matter of principle. But one might argue his legacy is huge and part of this is Jeremy Corbyn.
It may seem strange when Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, rather than being disappointed on the grounds he was too extreme and was considered by many to be the most likely candidate to make Labour unelectable, I was of the view he was the best choice available, and this despite my supposedly middle of the road political views. The jury is still out of course as to how dear Jeremy is doing and while I have qualms, e.g. his views on security and foreign policy, I have not had cause to change my mind. I like the way Corbyn has sided with the poor and the oppressed (as I have no doubt Hardie would have) and has done what all good opposition leaders do and has been relentless in trying to make the government accountable (I personally liked the way he went for the jugular when asking his question on tax credits to the Prime Minister). In fact, reading about Kier Hardie has made me even more supportive. While I might be taken to task and asked to justify my comment, Labour since Tony Blair has shown signs of losing the heart and soul that the likes of Keir Hardie sought to instill all those years ago and just maybe it is now being given a new impetus under Corbyn.
Going back to whether Keir Hardie was Labour’s greatest leader, I am not well read enough to answer one way or another, but it is quite clear to me he ploughed a lonely furrow in trying to tackle the social injustices of his day and the fact that some maybe many of these have been dealt with is not a little due to his efforts. Social injustice continues to manifest itself in various forms and these may be quite a bit different in detail to those in Hardie’s day. While there is room for debate as to how these need to be tackled, tackle they must. As for greatness, Hardie was a great leader, not because of his ability to unite many to the cause (this was arguably modest) but in identifying injustice and offering solutions, while unpopular at the time many over the years have been taken up. While different to a Churchill for example (no doubt the two would have clashed) I put him in the same greatness bracket, albeit for different reasons!