Labour history uncut: Labour conference turns on Keir Hardie

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

The Labour party in 1906 had experienced some success, notably with the repeal of Taff Vale. However, the parliamentary party was divided between the limited, immediate goals of the union faction and the more visionary, nation-changing, red-flag-singing socialist contingent.

To focus on the practical and attainable, or attempt the wholesale overthrow of the capitalist system? That was the question.

“Or”, said Keir Hardie, “how about we forget that stuff and concentrate on women’s suffrage?”

Hardie was a committed believer in votes for women in general, and of the Pankhursts and their campaigning organisation (the women’s social and political union or WSPU) in particular.

Either that or he was pretending to be a “new man” to impress the chicks.

The suffragettes’ jack in the box was that year’s Christmas best seller

Hardie’s fixation managed to annoy both the union types and the socialists.

For the union brothers, personified by leadership contest runner-up David Shackleton, the issue of votes for women was a complete distraction. Workers were starving, unemployment was rampant and union rights under threat. Compared to these problems, female suffrage was little more than drawing room conversation for women in fancy frocks – a political After Eight mint.

For the socialist comrades, normally staunch supporters of the impeccably socialist Hardie, the WSPU were a) not radical enough and b) sounded like a sneeze (WSPU. Bless you).

For them, the problem was that the Pankhursts were arguing for women’s suffrage on the same basis as for men. While that sounded great, only a third of men had the vote. So they were aiming for a system where the majority of women were overlooked, just like the majority of men.

Technically, this was equality, but then, technically Hershey’s Kisses are chocolate too.

In the run up to Labour conference in January 1907, Keir Hardie was fully aware of party feeling on the matter. But he had made a career out of not caring what other people thought, much like a socialist Jeremy Clarkson.

So he carried on regardless. He signalled that women’s suffrage would be at the top of the party’s “things to do in parliament” list in the coming year.

This went down as well as you might expect. Ben Tillett, leader of the dockers union, wrote to Ramsay Macdonald in protest,

“…the statement of Mr. Keir Hardie, that womens’ suffrage will be the first of the proposals of the party in the House… that statement is either unwarrantably authorised, or it is mendacious arrogance on the part of the leader of the party.”

Surprisingly, Ben Tillett’s one-man barbershop quartet really pulled in the crowds

Tillett did not want the party to prioritise women’s suffrage but, more importantly, his complaint centred on how the Labour party made its decisions.

For a party supposedly of “the people” he wondered why those very people didn’t really get a say in what the party did.

When the movement gathered for the Belfast conference of 1907, the twin issues of party decision making and women’s suffrage exploded.

Tillett led the charge to force the parliamentary party to explicitly follow detailed resolutions passed by conference, to the letter. If a resolution said “mince pies for every worker”, then the parliamentary party would have to get baking.

The leadership thought this was a terrible idea. What’s the point of a leader who can’t actually lead? On the other hand, what was a leader without any followers? A weirdo talking to himself in the park, that’s what.

Under intense pressure, they came up with a compromise – conference resolutions would establish the policy position of the party, the PLP would work out how to implement it.

It was a messy solution that only political journalists were thankful for, as it wrote their headline for day two of each annual Labour gathering over the coming years: “leadership defeated in conference vote.”

In 1907 specifically, it set up Keir Hardie for an embarrassing and binding reversal. He rocked up to conference with his proposal to put women’s suffrage at the centre of Labour’s programme.

Everyone voted. Nearly everyone voted “No!” The proposal was rejected by 605,000 votes to 268,000 (in actuality there were only 300 delegates representing several hundred thousand members, and with only 1 woman delegate, the gender balance in the hall probably didn’t help the pro-suffrage cause.)

A fuming Keir Hardie had already made it plain he was only prepared to serve as leader for one more year, and in response to conference’s views on women’s suffrage he threatened to resign.

“If it is necessary for me to separate myself from what has been my life’s work, I do so in order to remove the stigma resting upon our wives, mothers and sisters of being accounted unfit for citizenship.”

It was a typically principled and admirable stand from Hardie.  And if it was supposed to bring people over to his side, it was typically doomed.

Rather than rushing to the cause, his colleagues wondered just what Sylvia Pankhurst was slipping into Keir’s ginger beer. His friend and confidante John Glasier described her as “The Delilah who has cut our Samson’s locks,” thereby assuring the dominance of Tom Jones at the conference karaoke that year.

By committing to leaving within a year, maybe earlier if he got out of the bed on the wrong side, and having been resoundingly rejected by conference on his flagship policy, Keir Hardie had skilfully turned himself into a lame duck leader.

By April 1907, this had become more than a metaphor. Well, he didn’t actually become a duck, but Hardie’s health declined. The doctors prescribed an eight month sea voyage with plenty of rest and relaxation and all the shuffleboard he could handle.

Keir Hardie was barely able to contain his excitement on being offered a free cruise

Although he remained the nominal leader of the party, Keir Hardie was literally all at sea, on a Labour-party-funded cruise from May 1907 to the end of his term as leader in January 1908.

It was strangely low-key end for the man who had done so much to make the Labour party a reality.

Hardie’s unique contribution had come from his indefatigable conviction in what was right.  This belief meant he had persevered when most others would have given up.

It was a rare quality, essential to drag the party into existence, but there was a limit to how many times a party meeting could end with Keir Hardie on his own in the living room with “it’s my party and I’ll legislate if I want to” on constant repeat and everyone else in the kitchen, moaning.

Now, released from the shackles of leadership, Keir Hardie was free to ascend, Obi Wan-like, becoming an embodiment of an idea, a symbol to the membership of the virtues of socialism.

The party, meanwhile, had to keep going in the real, murky, dirty world of politics. So what would they do next?

Pete and Atul are not historians


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2 Responses to “Labour history uncut: Labour conference turns on Keir Hardie”

  1. Richard Smith says:

    Disrespectful bollocks. So pretty much what I expect from Labour Uncut.

  2. swatantra says:

    The Party has a habit of turning on its leaders. They did it to MacDonald, Wilson and Blair. This is an enthralling ramble through Labour History. Keep going, and lets hope the book comes out next year; should sell like hotcakes at Conference.

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