Hardie Becomes Parliament’s First Labour Member Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Keir Hardie recognized that neither William Ewart Gladstone’s Liberal Party nor Lord Salisbury’s Conservative Party was willing to address the needs and conditions of the British working class. Attracted to socialist theory, Hardie succeeded in gaining election to the House of Commons as a Labour member of Parliament in 1892 and formed the Independent Labour Party in 1894.

Summary of Event

The last three decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a substantive shift in British politics that was caused by the expansion of the franchise (more people gained the right to vote), the continuing expansion of industrialization, and the ascendancy of new political leaders such as the Liberal William Ewart Gladstone and the Conservatives Benjamin Disraeli, Randolph Churchill Churchill, Lord Randolph , and the third marquis of Salisbury Salisbury, third marquess of [p]Salisbury, third marquess of;and Labour Party[Labour Party] . While both Liberal and Conservative governments responded to the extension of democracy and industrialization by being more aggressive in domestic legislation, neither party was willing to address the mounting economic and social distress that afflicted the working class. Hours of work, safety, wages and benefits, pensions, education, and health care problems were all major issues that dominated the lives of the working class and yet had no champion in Parliament. Critics of the major parties emerged, including some who were influenced by the writings of Karl Marx. The Fabian Society was formed in 1884 and served as an important instrument of this criticism; while it achieved some limited successes, however, it was not competitive with the major political parties. Labour Party (Great Britain) Hardie, Keir [kw]Hardie Becomes Parliament’s First Labour Member (Aug. 3, 1892) [kw]Parliament’s First Labour Member, Hardie Becomes (Aug. 3, 1892) [kw]First Labour Member, Hardie Becomes Parliament’s (Aug. 3, 1892) [kw]Labour Member, Hardie Becomes Parliament’s First (Aug. 3, 1892) Labour Party (Great Britain) Hardie, Keir [g]Great Britain;Aug. 3, 1892: Hardie Becomes Parliament’s First Labour Member[5830] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 3, 1892: Hardie Becomes Parliament’s First Labour Member[5830] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 3, 1892: Hardie Becomes Parliament’s First Labour Member[5830] [c]Business and labor;Aug. 3, 1892: Hardie Becomes Parliament’s First Labour Member[5830] Broadhurst, Henry Graham, Robert Bontine Cunninghame MacDonald, Ramsay [p]MacDonald, Ramsay;and Labour Party[Labour Party]

Keir Hardie.

(Library of Congress)

The founder of the British Labour Party, Keir Hardie, came from humble, working-class Scottish origins. Originally named James Kerr, Hardie was the son of Mary Kerr and a miner; when he was three years old, his mother married David Hardie and his name was changed to James Keir Hardie. His mother imposed her atheist views on her son; later, he would become a devout Christian. Hardie had little formal education and started working in coal mines at the age of eleven. The work was difficult and dangerous. Hardie later reported that he had witnessed the tragedy of the Blantyre coal mine in 1877: More than two hundred miners were killed in the accident. Shortly thereafter, Hardie left the coal mines and fields and became involved in the trade union movement.

At first, Hardie utilized his skills as a writer and journalist to advance his ideas to improve the lives of labor, especially those who worked in the mines. During the early 1880’s, Hardie considered himself to be a Gladstone Liberal. He achieved some recognition of his Liberal affiliation through his writings and his presentations to local groups. However, Hardie came to recognize that he was not comfortable within the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) . His attacks in 1887 and 1889 on Henry Broadhurst Broadhurst, Henry , a Liberal member of Parliament who served also as the secretary of the Trades Union Congress, were indicative of his mounting disenchantment with the Liberal Party. Hardie condemned Broadhurst for owning stock in companies and for not using his position in the House of Commons to improve working conditions.

During the same period, Hardie came under the influence of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham Graham, Robert Bontine Cunninghame , a socialist and a Liberal member of Parliament. Although not a member of the proletariat, Cunninghame Graham established the Scottish Labour Party in 1888 and had Hardie elected secretary. Cunninghame Graham did not fit the image of a socialist; he possessed resources and had a reputation as a writer and international traveler. Nonetheless, he was a fervent socialist and led the Scottish Labour Party during its brief history. Hardie assisted in the development of the new party’s agenda, which included nationalization of major industries, universal health care, and improved working conditions. During the late 1880’s, Hardie abandoned all hope that the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) could implement the level of economic change that was needed to correct the multitude of abuses and hardships that confronted the working class.

In 1888, Hardie ran for a seat in the House of Commons as an Independent Labour candidate. He refused any support from the Liberals and would not identify himself as affiliated with the Liberal Party; he was defeated by a wide margin. However, Hardie did campaign as a Liberal candidate in the West Ham South district of London in 1891 and won election to the House of Commons. The following year, he dropped his association with the Liberals and stood for reelection. Hardie was elected as an Independent Labour candidate on August 3, 1892. His election resulted from the support of a few socialists and many Liberals.

Between 1892 and 1895, Hardie made his mark on British political history; he began publishing a weekly newspaper, the Labour Leader, to advance socialist principles, and he created and organized the Independent Labour Party (1893-1894). Throughout his public career as a socialist leader, Hardie never called for the overthrow of the government, but he did call for the abandonment of capitalism and the triumph of socialism. In 1895, he was defeated in the general election.

During the following years, Hardie traveled extensively throughout the world and worked to establish a worldwide socialist network. In 1900, Hardie became the chair of the Labour Representation Committee, an alliance among the trade unions and the Independent Labour Party. In the same year, he again won election to the House of Commons as the representative from Merthyr Tudful. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Hardie became increasingly committed to feminism as well as socialism; at the same time, a new generation of Labour leaders was emerging. Ramsay MacDonald MacDonald, Ramsay [p]MacDonald, Ramsay;and Labour Party[Labour Party] , later to become the first Labour prime minister, became powerful through political dealings with the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) . The Liberals recognized the growing support for Labour and, after negotiations with MacDonald, agreed not to contest fifty seats in the general election of 1906, hoping to forge an alliance with Labour against the Tories. Labour won twenty-nine seats in the Commons and became a major force in British political life.

During the last decade of his life, Hardie wrote and traveled extensively, supported feminism, and opposed police brutality. After the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Hardie organized antiwar activities but gained little support. Both the Left and the Right condemned his antiwar positions, and some labeled Hardie as a traitor. By the summer of 1915, Hardie was a broken man; he died on September 26, 1915, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Significance

As Keir Hardie struggled during the 1880’s and 1890’s to identify a political path to achieve his social and economic agenda, he discovered that neither of the major political parties—the Conservatives and the Liberals—recognized or accepted any responsibility for the untenable living and working conditions that prevailed among the British working class. Hardie sought to eliminate abuses and hardships that affected the general population and to improve their quality of life in housing, old-age pensions, education, and transportation. Hardie’s success in becoming the first Labour member of Parliament in 1892 was followed by the formal establishment of the Labour Party in 1894.

During the Labour Party’s early years, Hardie’s leadership was challenged by more doctrinaire and left-wing factions; the pragmatic and democratic Hardie was not a Marxist but shared many goals in common with that more radical approach to the problems and issues of the period. By the late 1920’s, the Labour Party had eclipsed the Liberal Party Liberal Party (Great Britain) and had become the principal rival of the Conservatives. Labour’s success was based on its clear identity with the working class; as the franchise expanded and women became increasingly politically active, support for the Labour Party expanded as well. While differing in many ways, the Labour Party of Tony Blair is directly linked to the values first advanced within Parliament by Keir Hardie.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benn, Caroline. Keir Hardie. London: Richard Cohen Books, 1997. A solid political biography of Hardie that focuses on the evolution of his political thought and values.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Andrew. To Build a New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair. London: Abacus, 1996. Contains a valuable chapter on Hardie’s contribution as the founder of the Labour Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howell, David. British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, 1888-1906. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1983. A scholarly and sympathetic assessment of Hardie’s understanding and appreciation of the conditions and needs of the British working class and his views as a socialist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeffreys, Kevin, ed. Leading Labour: From Keir Hardie to Tony Blair. London: I. B. Tauris, 1999. Useful study of all of the leaders of the Labour Party; provides a sympathetic account of Hardie’s difficulties in establishing the Independent Labour Party as a force in British politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLean, Iain. Keir Hardie. London: Allen Lane, 1975. A brief but reliable account of Hardie’s life and his sympathy for the plight of British workers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Kenneth O. Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist. London: Phoenix Giant, 1997. A reliable biography of Hardie that is based on both primary and secondary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, Fred. Keir Hardie: The Making of a Socialist. London: Croom Helm, 1978. Sympathetic account that focuses on Hardie’s transformation from Liberal and journalist to socialist and politician.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, William. J. Keir Hardie: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. A comprehensive and solid biography that is centered on Hardie’s continuing identity with the British working class.

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