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James Keir Hardie
James Keir Hardie, Sr. (15 August 1856 26 September 1915), best known as "Keir," was a Scottishmarker socialist and labour leader, and was the first Independent Labour Member of Parliament elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker. Hardie is regarded as one of the primary founders of the Independent Labour Party as well as the Labour Party of which it later was a part.


Early life

James Keir Hardie was born 15 August 1856 in a one-roomed cottage on the western edge of Newhouse, North Lanarkshire, near Holytownmarker, a small town close to Motherwellmarker in Scotlandmarker. His mother, Mary Keir, was a domestic servant and his father, David Hardie, was a ship's carpenter. The growing family soon moved to the shipbuilding district of Glasgowmarker, where they made a life in a very difficult financial situation, with his father attempting to maintain continuous employment in the shipyards rather than practicing his trade at sea — never an easy proposition given the boom-and-bust cycle of the industry.

Hardie's first job came at the early age of 7, when he was put to work as a message boy for the Anchor Line Steamship Company. Formal schooling henceforth became impossible, but his parents spent evenings teaching him to read and write, skills which proved essential for future self-education. A series of low-paying entry-level jobs followed for the boy, including work as an apprentice in a brass-fitting shop, work for a lithographer, employment in the shipyards heating rivets, and time spent as a message boy for a baker for which he earned 4-1/2 shillings a week.

A great lockout of the Clydeside shipworkers took place in which the unionizsed workers were sent home for a period of six months. With its main source of support terminated, the family was forced to sell all its possessions for food, with James' meager earnings the only remaining cash income. One sibling took ill and died in the miserable conditions which followed, while the pregnancy of his mother limited her ability to work. Making matters worse, young James lost his job for twice going tardy. In sheer desperation, his father returned to work at sea, while his mother moved from Glasgow to Newarthill, where her mother still lived.

At 10 years old Hardie immediately went to work in the mines as a "trapper" — opening and closing a door for a 10-hour shift in order to maintain the air supply for miners in a given section. Hardie also began to attend night school in Holytown at this time.

Hardie's father returned from sea and went to work on a railway line being constructed between Edinburghmarker and Glasgow. When this work was completed, the family moved to the village of Quarter, where the boy went to work as a pony driver at the mines, later working his way into the pits as a hewer. He also worked for two years above ground in the quarries. By the time he was 20, the boy had become a skilled practical miner.

"Keir," as he was by now called, longed for a life outside the mines. To that end, encouraged by his mother, he had learned to read and write in shorthand. He also began to associate with the Evangelical Union and to participate in the Temperance movement. Hardie's avocation of preaching put him before crowds of his fellows, helping him to learn the art of public speaking. Before long, Hardie was looked to by other miners as a logical chair for their meetings and spokesman for their grievances. Mine owners began to see him as an agitator and in fairly short order he and two younger brothers were blacklisted from working in the local mining industry.

Union leader

If Scottish mine owners had hoped to remove a potential labour agitator from their midst by blacklisting Hardie from work in the mines, their action proved to be a major miscalculation. The 23-year old Keir Hardie moved seamlessly from the coal mines to union organisation work.

In May 1879, Scottish mine leaders combined to force a reduction of wages. This, rather unsurprisingly, had the effect of spurring the demand for unionisation. Huge meetings were held weekly at Hamiltonmarker as mine workers joined together to vent their grievances. On 3 July 1879, Keir Hardie was appointed Corresponding Secretary of the miners, a post which gave him opportunity to get in touch with other representatives of the mine workers throughout southern Scotland. Three weeks later, Hardie was chosen by the miners as their delegate to a National Conference of Miners to be held in Glasgow. He was appointed Miners' Agent in August 1879 and his new career as a trade union organiser and functionary was launched.

On 16 October 1879, Hardie attended a National Conference of miners at Dunfermlinemarker, at which he was selected as National Secretary, a high-sounding title which actually preceded the establishment of a coherent national organisation by several years. Hardie was active in the strike wave which swept the region in 1880, including a generalised strike of the mines of Lanarkshiremarker that summer which lasted six weeks. The fledgling union had no money, but worked to gather foodstuffs for striking mine families, as Hardie and other union agents got local merchants to supply goods upon promise of future payment. A soup kitchen was kept running in Hardie's home during the course of the strike, manned by his new wife, the former Lillie Wilson.

While the Lanarkshire mine strike was a failure, Hardie's energy and activity shined and he accepted a call from Ayrshiremarker to relocate there to organise the local miners. The young couple moved to the town of Cumnockmarker, where Keir set to work organising a union of local miners, a process which occupied nearly a year.

In August 1881, Ayrshire miners put forward the demand for a 10 percent increase in wages, a proposition summarily refused by the region's mine owners. Despite the lack of funds for strike pay, a stoppage was called and a 10-week shutdown of the region's mines ensued. This strike also was formally a failure, with miners returning to work before their demands had been met, but not long after the return wages were escalated across the board by the mine owners, fearful of future labor actions.

To make ends meet, Hardie turned to journalism, starting to write for the local newspaper, the Cumnock News, a paper loyal to the pro-labour Liberal Party. As part of the natural order of things, Hardie joined the Liberal Association, in which he was active. He also continued his temperance work as an active member of the local Good Templar's Lodge.

In August 1886 Hardie's ongoing efforts to build a powerful union of Scottish miners were rewarded when there was formed the Ayrshire Miners Union. Hardie was named Organising Secretary of the new union, drawing a salary of £75 per year.

In 1887, Hardie launched a new publication called The Miner.

The Scottish Labour Party, MP for West Ham South and the ILP

Despite his early support of the Liberal Party, Hardie became disillusioned by William Gladstone's economic policies and began to feel that the Liberals neither would nor could ever adequately represent the working classes. Hardie believed the Liberal Party merely wanted the votes of the workers but that it would not in return offer radical reform for workers — he decided to run for Parliament.

In April 1888, Hardie stood as an independent labour candidate in Mid Lanark. He finished last but he was not deterred and believed he would enjoy more success in the future. At a public meeting in Glasgow on 25 August 1888 the Scottish Labour Party (not the same party as the modern Scottish Labour Party) was formed, with Hardie becoming the party's first secretary. The party's president was Robert Cunninghame-Graham, the first socialist MP, and later founder of the National Party of Scotland, forerunner to the Scottish National Party.

Hardie was invited to stand in West Ham South in 1892, a working class seat in Essex (now Greater Londonmarker). The Liberals decided not to field a candidate, but at the same time not to offer Hardie any assistance. Competing against the Conservative Party candidate, Hardie won by 5,268 votes to 4,036. On taking his seat on 3 August 1892 Hardie refused to wear the 'parliamentary uniform' of black frock coat, black silk top hat and starched wing collar that other working class MPs wore. Instead, Hardie wore a plain tweed suit, a red tie and a deerstalker. In Parliament he advocated a graduated income tax, free schooling, pensions, the abolition of the House of Lordsmarker and the women's right to vote.

In 1893, Hardie and others formed the Independent Labour Party, an action that worried the Liberals, who were afraid that the ILP might, at some point in the future, win the working-class votes that they traditionally received.

Hardie hit the headlines in 1894 when, after an explosion at a colliery in Pontypriddmarker which killed 251 miners, he asked that a message of condolence to the relatives of the victims be added to an address of congratulations on the birth of a royal heir (the future Edward VIII). The request was refused and Hardie made a speech attacking the monarchy, which resulted in uproar in the House of Commonsmarker . In 1895, he lost his seat.

Hardie spent the next five years of his life building up the Labour movement and speaking at various public meetings; he was arrested at a woman's suffrage meeting in London, but the Home Secretary, concerned about arresting the leader of the ILP, ordered his release.

The Labour Party

In 1900, Hardie organised a meeting of various trade unions and socialist groups and they agreed to form a Labour Representation Committee, and so the Labour Party was born.

In 1900, Hardie, representing Labour, was elected as the junior MP for the dual-member constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare in the South Wales Valleys, which he would represent for the remainder of his life. Only one other Labour MP was elected that year, but from these small beginnings the party continued to grow, winning power in 1924.

Meanwhile the Conservative Unionist government became deeply unpopular, and Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman was worried about possible vote-splitting across the Labour and Liberal parties in the next election. A deal was struck in 1903, which became known as the Lib-Lab pact. It was engineered by Ramsay MacDonald and Herbert Gladstone (son of William Gladstone): the Liberals would not stand against Labour in 30 constituencies in the next election, in order to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote.

In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the "Labour Party". That year, the newly established Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman called a General Election — resulting in the demolition of the Conservative party (now in Opposition) and the landslide affirmation of the Liberals.

The election result was one of the biggest landslide victories in British history: the Liberals swept the Conservatives (and their Liberal Unionist allies) out of previously safe seats. Balfour himself lost his seat, Manchester East, on a swing of over 20 percent. However, what would later turn out to be even more significant was the election of 29 Labour MPs.

Later career

In 1908, Hardie resigned as leader of the Labour Party and was replaced by Arthur Henderson. Hardie spent the rest of his life campaigning for votes for women and developing a closer relationship with Sylvia Pankhurst. He also campaigned for self-rule for Indiamarker and an end to segregation in South Africa. During a visit to the United States in 1909, his criticism of sectarianism among American radicals caused intensified debate regarding the American Socialist Party possibly joining with the unions in a labor party.

A pacifist, Hardie was appalled by the First World War and along with socialists in other countries he tried to organise an international general strike to stop the war. His stance was not popular, even within the Labour Party, but he continued to address anti-war demonstrations across the country and to support conscientious objectors. After a series of strokes Hardie died in hospital in Glasgowmarker on 26 September 1915. His friend and fellow pacifist Thomas Evan Nicholas delivered the funeral service..


Keir Hardie steered the Labour movement away from what he regarded as the damaging influence of Marxism, and towards a moderate, low church and trade unionist version of socialism that was practical, flexible and helped create a socialist party that, with time, has been more electorally and politically successful than most socialist parties outside Scandinavia.

Keir Hardie has de facto sainthood inside the Labour Party and is highly respected outside it. He also has the unusual distinction for a significant political leader of having rarely been attacked in print after his death.

On 2 December 2006 a memorial bust of Keir Hardie was unveiled by Cynon Valley MP Ann Clwyd outside council offices in Aberdare (in his former constituency). The ceremony marked a centenary since the party's birth.

Also he is still held in high esteem in his old home town of Holytownmarker, where his childhood home is preserved for people to view, whilst the local sports centre was named in his own honour "The Keir Hardie Sports Centre". There are now 40 streets throughout the UK named after him.

One of the buildings at Swansea Universitymarker is also named after him. While a main distributor road in Sunderlandmarker is named the Kier Hardie Way.

In recognition of his work as a lay preacher, the Keir Hardie Methodist Church in London bears his name.

Labour founder Keir Hardie has been voted the party's "greatest hero" in a straw poll of delegates at the 2008 Labour Conference in Manchester. Labour peer Lord Morgan, Ed Balls, David Blunkett and Fiona Mactaggart argued the case for four Labour figures at a Guardian fringe meeting at the Labour conference 2008 in Manchester, September 23 2008


  1. William Stewart, J. Keir Hardie: A Biography. Revised Second Edition. London: Independent Labour Party Publication Department, 1925; pg. 1.
  2. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pp. 1-2.
  3. Stewart, J. Keir Hardie, pg. 2.
  4. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pp. 2-3.
  5. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 6.
  6. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pp. 6-7.
  7. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 7.
  8. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pp. 7-8.
  9. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 8.
  10. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pp. 8-9.
  11. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 10.
  12. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pp. 10-11.
  13. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 12.
  14. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 14.
  15. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 17.
  16. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 19.
  17. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pp. 19-20.
  18. Stewart, Keir Hardie, pg. 21.
  19. "On Royalty" Paxman,J: London, Penguin, 2006 ISBN 978-0-14-101222-3 p58
  20. Ammanford, Carmarthenshire web site
  21. Hardie is 'greatest Labour hero'

Further reading

  • Caroline Benn, Keir Hardie. London: Hutchinson, 1992.
  • Kevin Jefferys (ed.), Leading Labour: From Keir Hardie to Tony Blair. London: IB Taurus, 1999.
  • Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie, Radical and Socialist. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.
  • Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants, Hardie to Kinnock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • William Stewart, J. Keir Hardie: A Biography. Introduction by J. Ramsay Macdonald. Revised Edition. London: Independent Labour Party Publication Department, 1925.

External links

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