James Kier Hardie, MP (1856-1915)

The first Socialist MP in Parliament and Labour MP for West Ham South.

Early Life

James Kier Hardie was born on 15th August, 1856. He was the illegitimate son of Mary Kier, of Lanarkshire, Scotland. Mary later married David Hardie, a ship's carpenter, and the family moved to Glasgow.
The Hardie family was extremely poor and James was expected to find work as soon as possible. At the age of eight he became a baker's delivery boy, working for twelve-and-a-half hours a day, receiving 3s. 6d.(17½p) a week.

With his step-father unemployed, and his mother pregnant, Hardie was the only wage-earner in the family. At the age of eleven, Hardie became a coal miner. Having had no schooling, he was completely illiterate until his mother began to teach him to read after they moved to Lanarkshire. Although Hardie worked twelve hours a day down the mine, he still found time for his studies and by the age of seventeen had learnt to write.

Political and Union Interests

Hardie helped establish a union at his colliery and in 1880 led the first ever strike of Lanarkshire miners, for which he was sacked. In 1881 he worked as a journalist for a local newspaper. He held several appointments for various Scottish unions and began publishing a newspaper called The Miner (later renamed the Labour Leader). Hardie attempted to use the newspaper to give the miners a political education.  In 1886 he addressed a meeting organised by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester, which drew a crowd of 50,000 people. Soon after starting to speak he was arrested. The Home Secretary, worried by the publicity Hardie was getting, used his power to have him released.

Although raised as an atheist, Hardie was converted to Christianity in 1897. He became a lay preacher. and was also active in the in the Temperance movement. The dominant influences on his political ideas were his religious beliefs.

Hardie had a long political career and his interests were varied - mainly concerned with issues of improving working conditions and equality. He campaigned vigorously at home and abroad for workers' rights, women's suffrage, self-rule in India and equal rights for non-whites in South Africa. Many of these earned him political enemies and he was branded a trouble-maker. Some of his speeches inside and out of the Commons caused uproar

Keir Hardie in Parliamentary

In the 1892 General Election Hardie stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the West Ham South constituency. At that time, it was the tradition for MPs to wear top hats and long black coats. Hardie created a sensation by entering Parliament wearing a cloth cap and tweed suit! Keir Hardie earned the nick-name "Member for the Unemployed." While in Parliament, Hardie argued that people earning more than a £1,000 a year should pay a higher rate of income tax, saying this extra revenue should be used to provide old age pensions and free schooling for the working class. He also campaigned for the reform of Parliament the payment of MPs and the abolition of the House of Lords In 1893 Hardie helped form a new socialist group, the Independent Labour Party (ILP). At the opening conference, he was elected chairman and leader of the ILP.
In June 1894, Hardie suggested to the House of Commons that a message of condolence to the relatives of the 251 coal miners killed by an explosion in a colliery near Pontypridd, Wales, should be added to an address of congratulations on the birth of a royal heir (the future Edward VIII). When his request was refused, Hardie made a speech attacking the privileges of the monarchy. This created uproar in the House of Commons and Hardie was savagely attacked in the national newspapers.
In the 1895 election he lost the seat to Major Banes, the Tory candidate he had beaten in 1892. Major Banes held the seat until 1906, virtually forcing Hardie off the local political stage. However, in the 1900 General Election, Hardie was elected as MP for Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, one of only two Labour MP in the House of Commons.

His defeat by Major Banes was attributed to the break-up of the varied support he had gathered round him. He had concentrated so much on the issue of unemployment almost to the exclusion of other important issues of the day. Non-Conformists left him because of his change of stance on the "drink" issue and Roman Catholics left him over the Home Rule for Ireland question. Labour supporters felt he had compromised with the Conservatives, failing to recognise that as a lone Labour MP he had had to make tactical use of the Opposition even to get a seconder for a motion before the House.

Later political career.

After loosing his parliamentary seat in 1895, he devoted most of his energy to improving the organisation of the Independent Labour Party.

For a long time Hardie believed that trades unions and socialist groups should join forces and form one large political party. In 1900 a meeting took place in London that resulted in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee. This developed into the Labour Party.
Hardie spent many years trying to build up the Labour Party, eventually becoming leader of the Parliamentary Labour party. In 1906 Labour won 29 seats and in the 1910 election 40 Labour MP's were returned.
Hardie also disagreed with many members of the Labour Party over the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. He was a pacifist and tried to organize a national strike against Britain's participation in the war. Despite being seriously ill, Hardie took part in several anti-war demonstrations and as a result some of his former supporters denounced him as a traitor.

James Keir Hardie died on 25th September, 1915.

West Ham did not forget Keir Hardie: in 1907 he was presented with an illuminated address from his friends, admirers and supporters, and the Keir Hardie housing estate in Canning Town is named after him.

James Kier Hardie, MP (1856-1915)