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Keir Hardie

James Keir Hardie (August 15, 1856 - September 26, 1915) was a Scottish born socialist and labour leader, and the first Labour MP to be elected to the UK parliament.

Table of contents
1 Early Life
2 Union Leader
3 First Labour M.P and the ILP
4 The Labour Party
5 Later Career
6 Legacy

Early Life

Keir Hardie was born in 1856, the illegitimate son of Mary Keir, a servant from Legbrannock in Lanarkshire. Mary Keir later married David Hardie, a carpenter and the family moved to the industrial city of Glasgow.

Hardie grew up in poverty, and from the age of eight, was a delivery boy for a baker. At the time he was the only wage-earner in the family. He was fired from this job, because he arrived late to work, after looking after his dying brother. With no money coming in, the Hardies had to move back to Lanarkshire. From the age of eleven, Hardie was working down the pits of Lanarkshire. He never went to school and could not write until he was seventeen.

Union Leader

About this time, Hardie began to read the newspapers, and learned about trade unions. He set one up at the colliery where he worked, and in 1880 led the first ever strike by Lanarkshire miners. As a result, Hardie was blacklisted by the coal-owners, and was unable to find work. So he moved to Cumnock in Ayrshire and became a journalist.

Although raised an atheist, he was converted to Christianity, and became a lay preacher at the Evangelical Union Church. Christianity was to be the most important influence on his political career.

In 1886 he became the leader of first the Ayrshire Miners Union, and later the Scottish Miners Federation, and began to edit a paper called The Miner.

First Labour M.P and the ILP

Originally a supporter of the Liberal Party, Hardie became disillusioned by Gladstone's economic policies, and began to realise that the Liberals could never and would never represent the working classes fairly. They just wanted the votes of the workers, and any reform would be at best half-hearted. So Hardie became a Socialist, and decided to run for Parliament.

In 1888 Hardie stood as an Independent Labour candidate in Mid Lanark. He finished last, but he began to think that maybe, just maybe, next time he might be successful.

And sure enough in 1892 when he stood in West Ham (a working class seat in the East End of London), he was elected and became the UK's first ever socialist M.P. In Parliament he advocated a graduated income tax, free schooling, pensions, the abolition of the House of Lords and the right for Women to vote.

In 1893 Hardie formed the Independent Labour Party, an action that worried the establishment, and the Liberals, who were afraid that the ILP might, at some point in the future, "steal" their voters away from them.

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

He then spent five years building up the Labour movement, and speaking at various public meetings, he was in fact arrested at a woman's suffrage meeting in London, but the Home Secretary, worried 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 was elected as Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil in the South Wales Valleys, which he would represent until he died. Only one other Labour MP was elected, but from these small beginnings, Labour would grow and grow, eventually displacing the Liberals the major force on the left.

Meanwhile the Unionist Government was deeply unpopular, and Liberal leader Campbell-Bannerman was worried about possible vote-splitting in the next election. Labour and the Liberals, struck a deal: The Liberals would not stand against Labour in 30 constituencies in the forthcoming election.

In 1906 the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party, and Campbell-Bannerman (who had been caretaker Prime Minister since the resignation of Arthur Balfour in December 1905), called an election. The result was the biggest landslide in U.K. history, as 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%. However in the long run the most significant result was the fact that 29 Labour MP's had been elected.

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, self-rule for India and an end for segregation in South Africa.

A pacifist, Hardie was appalled by the First World War, but was powerless to stop it.


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 when given a bit of time, ended up creating a socialist party that has been more electorally and politically successful than most socialist parties outside Scandinavia. Hardie has de facto sainthood inside the Labour Party and is highly respected outside it. He also has the unusual distinction of hardly ever having been attacked in print after his death.