“The poverty of the poor is not an accident, a temporary difficulty, a personal fault. It is the permanent state in which the vast majority of the citizens of any capitalist country have to live.”
So began Ellen Wilkinson’s great polemic The Town That Was Murdered (1939), a scorching attack on the coalition government’s desertion of the industrial North to poverty and unemployment during the depths of the depression. Writing as the MP for Jarrow, one of the worst affected areas, Ellen’s account was pierced through with bristling anger and witty asides. Yet the message at the heart of the book was a serious one. Jarrow’s plight was not a local problem: to Ellen, it was the symptom of a national evil. Ellen viewed the demise of shipbuilding at Jarrow, the mass unemployment that followed and the lack of government action as shameful examples of the wastefulness of capitalism. She made it her life’s work never to look away from the poverty it caused; never to flinch; never to pretend that it didn’t exist. She was, in the words of one admiring journalist:
“a politician… a very clever woman politician indeed, but she had feelings and Jarrow…Jarrow really hurt her.”
The facts of ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson’s life are extraordinary. Leader of the legendary Jarrow Crusade, pioneering trade unionist, war correspondent, communist agitator and the only female cabinet minister in the 1945 Labour government, her career mirrored the birth and early years of the Labour movement. Remembered now more for her appearance than her politics (she was small and frail with a shock of red hair), she often attributed her love of bright clothes to the colourless grime of her childhood in working-class Manchester. Yet in some ways Ellen’s childhood seems tinged with socialist romance. Her empathy for others, her enduring commitment to Methodism and her enviable work ethic all stemmed from the stability and love of her family, especially her father, whose stubborn determination and concern with politics she inherited.
Like most female politicians of her era, Ellen’s career was constrained by the prejudices of her day. The very fact of her rise to parliament was remarkable in itself. As with most intellectually gifted working-class girls, Ellen had been ear-marked for a career in teaching as part of the “indentured labour” system that funded girls through university in return for a contractual commitment to teach (and not to marry) for years afterwards. Winning the Jones Scholarship in History freed Ellen from that fate, allowing her to use her time at Manchester University to explore her growing interests in feminism and ILP politics. There, she helped to organise women in the ‘sweated industries’ of northern industrial towns and cemented her lifelong commitment to socialist activism.
From then on her ascent to political prominence was startling. By her late twenties she was a rising star within the Labour movement, pursuing union backing to sponsor her parliamentary ambitions at a time when women had barely secured the vote. In 1924, with the backing of NUDAW (now USDAW) she became one of the first female MPs, taking the seat of Middlesbrough against expectations. Her arrival in parliament was much remarked on: ‘five feet of dynamite’ in the heart of the establishment. Yet as her fundraising work during the 1926 General Strike showed, Ellen’s contribution to the Labour movement was largely practical. She was viewed as a dependable voice, willing to storm any platform, with a rare gift for personal empathy. Unfortunately, these very qualities often led colleagues to underestimate her intellectual and wider political abilities. The Labour hierarchy had little doubt that Ellen was ‘one of us’, yet they were in no rush to give her positions of real power.
Rather, Ellen’s political influence in the 1930s was hard-won. In the Labour election wipe-out of 1931, Ellen came into her own. Having lost her seat at Middlesbrough, she used her reputation as a great orator to tour the country, galvanising the Labour base in the face of its shocking defeat. There was no need for naval-gazing and hand wringing, she told them. The country had not lost faith in the Labour movement; it had lost faith in Ramsay MacDonald’s inept response to economic freefall. Already a firm believer in the Keynesian maxim look after unemployment and the budget will look after itself, her belligerent response was just what the Labour movement needed at that time.
Ellen’s reward was Jarrow, a Labour target seat which she won and then cemented as her own. For Ellen, the march of unemployed men to London, which became known as the Jarrow Crusade, was the culmination of her life’s work as a skilled campaigner. In the face of deeply personal criticisms from the Labour hierarchy (who would subsequently claim the Crusade as their own), Ellen used Crusade to launch a media campaign against mass unemployment. That it became the iconic image of the English depression, and one which we now associate so closely with Labour, is due largely to her discretion and leadership.
Ellen Wilkinson was instinctively an agitator, sitting just beyond the machinery of power and most alive in attack. When the call to ministerial office came, it was Churchill who appointed her to his war-time government. Ellen took lead responsibility for ensuring that London had adequate shelters to withstand the Blitz, a role which placed her in considerable danger. If admirers would later recall her war-time work as characteristic of her bravery, it was also characteristic of her addiction to over-work. Work (and the physical exhaustion it brought) was her saving grace; a panacea for personal tragedies.
The received wisdom about Ellen Wilkinson is that her appointment as Secretary of State for Education in 1945 was ‘a step too far’. Under immense pressure in Attlee’s cabinet, we are told, she could not cope. Undoubtedly, the war years had taken their toll. Ellen found herself increasingly isolated, over-worked and ill. It is also true that her legacy at the Ministry of Education remains a point of historical contention. Yet her task was formidable. Attacked from both the Conservative benches and by her own colleagues, she fought hard to raise the school leaving age amid stiff opposition, as well as push through reforms to the very structure of state education. Her sudden death in January 1947 robbed her of the chance to complete that agenda.
Given these astonishing facts, why is Ellen Wilkinson so little remembered today? I believe that the answer lies in the circumstances of her death. For several years, she had conducted a secretive relationship with Herbert Morrison, the brilliant political tactician and founder of the London Labour Party. In January 1947, worn down by ill-health, I believe that the end of that affair broke her. Ellen’s death was sudden, shocking. It prompted a public inquest. The possibility of suicide was whispered in the corridors of Westminster (and in the private diaries of colleagues). Many Labour figures kept their distance from the funeral service, fearing scandal. The official cause of death was recorded as an accidental overdose. But rumours persisted. As the Labour hierarchy sought to distance itself from gossip-by-association, Ellen’s contribution to the Labour movement dropped from public view. Her life and work have remained resolutely in the shadows. Her image lives on in grainy show-reels at the Museum of London but knowledge of her work has largely faded away.
Beatrice Webb famously remarked that Ellen was not an original thinker but a vivid interpreter of other people’s thoughts and intentions. I am not convinced. As I research more into Ellen’s life, there is a part of me that resists categorising her as an appendage – the ‘dark angel’ at Herbert Morrison’s side as they worked together to undermine Attlee’s leadership; the impressionable companion of more serious-minded Communist agitators; the Minister of State who was ‘out of her depth’. It is easy to pigeon-hole Ellen in these ways, mainly because her career does not fit neatly into the orthodox narrative of the early Labour movement. It is an inconvenient fact that she was an uncompromising feminist, at a time when the Labour hierarchy largely viewed women’s rights as a threat to the working-class family model. It is uncomfortable to remember how colleagues, including Morrison, isolated and bullied her in the 1945 cabinet in order to protect their own little piece of the Welfare State.
It is far harder to scratch beneath that simple picture. The scale and breadth of her actions are so staggering that the ‘real Ellen’ is somewhat mercurial, slipping through my grasp whenever I think I have her. In one sense, she was the archetypal modern woman: in control of her own destiny, enjoying the success of worthwhile work, sexually liberated and open to experiences beyond the reach of most women in history. To accept that picture without question is, I think, to place a twenty-first century veneer over a twentieth-century figure. In her conceptions of left and right – in her ceaseless war against the ‘evils of capitalism’ – Ellen was very much of her time. She campaigned because she detested poverty and injustice, but also because she viewed a life of direct action as the only honourable form of existence. Ellen’s sense of herself as an agent of change was central to her personal narrative. In dedicating her life to politics, she acted in full knowledge of the sacrifice required. She made it willingly and without self-pity. Like the heroine of her novel Clash, Ellen welcomed the chance to forge a new path:
“[N]ow so much has been won, the vote, open professions, and all that, there must be some women in this generation who will put their job first and who will tackle some of these problems that are left lying around…[B]ig things for humanity are only won by someone’s sacrifice.”
NEXT WEEK: Jennie Lee