Keir Hardie and the realist’s dilemma


156 years ago today James Keir Hardie was born into grinding poverty in a one-bedroom cottage in North Lanarkshire.

It was a hard life. Labour’s original founding father was first sent to work as a message runner for a shipping company at age seven. By the time he was ten he was working as a trapper in the coal mines.

A series of mining jobs followed as Hardie dragged himself up by his bootstraps to become an inspirational trade union leader. He taught himself to read and write, the Labour historian Kenneth Morgan points out, by ‘scratching out the characters on a blackened slate with the wire used by miners to adjust the wicks of their lamps.’

What would Hardie, the famed orator and idealist, make of the party he did to so much to form 106 years ago?

Yesterday Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy became the latest voice to grapple with the realist’s dilemma of how Labour must respond to governing in a time of straitened public finances. She argues that all spending must pass a clear value for money test and Labour should go into the next general election with a “zero budget” with every area of spending up for review.

In his own way, Hardie was a realist too. He eschewed the revolutionary fervour of the time to pursue the road to parliamentary socialism. It was – and remains – hard-travelled, with its share of setbacks and wrong turns. What Hardie would recognise though is that realism always needs a clear abiding purpose. This, then, is the realist’s dilemma and there are two fundamental problems that it presents.

The first is that it is impossible to galvanise centre-left opinion – and working people in particular – behind vague promises of being a bit nicer than the other lot. The Liberals tried that in Hardie’s day. The prospect of change has to be real and spelled out. Political organising and shifting public opinion remain as hard today as they were then. At its root there is a need to inspire a shared sense of mission, of destination; whether that’s the ‘New Jerusalem’ of the party’s founding fathers or even the ‘New Britain’ of Tony Blair.

Yes to realism and yes, too, to prudence; but what is Labour’s animating purpose if ameliorating the worst excesses of the free market through social spending is out of bounds, as Creasy seems to suggest? To use a very un-Hardie phrase, what does Labour’s ‘brand’ stand for then?

The second problem is that a lack of clear intent – or even just a reticence in articulating the party’s spending priorities – offers little clarity to the government machine. Any senior civil servant will say that they prefer their political masters – of whatever hue – to have a fixed idea of what they want to achieve. Endless reviews and policy trimming are inimical to good government. Socialism, RH Tawney said, needs a ‘hard cutting edge’.

Hardie’s death in 1915 at the age of 59 robbed Labour of its ‘Moses’ according to his eventual successor Ramsay McDonald. The comparison is apt. Hardie never rose to ministerial office as McDonald later would. His was a mission or raising consciousness among working people that change was needed – and possible. The working class became a risen people in large part thanks to Hardie.

His early death spared him the later sight of McDonald’s rudderless Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31, which are best-remembered as warnings to future generations about bending to the myopic economic orthodoxies of the day.

The challenge for Labour politicians today, as it was in Hardie’s time, is to present a clear alternative and the promise of real change. Offering reviews and neutrality about spending priorities is not the way to do that.

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