What does Keir Hardie mean to Newham today?
PUBLISHED: 12:00 27 September 2015
Born into obscure poverty in a small town outside Motherwell in 1856, his family’s sole breadwinner at the age of eight, a miner by 11 – so began the unpromising life of one of the borough’s greatest political figures.
But Keir Hardie was not a man to take a bad hand lying down: by 17, he had taught himself to read, and after years of working with unions he became one of Britain’s first socialist MPs, representing West Ham South.
Though he only served the constituency between 1892 to ’95, his legacy is still felt across Newham – and in the modern Labour Party.
“Very much as we have a vast disparity in wealth now, so Hardie’s generation did then. As now, poverty was seen as a reflection of an individual’s moral weakness,” Brian Belton, historian and author of more than 100 books, said.
“He believed the very rich should pay more tax, he wanted universal schooling, women’s rights, the abolition of the Lords – he was very similar to modern Leftists.”
But it was not to last. In 1894, Hardie made a defiant speech in Parliament attacking MPs for not commenting on the deaths of 251 miners in Wales, and a year later he was booted out of office.
“That speech might have lost him popularity in West Ham, because he was talking about other areas,” Brian said. “He didn’t know much about West Ham.”
Brian considers Hardie to be more of a figurehead for the Labour movement, and sees in his subsequent leadership of the party comparisons with the present.
“He was deemed an idealist – someone whose politics would never be put into practice. And he was cold-shouldered for it,” Brian said.
“He was similar to Jeremy Corbyn. Like Corbyn, everyone was always predicting his downfall.”
Newham’s current mayor, however, sees a direct connection between Hardie and modern governance in the borough.
“He is still as relevant to the people of Newham today as when he was elected MP of West Ham South in 1892,” Sir Robin Wales said.
“His experiences shaped his views. He believed if people were to thrive they needed to play their part and he recognised the key to any family succeeding was work.
“Newham is proud that Hardie is a part of our history, and as well as having his principles enshrined into the work of the council, he also has a school and a part of the borough named after him.”
But Hardie’s influence is not solely political – he has also inspired the borough’s artists.
“I’m planning to write a play about him,” James Kenworth, author of Revolution Farm, said.
“Five or 10 years ago, no one would be interested – but I think now, with Corbyn, it’s very much of the moment.
“The two are very similar – but I also feel that at a time when people are wondering about whether the Labour Party can survive, it’s a good idea to look at its beginning.”
James said he is considering naming the play “Rebel Newham”, in tribute to the “awkwardness in the borough’s DNA” – but it’s the drama of Hardie’s life that most appeals to the playwright.
“The image of a child teaching himself to read is very beautiful,” he said. “And everything he achieved was because of that.”
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