Keir Hardie betrayed
Friday 20th March 2015
SOLOMON HUGHES explains why he was shocked when shadow secretary for work and pensions Rachel Reeves said that the Labour Party does not represent the unemployed
RACHEL REEVES is what happens, I think, when bankers are in charge of the Labour Party.
Before becoming an MP, Reeves worked for the Bank of England and HBOS, with a stint at the British embassy in Washington in between.
Labour has given her a new career, but she seems to have no idea how or why the Labour Party was formed.
The Guardian asked her a typically Blairite question: “Is it a problem if Labour is seen as a party of the welfare state?”
Reeves answered: “Yes, of course, but we’re not. We don’t want to be seen as, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.
“Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people — the clue is in the name — we are not the party of the people on benefits.”
Reeves thinks Labour is not the party of the welfare state — of old-age pensions, unemployment benefit, the NHS, free school meals — even though it was crucial to the introduction of these important gains.
Her ignorance of how the unemployed helped to found Labour is shocking.
Keir Hardie won a parliamentary seat as an Independent Labour Party MP in the 1890s, then helped to found the Labour Party in 1900.
Hardie built the party by campaigning for — and with — the unemployed.
The Times reports on November 4 1893: “A large number of the unemployed assembled on Tower Hill yesterday morning in consequence of the announcement that there would be an organised procession through the streets to the West End,” where “Mr J Keir Hardie MP, who was received with loud cheers, addressed the meeting.
“He expressed strong sympathy with the unemployed and promised to do what he could to aid them from his place in the House of Commons.
“When he saw the great waste of time in that house he felt ashamed of belonging to an assembly which spent so much time in absolute twaddle while hundreds and thousands were starving.
“A procession was then formed along the roadway, Mr Keir Hardie placing himself at its head.”
Reeves says Labour does not represent the unemployed. Hardie, the founder of the party, put himself at the head of a march of the unemployed.
Hardie wanted to stand with the unemployed because they were in distress, but also because he and they understood that unemployment is a scourge that affects the working people.
The Times report says: “Most of the men wore a card in their hats on which was printed: ‘Unemployed and willing to work.’ One man carried a pole on which was stuck a loaf of bread. On this was a card bearing the words ‘Bread or ——’.”
This wasn’t easy, soundbite politics. The march went well, but “a considerable body of police were present” who broke up the march when it returned to the East End, with “several persons being thrown to the ground in the melee.”
Take another example (and there are many). Hardie spoke at a 1906 demonstration called by the Right to Work National Council in Hyde Park, making demands for and by “unemployed workers.” Note Hardie and his comrades saw the unemployed as workers without jobs — part of the labour movement.
The Times report of the demo says: “Many of the trade unions sent banners and contingents of unemployed members.” The demo was “swelled by a large contingent of women from Poplar.”
Labour both tried to look after its own, and to demand more. Before the march “6,000 or 7,000 packets of food were distributed.”
But the banners read: “Which — Work, Bread or Disorder,” “Curse your Charity, We Demand Justice,” “Work or Riot, One or the other” and “Work, Steal or Starve.”
Reeves’s anti-unemployed talk is more than just rhetoric. The party’s election promises include banning migrants from claiming benefits for two years — even if they have worked and paid taxes.
This isn’t just bad for migrants, it is very bad for all workers. What happens to workplace conditions if some workers aren’t even protected by the minimal safety net offered by benefits?
Can workers rock the boat if losing work would lead to literally zero cash? How much harder will it be to press for better conditions on the site or in the warehouse if the boss can bring a minibus with a new gang who are on the edge of a financial cliff, thanks to Rachel Reeves?