Kenneth O Morgan – Keir Hardie’s biographer

Source: Daily Record

KEIR Hardie spent his time in the Labour party doing everything to unite it – while Corbyn seems to be set on splitting it up.

THE Labour Party are a coalition, made up of purists and pragmatists.

The party’s folk hero is the Lanarkshire miner Keir Hardie, moral crusader and master builder, who uniquely straddles both categories.

What would he make now of Jeremy Corbyn? Well, they both had beards and looked older than their years. After that, there is little else in common.

Keir Hardie, among many other things, was the movement’s great strategist. He sensed the need for a Labour alliance, between the small minority of committed socialists and the trade unions, the growing voice of the mass working class. He called for “a broad and tolerant catholicity”.

Labour should first aim not at a doctrinaire programme but at winning representation in parliament, not at “demos” but at making democrats.

Scottish Labour leader James Keir Hardie canvassing with the Labour candidate Mr Stuart

He began his crusade in Scotland, using comrades such as Bob Smillie. The Scottish TUC conference at Dundee in 1899 led a year later to the foundation of a Labour Party.

Hardie saw the need to convert both middle-class professionals and the majority of the workers, who were not socialists but “Lib-Lab” admirers of Gladstone or, quite frequently, Conservatives. He advocated the inclusive broad church.

By contrast, Corbyn, like the Marxist SDF of Hardie’s day, is a sectarian, tied doctrinally to the hard-left minority, for whom the dirtiest word is Blairite.

Hardie championed the idea of an independent party. He challenged both non-party Fabians and the Lib-Labs. He steered clear of the inbred Marxists of the SDF and the nihilists following Victor Grayson, the Momentum of their day.

Hardie was not a class warrior. Socialists “should make war upon a system, not a class”. Corbyn, by contrast, seeks out support from anti-capitalists anywhere. His supporters are socialist workers as much as democratic labour.

Hardie was always a dedicated constitutionalist. He endorsed strike action by the workers – but as a support for parliamentary action, not a substitute for it.

“Socialists should use the state, not destroy it.”

A democratic socialist, he saw both the democracy and socialism as essential. By contrast, Corbyn has little sympathy for parliament or collective responsibility. He is no team leader or team player, having no interest in the parliamentary/shadow cabinet arena. He flatters “the grassroots social movement”, preferring student marches about Cuba to meetings of the parliamentary party.

Hardie Corbyn
Finally, Hardie’s strategy focused on deep regard for British popular traditions centuries before the industrial age, the “liberty tree” cherished by the common people. In his way, he was a history man who cherished in his native Scotland tales of William Wallace and Chevy Chase and in Wales (he became MP for Merthyr) the culture of the national eisteddfod.

 

He admired the chapels’ “nonconformist conscience” and made sure Labour, unlike the French socialists, never became anti-clerical. Like Nye Bevan, he argued that socialists could only see the way ahead if they knew where they had come from. Corbyn, however, shows little interest in the history of his own country, which he seems actively to dislike.

When invited to celebrate Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph, he turned to praising American Serena Williams instead.

Hardie was also far sounder on Labour’s policy priorities. An uneducated boy, he showed more insight than Corbyn, the failed product of an expensive private school.

Hardie sustained a powerful crusade on unemployment. He became “the member for the unemployed” and attached Labour to the cause.

Corbyn, in 33 years on the back benches attacking his own party, was never identified with anything in particular. He was a negative, intellectually lazy figure, repeating hackneyed slogans, incapable of developing lines of argument at Question Time, letting Cameron, and now May, off the hook time and again.

On women’s issues, Hardie was a noble pioneer who made Labour the party of feminism. He had close links with the Pankhursts, especially with the socialist Sylvia, with whom he formed a powerful partnership.

Corbyn, however, has seldom shown sensitivity towards women personally or politically, and responds to the physical harassment or intimidation of women Labour MPs with a few trite generalities and threats of deselection.

Hardie also championed colonial peoples and ethnic minorities – but on liberationist grounds – whereas the “pacifist” Corbyn’s support goes to terrorist groups such as Hamas or guerrillas in Nicaragua.

Hardie was an especial champion of Jewish and other immigrant refugees fleeing to Britain from anti-semitic pogroms and reviled here as “aliens”. He stood firm for racial equality.

Under Corbyn, by contrast, Labour anti-semitism has become a serious issue with Israel denounced, Jewish MPs intimidated and Livingstone ludicrously linking Zionism with Hitler. The ‘leader’ stands by, silent.

Hardie was also a devolutionist, a pluralist deeply sympathetic to citizenship and the national cultures of Scotland and Wales – and Ireland. He was a prophetic figure here. Corbyn, for his part, never utters on constitutional questions at all. He shows no interest and no ideas, notably on Brexit, where he repeatedly changes his line.

Finally, Hardie was a genuine internationalist, active in the Second International, a citizen of the world, comrade of Jaures and Bebel. Corbyn by contrast is an insular, ideologue unknown in the world of international socialism, not interested in working with European socialist parties.

Hence his failure to campaign honourably for Europe in the referendum and the implication of his having voted Leave, with no interest in winning power for socialists in continental Europe.

Hardie attracted love and loyalty. He was seen as a Christ-like figure, another Moses or Mandela. Corbyn wins neither affection nor respect from party colleagues.

He staffs his office with anti-democrats or Stalinists. Fortunately in the leadership contest there is another, younger figure who exemplifies the qualities which he lacks – Owen Smith, feminist, egalitarian, devolutionist, cradled in the socialist democracy of the Welsh valleys with a profound understanding of the historical roots of our socialism.

Like Bevan, he sees it as the instrument for winning power for the workers. If Labour want to renew Hardie’s legacy, they should vote overwhelmingly for Smith, custodian of his values and keeper of his faith.

Kenneth O Morgan has written on Keir Hardie, Lloyd George, the Attlee government, James Callaghan and Michael Foot.