A friend of my sister had been clearing out a house, there were books set aside to be discarded and my sister had saved two from the likely destiny of the recycling bin: a Bible and a biography of Keir Hardie, the pioneering figure of the British Labour Party. “I thought you might be interested,” my sister had said, leaving the books for me.
It had seemed an unlikely combination of books. I can recall only one colleague from my years in the church, a Dubliner, who might have had both books on his shelves. Reading the biography, the books do not seem so far apart as might be imagined, and Keir Hardie might offer an explanation of the dismal level of support for the Labour Party in the present times.
The Life of J. Keir Hardie was written by William Stewart in 1921 and re-published by the Independent Labour Party in 1946. The introduction to the original edition was written by one J. Ramsay MacDonald who notes that the writing has a feeling of hagiography, Ramsay MacDonald that Stewart “writes of his hero frankly and unashamedly, as a worshipper.”
The hagiographical dimension extends into the narrative, as Stewart notes Hardie’s devotion to his faith. “He was still active in temperance work . . . He took his share of the church work and filled the pulpit when the absence of the appointed minister made that necessary, and frequently his voice was heard at the street corners of Cumnock and in some of the neighbouring villages, preaching the Gospel of Christ as he understood it.”
Hardie was explicit in drawing upon his faith to explain his socialist politics, writing in 1888, “The world today is sick and weary at heart. Even our clergy are for the most part dumb dogs who dare not bark. So it was in the days of Christ. They who proclaimed a God-given gospel to the world were the poor and the comparatively unlettered. We need today to return to the principles of the Gospel which, by proclaiming all men sons of God and brethren with one another, makes it impossible for one . . . to insist on his rights at the expense of another.”
His experience of poverty and his identification with the poor led Keir Hardie to an evangelical interpretation of Christianity (evangelicalism was to lose its radical dimension in the Twentieth Century). It also persuaded him that having been poor himself gave him a powerful platform to speak for the poor, he wrote to voters in the Mid-Lanarkshire, “I ask you therefore to return to Parliament a man of yourselves, who being poor, can feel for the poor, and whose whole interest lies in the direction of securing for you a better and a happier lot.” Keir Hardie was unsuccessful in his by-election bid, but his endeavours launched the nascent Labour Party into electoral politics.
At a time when both the church and Labour Party are failing to attract working class support, Keir Hardie’s emphasis on the necessity of solidarity with the poor would be a useful lesson.