KeIr Hardie was one of the key architects of the Labour Party, as Bob Holman’s book makes clear.
Two ideas were central to Hardie’s politics. First, the working class needed political representation independent of the Liberal and Tory parties.
Some trade union officials had entered alliances with the Liberals—they were known as “Lib-Labs”.
Hardie opposed this. His skill lay in constructing a coalition of socialists, trade unionists and radical liberals.
The creation of the Labour Party was a step forward, but it created contradictions for Hardie.
He attacked those on the left who wanted the Labour Party to be an openly socialist organisation. Hardie feared this would alienate the trade union leaders.
His second crucial idea was that parliament was the key to improving the position of working class people. He asked an open air meeting of workers in West Ham as he campaigned to be elected as a Labour representative, “How many lives would be saved if parliament were to be based on proper lines, and the representatives were honest working men instead of capitalists, as they now were?”
Hardie supported many strikes, but he didn’t see them as the solution, instead arguing that, “the propoganda of class hatred is not one which can ever take root in this country.”
Hardie believed that conflict between labour and capital could be solved by electing workers who were not tied to the wealthy industrialists.
They would then pass progressive laws in parliament.
He also saw public ownership of industry as a solution to the conflict between workers and capitalists.
But parliament does not control the state machine, which is dominated by vast unelected centres of power in the top civil service, the police and army.
And state run industries do not abolish class conflict. They have always exploited workers just as private industry has.
The central role of parliament for Hardie created a further tension. It meant that the parliamentary Labour Party should not be accountable to the party membership. He insisted, “rigidly laying down the lines which the party must follow... is the road to ruin.”
Throughout its history Labour’s leaders have simply ignored decisions taken by Labour members at its annual conference when they felt they were too left wing.
Hardie and other early Labour MPs threatened to resign when conference decisions didn’t go their way.
Hardie died 14 years before the first Labour government with a majority in parliament was elected.
The twentieth century has repeatedly put the party to the test of government office.
Labour governments have passed reforms that have benefited working class people—most notably the 1945-1951 government that laid the basis for the modern welfare state.
But they have always sided with big business when it counts. When capitalism is expanding, reforms for workers are possible. But winning reforms in an age of economic crisis is much harder.
In reality, parliament has very little power in the teeth of opposition by big business. Rebuilding the working class movement today cannot come by returning to the start of the parliamentary road, unsullied by betrayals and compromises.
There are important lessons to learn from how the Labour Party was formed. One is that it is vital to look to workers’ own struggles as the key to changing society.
But the other is the centrality of a revolutionary socialist party capable of winning workers away from reformism to a strategy that can smash the system, and build a new one in the interests of the many not the few.
Keir Hardie: Labour’s Greatest Hero? by Bob Holman is published by Lion Hudson and is available from Bookmarks Bookshop » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk