In 1892 a man was elected to parliament who transformed the political landscape. Breaking with the two established mainstream parties of the day — the Tories and Liberals — he became the first independent Labour MP, a worker representing other working people in parliament.
That man was Keir Hardie, and the place was West Ham in London’s East End. The worker’s cloth cap Hardie wore when he first entered parliament shocked the top-hatted Tory and Liberal MPs.
Hardie’s election showed the potential for a new party to grow and take up the battles of ordinary people — over unemployment, poverty, Britain’s imperialist role in Ireland, for women’s rights and against war.
Hardie was born into poverty in Scotland. He worked as a miner in Lanarkshire where he led a huge strike in 1881. Five years later he became secretary of the newly formed Ayrshire Miners’ Union. His first attempt to become an MP failed miserably when he stood as an independent Labour candidate in Mid-Lanark in 1888.
Hardie went on to stand in West Ham South in 1892. The seat was chosen because of the rebel stand taken by workers in the constituency.
In 1870 the Gas Light and Coke Company opened Europe’s largest gasworks in Beckton, east London, to serve the imperial capital. Other heavy industries followed — rubber, sugar refining, sewage works, engineering and the Royal Docks, part of the huge Port of London. The population rocketed, doubling every ten years. By 1911 West Ham was the eighth largest town in Britain.
In the late 1880s, the area exploded in struggle as tens of thousands of workers organised and fought, building mass trade unions of unskilled workers from scratch in a movement that became known as “the new unionism”.
Maurice Foley, an 82 year old former docker whose father and grandfather worked in the docks and who still lives in the area, explains, “Our people were exploited. Our women were exploited. It was a 12-hour day and if you couldn’t do it, you got the sack.”
In 1887 a series of protests over unemployment and home rule for Ireland — an important issue given the large number of Irish immigrants — helped stoke the mood across London.
Then in 1888, a strike by match girls at the Bryant & May factory in nearby Bow suddenly showed that even the worst-treated workers could organise and fight back.
The following year discontent at the harsh working conditions, casual work and terrible pay boiled over. Will Thorne, a local socialist, called a meeting at Canning town hall to organise a union at Beckton Gasworks.
Thorne told the workers, “It is easy to break one stick, but when 50 sticks are together in one bundle it is a much more difficult job.
“The way you have been treated in your work for many years is scandalous, brutal and inhuman. I pledge my word that, if you will stand firm and don’t waver, within six months we will claim and win the eight-hour day, a six-day week and the abolition of the present slave-driving methods in vogue not only at the Beckton Gas Works, but all over the country.”
In his autobiography, Thorne remembered, “After the speeches were over, I called for volunteers to form an organising committee... Eight hundred joined that morning. The entrance fee was one shilling, and we had to borrow several pails to hold the coppers and other coins that were paid in.”
Other socialists such as Eleanor Marx (the daughter of Karl Marx), Ben Tillett, John Burns and Tom Mann rushed to help. In two weeks, another 3,000 had joined the new National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. The Beckton Gasworks employers, badly shaken, conceded the eight-hour day — a landmark for workers everywhere — without a strike.
Next to fight were the dockers, who handled highly profitable cargos but were forced to fight each other for low paid casual work in brutal conditions.
“Many a man died — they were carrying 300 pounds on their backs,” explains Maurice. “And when they had the audacity to ask for a tanner — six old pence — the price of a cigar, they were forced out on strike.”
Anger hardened around this basic demand for sixpence an hour — the “dockers’ tanner”. The Great Dock Strike of 1889 spread like wildfire. Within three days, 10,000 workers had joined the strike. By 22 August the whole Port of London was at a standstill. The 50 mile stretch of docks was picketed by 16,000 dockers and 100,000 other workers across east London were striking in solidarity and for their own demands.
The East London News reported, “The week might not inaptly be called the week of strikes — coal men, match girls, parcels postmen, car men, rag, bone and paper porters and pickers.
“The employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railway works have found some grievance, real and imaginary, and have followed the infectious example of coming out on strike.”
Eleanor Marx’s role was crucial, speaking to huge mass meetings and strikers’ demonstrations and organising the solidarity collections and distribution of strike funds that kept the strike going.
Ben Tillett remembered, “During our great strike she worked unceasingly, literally day and night... Among all those who live in my memory, Eleanor Marx remains a vivid and vital personality, with great force of character, courage and ability.”
The mass strikes built huge new trade unions. Thorne’s gas workers’ union eventually become today’s GMB, while the T&G’s roots are in the dockers’ union.
The strikes and the new unions gave workers a sense of their own class identity and power. Some began to argue for a political voice for the workers.
Maurice says, “Keir Hardie knew of the militancy of the area. The docks and the gas works were very militant gatherings of men. That made it the best place to put up to get into parliament.”
Explaining his decision to stand in 1892 Hardie said, “If the strike conveys anything to me it is that the cry for a direct representation of labour… will be revived.”
He toured the area speaking to workers. In Canning Town, a meeting of 250 backed him “in the labour and [Irish] Home Rule interest”.
Maurice says his father remembered the campaign. “There was an enthusiasm to get Hardie elected — they were all out marching on the streets with union banners, the gas workers and the dockers. They whitewashed the kerbstones, painting, ‘Vote for Keir Hardie’.
“They had the old drum and fife bands out, the seamen’s and the firemen’s bands. People would be standing at their doors. It gave enthusiasm and made people get out and vote. In those days there were regular meetings on street corners.”
The Liberal candidate withdrew and Hardie secured victory. Hardie’s stint in parliament lasted just three years. He lost the 1895 election and appeared to have lost some of his base. Irish workers felt he had failed to fight hard enough for home rule.
But others remembered him more fondly. The Women’s Dreadnought — the paper launched by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst — argued, “One of the outstanding features of his years of absolute isolation as the sole Labour member was his fight for the unemployed.
“For his contention that workless men and women have a claim upon society to be provided with work, he was ridiculed and most angrily abused. But by the poor and those who understood him he was greatly loved.”
Despite the 1895 setback, the idea of labour representation lived on, eventually seeing the creation of the Labour Party. In West Ham, the first labour council was elected in 1898, while Will Thorne took Hardie’s place as the Labour candidate in 1900, eventually winning election in 1906.
Now with Respect standing in West Ham and neighbouring East Ham the radical tradition of breaking new ground — seeking to represent those who don’t have a voice that can truly speak for them in parliament — lives on.