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Keir Hardie, MP (1856-1915)

Though a Scotsman, Keir Hardie is an important figure in Welsh labour history, becoming Wales' first Independent Labour MP in 1900, a significant factor in the dominance of labour-based politics in industrial south Wales.

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The Albion Colliery, Cilfynydd, after the...

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Early life

James Keir Hardie was born in Lanarkshire in Scotland on 15 August 1856. He had a difficult childhood and had to leave school at the age of eight to earn the family's only income working for a baker. At the age of eleven, he was a miner in the Ayrshire coalfield, and at seventeen had learnt to read and write and, as a result, he developed an interest in politics.

As he read newspapers he learnt of the struggles of workers attempting to better their situations by forming trades unions. Before long, Hardie became a miners' leader and formed a union in the colliery. In 1880, he led the area's first strike, an act which led to his dismissal. He became more and more active in the area's labour movements, as well as working as a journalist and joining the temperance movement. He had been brought up as an atheist, but turned to Christianity in the 1870s, an act which went hand in hand with his work with the temperance movement.

 

Workers' Rights and sympathies

His first attempt at becoming a Member of Parliament was a failure in a by-election in 1888 when he won only 617 votes. But that election was an important step and soon afterwards Hardie founded a newspaper, the Labour Leader, and became more prominent in the Labour political world. He moved to London in 1891 and in the 1892 general election was elected the Independent Labour Member of Parliament for South West Ham, along with one other member for Battersea.

In the House of Commons he spoke for workers' rights and sympathised with the plight of the lowest in society. He called on the House to send a message of sympathy to the families of the Albion Colliery disaster near Pontypridd. The members refused and Hardie criticised them harshly for congratulating the royal family on the birth of Edward but refusing his request. He lost popularity following incidents such as these and lost his seat to the Conservatives in 1895.

 

The Growth of the ILP and decline of Hardie

But despite losing every seat in the 1895 election, the Independent Labour Party (founded in 1893) was growing in popularity. During this period Hardie travelled across the world to learn from other labour movements, and visited the South Wales coalfields on numerous occasions, especially during the 1898 strike. As a result he was invited to stand in the Merthyr Tydfil constituency and won the seat on 10 October 1898. With only two Members of Parliament, it was not easy for the Independent Labour Party in Westminster, but success came in the January 1906 elections as a result of an entente with the Liberals. The Independent Labour Party won 29 seats and Keir Hardie kept his seat in Merthyr Tydfil.

The beginning of the First World War was a fateful event for Hardie. As a committed pacifist, he spoke fervently against the War and the fighting, leading peace protests in London and in South Wales. But Britain's workers were supportive of the War on the whole and he was harshly criticised for being unpatriotic. The criticism, and the War, affected his health so greatly he died in Glasgow on 26 September 1915.

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