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Keir Hardie: Labour's greatest hero?

Bob Holman
­­­­Lion Hudson, 224 pages


Bob Holman will be well known to Third Way readers as the Christian activist who walked away from an agreeable academic career to drop his family into sink estates in Bath and then Glasgow. His abiding belief then was that the poor are best helped by people who live with them rather than lecture at them. He has retained that view into his 70s, which goes some way to explaining this complimentary biography of the Labour Party's first leader.

In his introduction Holman worries that Hardie's name is not well remembered. Having lived for most of my life in constituencies that he represented, I can reassure him that the streets, schools and statues that bear that name are testament to a fond local appreciation. Equally, and in answer to the book's title question, Hardie was voted the Labour party's greatest hero in a straw poll of delegates at the 2008 Labour Conference in Manchester.

It is perhaps in the church that his reputation should be higher. A lay preacher with the Evangelical Union, Hardie's political principles came from a deep religious conviction and it is the links between his faith and his activism that the book is most careful to explore. Figures such as Wilberforce or Shaftesbury are rightly lauded as models of principled and committed social engagement, and Holman makes a stout case for Hardie to be included among them. In her own biography of him, Caroline Benn (wife of Tony, who endorses this book on its cover) notes that biographers have sometimes been 'ill at ease' with his religion. This is a welcome redressing of the balance.

Hardie's childhood was not religious. He was born what was then called illegitimately, though his mother's eventual husband seems to have been happy to adopt him ('except when he got drunk and called him "bastard"'). Both parents were atheist, having abandoned religion under the the influence of freethinker Charles Bradlaugh, but mother was keen that son did not develop the drinking habit of his stepfather. This is the likeliest explanation of how he ended up a keen member of the Temperance Movement. With the Templars, Holman says, came spiritual interest. The movement was 'dominated by evangelical Christians', whose books he was able to read having taught himself to despite a working career that started aged eight.

The Temperance Movement also introduced him to activism, appealing to MPs and councillors to inhibit alcohol sales. This, Holman points out, was key to a young working man who had seen and experienced social injustice but had no outlet for his grievances: 'Working-class people were given the opportunities to develop the skills of debating, campaigning, organizing, and speaking.'

This journey of faith and activism is not without its bends. As a young boy Hardie had been unfairly sacked by a rich master who was much noted for his piety. Holman is wise enough to allow Hardie record the whole experience in his own words. As an adult he wrote that 'The memory of these early days abides with me, and makes me doubt the sincerity of those who make pretence in their prayers. For such things still abound in our midst.' Early on then, Hardie was able to recognise that biblical calls for care of the poor were often unheeded by the people who most claimed to read it.

The book traces Hardie's journey through the trade union movement, following political successes (and failures) without failing to note the impact they had on his family. Sacked as an agitator, he supported them as a journalist, but always uncomfortably, forgoing a 'career' to pursue more righteous aims. He founded a paper called The Miner (which later became the Labour Leader) and investigated  the rich industrialists for whom he had once worked. His writing demonstrated his own particular approach to faith and politics (later to become more popular as Christian Socialism). In one notable case he savaged Lord Overtoun for being willing to fund evangelists to the poor and campaigns against Sunday trams  while being unwilling to allow his workers to rest on the Sabbath. This outburst earned Hardie the wrath of local clergy who labelled him unchristian - the origins of his reputation as a man outside the church rather than someone speaking from within it.

This level of scorn followed Hardie into his parliamentary career. I have at home a collection of Punch cartoons that berate him for demanding, for example, home rule for India; full integration for black South Africans; an end to World War I; and equal rights for women. Much writing on Hardie dutifully focuses on his role in the creation of the Labour Party - and Holman relates this ably - but this book's strength is its demonstration that he was able to use his Christianity as core and comfort when he was too right, too early.

This is not a perfect work: Holman's rebuttal of the claims that there was a physical relationship between Hardie and Sylvia Pankhurst  is solidly constructed, but occasionally he is too quick to defend him from those who accuse him of bad judgment. This is not a significant crime since the book's focus is elsewhere, and to open its cover is to know that you are with a fan (as he notes in the epilogue 'I cannot pretend to write objectively about Hardie'). Equally, in the context of the shared life experience and politics of the author and his subject, it would not perhaps be an insult to call the prose workmanlike.

The book finishes with some reflections about what lessons Hardie's life may have for the church and the Labour Party. Those of either or both will find the whole thing a useful prompt for thought.