Ellen Wilkinson: Communism, feminism and the Labour Party

For International Women’s Day, Paula Bartley celebrates one of the UK’s boldest radical politicians.

Remember When "Red Ellen" - Ellen Wilkinson MP - who led the Jarrow Marchers speaking in Trafalgar Square

On March 8th 1938, Ellen Wilkinson was the key-note speaker for the first celebration of International Women’s Day in London. Today, her voice still resonates, at a time when our country is faced with a government all too keen to punish the underprivileged and all too keen to protect the interests of a rich few.

From an early age, Ellen Wilkinson’s veins flowed with a political blood and her whole life revolved around campaigns for social justice in one form or another. She was committed to women’s rights from an early age – in 1913, aged 21, she became a paid worker for the Manchester National Union of Women’s Suffrage. By July 1915 Ellen was appointed the first national organiser for women at the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers. All her life she remained a trade unionist, proud of the links between NUDAW, the Labour Party and the working-class.

During the war – as with so many young  people – Ellen became attracted to revolutionary communism. On this day, nearly one hundred years ago, women textile workers in Petrograd, Russia celebrated International Women’s Day by downing their tools and taking to the streets demanding bread for their children and an end to the war. Over the next few days women swept through Petrograd, encouraging men to support their protests. The March revolution had begun, the Tsar resigned and a new Provisional Government was formed. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power and attempted to create a socialist state in Russia. Like many on the left, Ellen was swept away by the Russian revolution and became excited by the possibility of communism in the United Kingdom.

Ellen became one of the first members of the Communist Party, and she remained a member until the Labour Party made it a proscribed organisation. In 1924 Ellen, now 33 years old, stood as Labour Party candidate for Middlesbrough East. She was the only woman on the opposition benches and one of only four women in the House of Commons.

Ellen was a trade union sponsored MP and all her life fought to improve the pay and conditions for working people. In May 1926 there was a General Strike in support of coal-miners who had had their wages cut. Ellen worked hard to support the miners and later helped immortalise the strike in two books. Her co-authored A Workers History of the Great Strike is an emotionally charged account of those nine days and her autobiographical novel Clash captures the atmosphere and excitement of the struggle.

Unsurprisingly, the Tory Government did not approve of strike action, and did its utmost to make the General Strike fail. When the strike collapsed the Government reduced wages, increased working hours and permitted conditions in the mines to deteriorate even more.

By 1927, the Government had passed the Trades Disputes Act which restricted workers’ rights even further. It made sympathetic strikes illegal, protected strike-breakers, and made picketing almost impossible. These rights were later won back … and later taken away by Margaret Thatcher.

The Trades Disputes Act also made it harder for unions to raise funds. Instead of members ‘contracting out’ of paying a levy to the Party the new Act made them ‘contract in’.  Ellen and her union thought the Trades Disputes Act was a calculated attempt to cripple the trade unions and to destroy the Labour party. It was, they believed, ‘inspired by motives of class and partisan hostility.’

Indeed, she insisted that ever since the Conservative Government had been returned to power they had worked steadily in the interests of the rich.

But, as ever, history delivers unexpected political twists. In 1929, despite Tory attempts to undermine the Labour Party, Labour won the next election. Thanks to the efforts of Ellen and other sympathetic MPs, all women over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. Fourteen women MPs were elected, nine of whom were Labour. But the Labour Party was immediately faced with one of the world’s biggest economic disasters. On October 29th 1929 the Wall Street Crash precipitated a world-wide economic crisis. Banks collapsed, businesses went bust, consumer spending plummeted, currencies lost their value and unemployment rose.

The Labour Government had an economic choice: it could either cut expenditure or pump money into the economy. It chose austerity.

This was 1930, not 2016, yet Ellen knew exactly where to place the blame for this economic catastrophe: the greed of the bankers. ‘We are told’ she thundered ‘that the Budget doesn’t balance, that there are going to be terrible things happen unless you are prepared to accept cuts – cuts everywhere except in the dividend of the bankers’.

Ellen believed that a planned economy was the only real solution to the economic crisis. She wanted to nationalise the Bank of England and key industries. Capitalism, she believed, needed to be controlled. The debate on the cuts – as we know – led to the break up of the Labour Government.  It eventually collapsed in August 1931. Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Labour leader to become Prime Minister of a Conservative dominated Coalition Government. Ellen, as with most Labour MPs, refused to join it. It was, and still is, the most damaging split that the Labour Party ever experienced. And it took a long time – fourteen years in effect – to recover.

In September 1931 Ramsay McDonald was expelled from the Labour Party and the following month a General Election took place. The National Government, with McDonald as leader, won a landslide victory securing 554 seats: all at the expense of the Labour Party which won a humiliating 52. It was a crushing defeat. Ellen lost her seat, and no Labour women were left in Parliament. The Labour Party had kept to its core values but at the expense of a loss of power.  It certainly seemed as if the Labour Party had wandered into a political wilderness from which it would be unable to re-emerge.

Ellen missed Parliament, and in 1935 she stood and was elected for Jarrow.  Once again, she was the only woman on the Labour benches. In the early 1930s, Jarrow was one of the most disadvantaged and depressed towns in England. It had one of the worst unemployment records, largely because the Conservative government were instrumental in closing down the shipyard. In Ellen’s words they ‘had cut the throat of Jarrow’. While the banks were ‘stuffed full of money’, she complained, ‘I am working with men and women who are without’.

Ellen is best known for her organisation of the Jarrow Crusade, a march that has become thejarrow iconic image of the Hungry Thirties, an image of resistance, an image of survival, an image of resolution and fortitude. On Monday October 5th 1936 the marchers set off to walk to London; on October 31st, thirty days and 290 miles later, they reached the capital.

The Crusade hit the headlines. And in her electrifying account of the Crusade with its evocative title, The Town that was Murdered, she ensured that the March would remain celebrated.

Ellen was no dreamy intellectual hoping for an unrealistic nirvana. She was a pragmatist, a realist. Her politics was informed by the lives of people like her Jarrow constituents – not by reading theoretical handbooks.

Ellen has deep resonance for anyone interested in politics today. The MP for Jarrow was clear about what she believed. She talked like a human being about real things. Her words were delivered with such feeling that you trusted what she said. She was no political robot, blindly iterating policy if she thought it might win votes. She was one of that rare breed: a conviction politician whose compassion was always evident. For me, she represented Labour’s heart and soul. She was ‘unspun’, inspirational, committed to the values of equality and fairness.

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Paula Bartley is an independent scholar and former Senior Lecturer in History at the Bartley EWUniversity of Wolverhampton. She is the author of Votes for Women (2007), Emmeline Pankhurst (2002) and The Changing Role of Women (1996). Her work has appeared in the American Historical Review, Social History, Midland History and Women’s History Review.

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Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

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