A PROCESSION formed up in the workers’ suburb of West Ham on August 3, 1892, and set out, through the streets of London that grew ever grander, towards the Houses of Parliament.

A brass band strode out in front, followed by a crowd proclaiming their allegiance to class (their own class) rather than to any professional politician.

In a carriage towards the rear sat a man who, with the help of these supporters, was marking his exit from his own traditional Scottish roots and his entry into a promising wider world of proletarian politics. This was Keir Hardie, the new MP for West Ham South.

Hardie was one of two politicians – the other being John Burns in Battersea – who at the general election just passed became the first workers to get elected independently to the House of Commons.

Hardie was born in Newhouse, Lanarkshire, in 1856. His working life began at the age of seven, and from the age of 10 he worked in the mines. He became known as a talented public speaker and was chosen as a spokesman for his fellow miners.

In 1879, Hardie was elected leader of union in Hamilton and organised a national conference of miners in Fife. He went on to lead miners’ strikes in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire and from 1886 was a full-time union organiser as secretary of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union.

The UK was not yet quite a democracy in the modern sense when Hardie and Burns were elected but in the real world those who aspired to see the working class prosper in politics knew this could only be done through winning elections to Parliament – and doing so through the rough-and-tumble tactics that, over centuries, the UK system had made its own.

Hardie joined in with a will. He had moved in 1891 from Scotland to the different conditions in London but in order to extend rather than repudiate his own experience.

The National: John Burns John Burns (Image: Getty Images)

Down there, he was hailed as “the man in the cloth cap”, though in fact he wore something like a deerstalker, then and later. At any rate, he was now Britain’s first socialist MP.

By his own behaviour, he underscored how this was a new era. The practice at the time was for MPs to wear long black coats, a silk top hat and starched wing collar.

Hardie created a sensation by entering Parliament in a Tweed suit, a red tie, and a workman’s peaked cap, all set off by a bushy beard. 

Burns claimed that Hardie’s check cloth was so broad that “you could have played draughts on it”.

On the other hand, Thomas Threlfall of the Trade Union Congress attacked Hardie for his behaviour. He said that previously political trade unionists had “demonstrated that working men could come like gentlemen”.

Hardie had outraged the sentiment of Labour and done serious injury to his own reputation by going along dressed in the manner he had chosen ... “because the House of Commons is the first assembly of gentlemen in the world.”

In fact. Hardie stood at the vanguard of a tradition that was by now a long one. In the Commons, he began advocating policies that had first been put forward by revolutionary Tom Paine in his book The Rights of Man in 1791. Hardie argued that people earning more than £1000 a year should pay a higher rate of income tax.

He believed the extra revenue should be used to provide old age pensions and free schooling for the working class. He also campaigned for the reform of Parliament: women’s suffrage, payment of MPs and abolition of the House of Lords.

AT first Burns and Hardie were simply independents representing nothing more than their own seats. But the next year they set out to establish the Independent Labour Party, not connected to any other party and championing broad aims, “to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

Hardie had accepted the offer of standing in a constituency in London’s industrial east end, because it was a hotbed of the “new unionism” where unskilled workers were organising themselves on the basis of their industries rather than their crafts.

The Liberal Party, still the main hope of the workers, indulged this shift. For example, in the General Election of 1892 it did not put up a candidate against Hardie but left him to a straight fight with the Conservatives. That was one of the main reasons why he won.

It was not Hardie’s first electoral battle. He had wanted to stand as an official Liberal candidate at a by-election in Mid Lanarkshire in April 1888, but was rebuffed by the local association in favour of a wealthy London barrister.

Hardie then decided to be an independent labour candidate. His prospects did not look good. The Liberals promised to give him a safe seat at the next election if he would stand aside this time.

He allowed himself to be distracted by religious issues which in the west of Scotland were never going to work to the advantage of the left.

He attracted only 617 votes, and finished up far down at the bottom of the poll. This was all the same a landmark in Labour’s rise as a distinct political force.

Soon afterwards, a short-lived Scottish Labour Party was founded in Glasgow, with Hardie as its secretary.

Another important development was that he launched his own monthly newspaper, the Labour Leader.

He also attended the inaugural Socialist International meetings in Paris, shrewdly attending both the Marxist and non-Marxist versions.

Still resisting blandishments to get himself a Scottish seat, he accepted the offer of a candidacy by the Liberals of West Ham South. He moved there in 1891.

In the election of 1892 Hardie was returned as “independent Labour” candidate, but his activity was now national in character.

While his family still stayed in Ayrshire, he now had a home in London too, lodging with a spiritualist attracted to socialism.

Later, in 1902, he became a property-owner with a small flat just off Fleet Street.

To the House of Commons he eloquently promoted the cause of London’s unemployed.

But he was not a great success as an MP and attracted much notoriety for his attack on the royal family at the time of the Albion colliery disaster in South Wales in 1894.

In the general election of the next year he lost his seat to a Conservative, when the local Liberals withdrew their support.

He was re-elected to Parliament in 1900 for Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. In the same year he helped to form the Labour Representation Committee, supported by the trade unions all round the country. It was later renamed the Labour Party.

After the General Election of 1906, Hardie was chosen as the Labour Party’s first parliamentary leader.

He resigned in 1908 in favour of Arthur Henderson, and spent his remaining years campaigning for causes such as women’s suffrage, self-rule for India, and opposition to World War I.

He died in 1915 while attempting to organise a pacifist general strike.

Hardie was a key figure in Labour history and has been the subject of many biographies. Kenneth O. Morgan called him “Labour’s greatest pioneer and its greatest hero”. But the drudgery of taking and holding power was something he never knew.