Melissa Benn, writing in the Guardian, recently posed the question: “Labour should ask itself: what would Keir Hardie do?” Indeed, this is a hypothetical question that has always been asked by those in politics: “what would x do?” Without a doubt, these political platitudes are fruitless. They lack any real intellectual value whatsoever: it makes little difference what Keir Hardie would do, as Keir Hardie is not here to deal with it. All these questions do is create tenuous links with a naïve view of the past. Nonetheless, whilst it lacks real intellectual merit, the political and rhetorical value of such language is far more effective.
It has been a continuous source of ammunition in the recent Labour Leadership contest. Its parallels are perhaps best represented in the power struggles in the USSR in the 1920s, each claiming a link with the fallen Lenin in 1924. Writing this article on the eve of leadership results day, I am astonished by the claims of supporters of various candidates in Labour’s past and present elections to their clear link to the divine Hardie. This list includes Peter Mandelson, Alan Johnson and, most recently, Jeremy Corybn. Indeed, speaking in August in support of Yvette Cooper, Alan Johnson argued that Cooper had remarkable parallels to Hardie, who himself “believed in achieving power through the ballot box, eschewing class warfare”.
Of course, this is simply an interpretation of Hardie, who himself argued that socialism should ‘make war upon a system not a class’. Nonetheless, to argue that Keir Hardie promoted a party that eschewed class warfare is equally ridiculous, Hardie himself argued: “The modern socialist movement is but a continuation of the fight for freedom which the disinherited have been waging since long ere yet history carries any record of man’s doings.” By no means, however, is this simply a problem of the right of the party, the left equally profits on the superficiality of historical conjecture. Melissa Benn argued that: “were Hardie alive in the 21st century he would surely have opposed the Iraq war, visited the Occupy encampments, supported those activists fighting against the ‘social cleansing’ of London and denounced austerity”.
It is impossible for us to argue that this might not be the case. We really do not know whether Keir Hardie would have done these things. Benn draws some spectacular conclusions, and is equally guilty of creating comparisons of her preferred candidate to Hardie, commenting “when it comes to the politics of agitation, Jeremy Corbyn is Hardie’s clear heir.” Nonetheless, Benn highlights the dangers of drawing from the past. She correctly notes that Hardie despised the deal making and elitism of Parliament, and was a poor leader in the short time in which he headed the Labour Party. Indeed, it seems strange for the various Labour leaders to claim a link to the, whilst principled, ultimately, politically ineffective Keir Hardie.
I agree with Alan Knight, Emeritus Professor of History at Oxford, that: “instead of playing parlour games, advocates should discuss policies in terms of their contemporary – and future – merits”. Instead of lauding those claiming a link to those principled in the past, we should focus on those who reflect such remarkable qualities in the present.
Image: Gary Knight