James Keir Hardie, Sr. (15 August 1856 - 26 September 1915) was a Scottish socialist and labour leader, and was the first Independent Labour Member of Parliament (MPs) elected to the UK Parliament, seven years before the founding conference of the Labour Party.
Keir Hardie was born in Newhouse, North Lanarkshire (near Holytown a small village/town close to Motherwell) in 1856, the illegitimate son of Mary Keir, a servant from Legbrannock. The cottage of his birth still exists on the old Edinburgh Road in Newhouse.
Mary Keir later married David Hardie, a carpenter. The family moved then to the industrial city of Glasgow.
Hardie grew up in poverty. From the age of eight, Keir was a delivery boy for a baker. At the time he was the only wage-earner in his family. He was fired from this job because he arrived late to work, after looking after his sick mother. With no family income, the Hardies had to move back to Lanarkshire. From the age of 11, Hardie was working down the pits of Lanarkshire. He never went to school but was self taught, attending night classes at a later date, where he discovered the works of Robert Burns. The evidence of the above statement can be found within the Keir Hardie Room in the Baird Museum, Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland. Being that the man himself started his political career from this small town and the above mentioned museum hold his papers and furniture from his family home (which still stands on Auchinleck Road, Cumnock.
Hardie married Lillian Balfour Wilson on 3 August 1879.
About this time, Hardie began to read newspapers and learn about trade unions. He set one up at the colliery where he worked and in 1880 led the first ever strike by Lanarkshire miners. As a result, Hardie was blacklisted by coal mine owners and became unable to find work. He subsequently moved to Cumnock in Ayrshire to become a journalist.
Although raised an atheist, Hardie was converted to Christianity, and became a lay preacher at the Evangelical Union Church. Christianity was to become an important influence on his political career.
In 1886, he became the organising secretary of the Ayrshire Miners Union and later the Scottish Miners Federation and he began to edit a paper called The Miner.
Originally a supporter of the Liberal Party, Hardie became disillusioned by William Gladstone's economic policies and began to feel that the Liberals neither would nor could ever adequately represent the working classes. Hardie believed the Liberal Party merely wanted the votes of the workers but that it would not in return offer radical reform for workers - he became a socialist and decided to run for Parliament.
In April 1888, Hardie stood as an independent labour candidate in Mid Lanark. He finished last but he was not deterred and believed he would enjoy more success in the future. At a public meeting in Glasgow on 25 August 1888 the Scottish Labour Party (1888-1893) (not the same party as the modern Scottish Labour Party) was formed, with Hardie becoming the party's first secretary. The party's president was Robert Cunninghame-Graham, the first socialist MP, and later founder of the National Party of Scotland, forerunner to the Scottish National Party.
Hardie was invited to stand in West Ham in 1892, a working class seat in Essex (now Greater London). The Liberals decided not to field a candidate, but at the same time not to offer Hardie any assistance. Competing against the Conservative Party candidate, Hardie won by 5,268 votes to 4,036. On taking his seat on 3 August 1892 Hardie refused to wear the 'parliamentary uniform' of black frock coat, black silk top hat and starched wing collar that other working class MPs wore. Instead, Hardie wore a plain tweed suit, a red tie and a deerstalker hat. In Parliament he advocated a graduated income tax, free schooling, pensions, the abolition of the House of Lords and the women's right to vote.
In 1893, Hardie and others formed the Independent Labour Party, an action that worried the Liberals, who were afraid that the ILP might, at some point in the future, win the working-class votes that they traditionally received. His portrait was painted that year by Scottish artist Henry John Dobson Hardie hit the headlines in 1894 when, after an explosion at a colliery in Pontypridd which killed 251 miners, he asked that a message of condolence to the relatives of the victims be added to an address of congratulations on the birth of a royal heir (the future Edward VIII). The request was refused and Hardie made a speech attacking the monarchy, which resulted in uproar in the House of Commons . In 1895, he lost his seat.
Hardie spent the next five years of his life building up the Labour movement and speaking at various public meetings; he was arrested at a woman's suffrage meeting in London, but the Home Secretary, concerned about arresting the leader of the ILP, ordered his release.
In 1900, Hardie organised a meeting of various trade unions and socialist groups and they agreed to form a Labour Representation Committee, and so the Labour Party was born.In 1900, Hardie, representing Labour, was elected as the junior MP for the dual-member constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare in the South Wales Valleys, which he would represent for the remainder of his life. Only one other Labour MP was elected that year, but from these small beginnings the party continued to grow, winning power in 1924.
Meanwhile the Conservative Unionist government became deeply unpopular, and Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman was worried about possible vote-splitting across the Labour and Liberal parties in the next election. A deal was struck in 1903, which became known as the Lib-Lab pact. It was engineered by Ramsay MacDonald and Herbert Gladstone (son of William Gladstone): the Liberals would not stand against Labour in 30 constituencies in the next election, in order to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote.
In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the "Labour Party". That year, the newly established Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman called a General Election - resulting in the demolition of the Conservative party (now in Opposition) and the landslide affirmation of the Liberals.
The election result was one of the biggest landslide victories in British history: the Liberals swept the Conservatives (and their Liberal Unionist allies) out of previously safe seats. Balfour himself lost his seat, Manchester East, on a swing of over 20 percent. However, what would later turn out to be even more significant was the election of 29 Labour MPs.
In 1908, Hardie resigned as leader of the Labour Party and was replaced by Arthur Henderson. Hardie spent the rest of his life campaigning for votes for women and developing a closer relationship with Sylvia Pankhurst. He also campaigned for self-rule for India and an end to segregation in South Africa. During a visit to the United States in 1909, his criticism of sectarianism among American radicals caused intensified debate regarding the American Socialist Party possibly joining with the unions in a labor party.
A pacifist, Hardie was appalled by the First World War and along with socialists in other countries he tried to organise an international general strike to stop the war. His stance was not popular, even within the Labour Party, but he continued to address anti-war demonstrations across the country and to support conscientious objectors. After a series of strokes Hardie died in hospital in Glasgow on 26 September 1915. His friend and fellow pacifist Thomas Evan Nicholas (Niclas y Glais) delivered the funeral service..
Keir Hardie steered the Labour movement away from what he regarded as the damaging influence of Marxism, and towards a moderate, low church and trade unionist version of socialism that was practical, flexible and helped create a socialist party that, with time, has been more electorally and politically successful than most socialist parties outside Scandinavia.
Keir Hardie has de facto sainthood inside the Labour Party and is highly respected outside it. He also has the unusual distinction for a significant political leader of having rarely been attacked in print after his death.
On 2 December 2006 a memorial bust of Keir Hardie was unveiled by Cynon Valley MP Ann Clwyd outside council offices in Aberdare (in his former constituency). The ceremony marked a centenary since the party's birth.
Also he is still held in high esteem in his old home town of Holytown, where his childhood home is preserved for people to view, whilst the local sports centre was named in his own honour "The Keir Hardie Sports Centre". There is also a street in Bootle, Merseyside named Keir Hardie Avenue.
One of the buildings at Swansea University is also named after him.
In recognition of his work as a lay preacher, the Keir Hardie Methodist Church in London bears his name.
Labour founder Keir Hardie has been voted the party's "greatest hero" in a straw poll of delegates at the 2008 Labour Conference in Manchester. Labour peer Lord Morgan, Ed Balls, David Blunkett and Fiona Mactaggart argued the case for four Labour figures at a Guardian fringe meeting at the Labour conference 2008 in Manchester, September 23rd 2008