Remembering Red Ellen

Ellen Wilkinson was one of the Labour MPs who founded Tribune in 1937. A socialist, feminist and anti-imperialist, her political life deserves greater recognition.

The labour movement has no shortage of inspirational women, and I’ve been lucky to know some of them. 

Whether it’s a colleague and friend like Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, or the activists and campaigners I’ve met since I joined the labour movement, I’m continually encouraged by the socialist sisterhood. 

For me, looking back on the sisters of the past is also source of encouragement inspiration. There’s one Labour woman who has a special place in my politics: Ellen Wilkinson MP. The reasons for the affinity is, perhaps, obvious—as a working-class socialist from Manchester with ginger hair!

‘Red Ellen’, as she was called, is best known for serving as Minister of Education in the Attlee Government of 1945. 

Although she was the first female Education Secretary, she isn’t spoken about in the same vein as the other giants of the Attlee Government—Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps—but she should be. Here’s why. 

Wilkinson was born in Chorlton, South Manchester, which was then populated with slum housing. It’d be nice to think the poverty she witnessed growing up has been eradicated, but just last year it was reported that malnourished children in England were filling their pockets with food due to poverty.

As a young woman she was encouraged into the movement by socialist politician and journalist Katherine Glasier. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Wilkinson felt that women must have an equal role in the labour movement and took up the cause of universal suffrage.

Looking over her life, one common theme emerges among her interests and passions: she was outraged by injustice and by the transgressions of power. As a young trade unionist she helped organise the Suffrage Pilgrimage in 1913, where more than 50,000 women marched to a mass rally in Hyde Park.

Wilkinson first stood for Parliament in Ashton-under-Lyne in the 1923 General Election. The seat wouldn’t be represented by a socialist woman until I won it for Labour over ninety years later.

She was later elected MP for Jarrow and played an integral role in organising the Jarrow March in 1936, an iconic protest against unemployment and poverty on Tyneside. Along with Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps and Harold Laski, Wilkinson was one of the founders of Tribune, launched shortly afterwards. 

In the inaugural issue of Tribune she condemned the Tory-led National Government for its failure to alleviate poverty—and also for Ministers’ inability to understand the consequences of their actions:

… certain raw facts stand out. The rawest is the utter failure of the Government really to understand the problem, and to start any adequate remedial measures. Some of their schemes are worse than the disease. 

Her words remain true. Just take this recent example: when the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights undertook his mission to the UK, he found that one fifth of our population, 14 million people, live in poverty. Despite this, policies of austerity ‘continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences’. 

In her article, Wilkinson would go on to say that “the areas of which I write cannot wait for socialism. They call aloud for action now.” The same is true today.

But Wilkinson wasn’t only interested in domestic affairs. A committed internationalist, she was an early member of the League Against Imperialism—and formed a firm friendship with Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru at its founding congress. It was through this friendship that Nehru would appear in the pages of Tribune, calling for the British labour movement to support Indian independence.

Wilkinson was also an anti-fascist, becoming a representative for the Relief Committee for the Victims of Fascism and even going so far as to be banned from Nazi Germany for her solidarity work (she defied the ban and toured anyway). She condemned General Franco and visited the Spanish Republicans during the country’s civil war, and later denounced Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany.

When she became Education Secretary Wilkinson had the monumental task of rebuilding Britain’s schools after six years of war. She raised the school-leaving age from 14 to 15 and introduced the School Milk Act of 1946, which gave free milk to school children. Wilkinson fought hard against the titans of the Cabinet to ensure that schools were built, and teachers were trained. Her reforms guaranteed extra years of education for 400,000 children.

One of her lasting contributions to politics was to chair the 1945 meeting which led to the foundation of UNESCO—the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. In one of her final speeches to parliament she emphasised the organisation’s role in “putting aside the idea that only practical things matter” by securing cultural history and natural heritage for future generations.

Wilkinson died a year before her government’s greatest achievement, the National Health Service, came into force. Appropriately, perhaps, Nye Bevan chose to launch the NHS in the city of her birth: Manchester. 

One of the distinctive qualities of the working-class movement is the importance of its history. I was delighted to see Ellen Wilkinson on the cover of the latest issue of Tribune—because our endeavour is to build on the achievements of those who preceded us. A phrase that’s written across many miners’ banners encapsulates it: ‘the past we inherit, the future we build.’