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Keeping Keir Hardie’s Legacy Alive

With the Welsh constituency once represented by Keir Hardie to be restored, we should honour the former Labour leader's legacy in Merthyr Tydfil by continuing his struggle for socialism.

Keir Hardie was elected to Parliament in 1892 for West Ham South, and then in 1900 for Merthyr Tydfil. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As the Boundary Review reorganises the parliamentary geography of Wales, it is worth looking back on our history and the steps taken to represent working people.  

Last year was the centenary of Welsh Labour’s rise to domination of politics in Wales, where it has remained the largest parliamentary party since 1922. But it was just a few decades before that, in 1900, that Keir Hardie, later to become the first leader of the Labour Party, was elected as Wales’ first Labour MP.   

Those twenty-two years saw the rise of the labour movement from groups of struggling workers, reorganised through a decade of ‘New Unionism’ and the rise of the South Wales Miners Federation. This developed into a growing trade union movement, leading to political representation that, by the early 1920s, saw the party on the edge of government.  

The seat that the socialists and trade unions first organised together to win in Wales, Merthyr Tydfil Boroughs, straddled the Merthyr and Cynon Valleys. The former socialist newspaper, Labour Leader, described the seat: ‘Starting from Merthyr Tydvil, one comes southward down the Merthyr Valley for some nine or ten miles, invading the next constituency in order to turn the flank of the hill; turning sharp to the north-west one re-enters one’s own territory and proceeds for twelve or thirteen miles up the Aberdare Valley (through Aberdare) before reaching the limit of the division.’  

Merthyr Tydfil Boroughs was a two-member seat at the time, and while Merthyr and Cynon Valleys were later separated, the latest boundary change is bringing much of it back together.   

Hardie’s nomination as a parliamentary candidate was agreed upon at a meeting of Aberdare and Merthyr’s Labour and Trades Councils in Abernant on 22 September 1900. The Labour Leader reported his address to the electors:My programme is the programme of Labour, my cause is the cause of Labour—the cause of Humanity—the cause of God.’  

Hardie began his campaign with a meeting at Central Hall Merthyr, with a parallel meeting held in Aberdare. On 6 October, he addressed ‘several hundreds of the electors of Aberdare in Victoria-square’ where he said the fact that they had returned him with a majority of over 1,700 votes was proof that they wanted representation of ‘labour and peace instead of capital and war’. He hoped they would ‘soon demand Labour representation on local councils.’ His hope was realised in the 1903 elections when Aberdare Urban District Council saw the election of two Labour and two Lib-Lab councillors.  

The dominant employers at the time were coal mining, and iron foundries, with the towns of Aberdare and Merthyr growing quickly through the nineteenth century. Industrial disputes were the trigger for unions seeking political representation, supported by early socialist groups.   

The 1898 miners’ strike exposed the weakness of mining unions and triggered the organisation of the South Wales Miners Federation. It was then that Hardie first toured the Rhondda, Cynon and Merthyr Valleys, learning about the Welsh miners’ experience, to which he could relate from his early life in Scotland.  

Soon after his election, he was reported as saying the ‘Miners’ Federation should agree upon a plan for upholding the minimum wage all over the country’ and highlighting the ‘need for better protection for miners against accident.’  

In 1901 he threw himself into support for an Eight Hours Work Bill, where he argued, ‘I speak as a practical collier who has worked eleven hours and eight hours per day, and I can testify in this House that coal is produced in greater quantity, at less cost, and with more safety—a very important point—in the shorter working day than in the longer working day.’  

During his time as an MP, the country saw a further dispute, the Miners’ Strike of 1910-11. Hardie wrote regularly in the Labour Leader about the impact on Merthyr and Cynon. In November 1910, he wrote how a dispute in the Powell-Duffryn collieries resulted in 9,000 men taking strike action in the local area and strikers and their families being assaulted by police in Aberaman and Cwmbach.  

He later said in Parliament, ‘the Welsh collier… has been stigmatised all over the country as a wild, riotous, and disorderly fellow, who requires extra police, backed by the military, to keep him in order during trade disputes’ and said, ‘the Home Office must bear a very large share of the responsibility’ for disturbances during the dispute. In December 1910, it was reported that Keir Hardie handed the Secretary of the Aberdare District Relief Committee a cheque for £500 for striking miners—a fortune in those days.  

Today we find we are making the same case as Hardie again. Can we be more productive with a shorter working week? Does the Home Office allow—or encourage—over-policing of protest and picketing? And what support should Labour MPs provide in supporting the unions and those on low incomes?

Each of these issues, and there are more, demonstrate that Keir Hardie’s campaign priorities remain as vital as ever. Improving the rights of working people, challenging overbearing and authoritarian policing of those holding governments to account and working-class people organising to feed those in hard times because of an unfair economic system. 

That is why I want to be the Labour Party MP for the Merthyr Tydfil and Upper Cynon constituency, in the spirit of the battles that Keir Hardie fought, and, like him, with a vision that overcomes the need for such battles in a society based on equality, dignity and social justice that puts people before profits.