What would Keir Hardie do?
“Go back to Keir Hardie, and his maiden speech in the Commons in 1893 was about people working in return for their benefits. This has always been at the heart of what the Labour movement believes in.”
James Purnell interviewed in Fabian Review, autumn 2008, p 10, (not on the Fabian website yet)
I suppose that the Labour equivalent of a ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ t-shirt would be one asking What Would Keir Hardie Do?,so claiming his authority for workfare is quite a clever ploy during the Labour Party conference. In fact, Hardie wasn’t talking about benefits at all, but a look at what he was talking about can lead us to a useful – but very different – way of thinking about public policy on unemployment.
One of the useful results of the coverage for this interview is that it will have prompted people to read Hardie’s speech. It was certainly the first time I had read it all the way through, instead of the usual snippets and quotations. Hardie’s speech became famous in later years, with his amendment, calling for “Parliament to legislate promptly and effectively in the interests of the unemployed.”
The first point to note is the date of the speech: 7 February, 1893.
At that time social benefits were not politicians’ first thought when they talked about unemployment, poverty and distress. Although there had been ‘outdoor relief’ in earlier times, this had been abolished for nearly sixty years when Hardie spoke. Bismarck’s social insurance had been introduced in Germany only four years before, and had not yet become established as the standard for progressive politicians to aim at.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hardie’s speech doesn’t mention benefits, let alone whether or not people should work for them. But the echoes of Hardie’s speech in today’s debates are fascinating.
Then, as now, there was a debate about whether imports caused unemployment, and should therefore be banned. Hardie agreed that this was a cause of unemployment, but did not agree that a ban on imports was the right response. Instead, he argued that the Parliament that had legislated for free trade – and thus helped to create unemployment – therefore had a responsibility to help people who lost their jobs.
This has an obvious relevance today, when politicians and journalists repeatedly blame unemployed people for their unemployment. But they are no more responsible for the policies of corporate headquarters, central banks and governments that have caused their unemployment than their ancestors were in the 1890s.
Hardie did not accept that emigration or increasing employment in local authorities could be an adequate response – the countries unemployed people might go to had their own unemployment problems and municipal employment couldn’t ebb and flow in response to changes in the employment rate.
The specific alternative Hardie put forward was what was known as “home colonies”. Britain was in the middle of long agricultural depression, with lots of farm land lying idle. Hardie supported proposals that unemployed people should be given jobs working it – but these were to be real jobs, there is no hint in his speech that this was to be work in return for benefits.
115 years is a long time. Hardie’s interventions were part of a debate that took place before the creation of Britain’s welfare state, and it is a misrepresentation to call him the father of workfare.
Throughout his career, Hardie was more interested in guaranteeing work for unemployed people than in giving them a benefit as an alternative, though he did have views on social security, preferring universal benefits to National Insurance.
It would be fair to describe him as having a preferrence for a guarantee of employment over social security, and this is an approach that has a long history of trade union support. Unions have always supported benefits as a policy for times when people cannot get jobs – a guarantee of work for everyone who wants it would always be the preferred option.
A job guarantee is very different from workfare. Hardie wanted the Government to make sure there was a job for everyone who wanted one, and so do today’s unions. Like him, we want real jobs, paid at the rate for the job, not an underpaid punishment for being unemployed.
If the Government was really offering what Hardie called for that would be worth talking about. Unfortunately, that isn’t on offer in the welfare reform Green Paper.