A new feature of this project will be to look back at some of the ‘Labour Legends’ that have defined the party’s history.
Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), was a Labour MP, and advocate for the unemployed during the Depression of the 1930s. She was part of the coalition government during the war and became a Labour minister of education from 1945 to 1947.
One of Labour’s pioneering working-class women MPs, she rose to prominence during the Jarrow March in the 1930s becoming Education Minister in 1945
A thread on her life and her politics.
Born into the slums of Manchester in 1891, Wilkinson won a Jones Open History Scholarship, which gave her a place at Manchester University.
In 1913 she became an organiser with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in Manchester before becoming the first national women’s organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees.
In 1924 she became only the 10th female MP in history when she won the seat of Middlesbrough East – the first time Labour had won the seat – and defied the national swing against the party in becoming its only female MP.
Wilkinson made her maiden speech on 10th December 1924, in which she addressed the need for votes for all women as well as unemployment benefits and insurance
She argued: ‘The present franchise law by disfranchising women between 21 and 30 years of age, definitely cuts out a very important class of women who badly need protection in this House’
She also advocated for the rights of coal miners in her constituency. In a debate on the Coal Mines Bill in 1926 she claimed conditions:
‘are fit only for beasts, conditions which no hon. Member opposite would tolerate for half an hour if it was his children’…all you can say is, let them work longer, let them have longer hours and less wages in order that your profits may be safeguarded…It is abominable, and those who vote for longer hours ought not to sleep in their beds until they themselves have done what these men are doing’
During the 1920s and 1930s, she contributed columns to the Daily Herald, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express to appeal to new voters.
In 1928 she outlined ‘If I Were Prime Minister’ and what she would do to ‘eliminate profiteering’ in the food industry and ‘to cut down prices’
In 1929 she wrote an article for the Daily Herald on ‘Why women should vote Labour’.
‘there are millions of working women in this country who have never been to a political meeting and whose news, if they trouble to read any, is got from the headline of a picture paper’
In 1930 she argued that Parliament is Impossible:
‘The blunt fact is that Parliament is not supposed to do anything. MPs are there to prevent anything from being done. It is a time-wasting, not governing machine’
The Jarrow Crusade of 1936 is viewed as the pinnacle of Wilkinson’s political career. After losing her seat in Labour’s 1931 disaster, she returned at the MP for Jarrow in 1935 as Labour began its fightback.
In 1930s Jarrow was a ‘left behind’ town – with the shipyard having closed, leaving thousands unemployed and starving.
Wilkinson drew great attention to the malnutrition as a consequence of the poverty and how young men between the ages of 21 and 35 were dying.
She recounted one particular death in her constituency:
“I remember one woman speaking to me and saying that because of the means test she had gone to live with her married son and daughter, who already had four small children. ..You know, I do not want to be a burden on them, so I slip out at meal timesand say that I have had a bite at my neighbours…I remember that case very vividly because the woman died. There was cardiac disease on the certificate, but her doctor told me that, of course, it was obvious the woman was more than half-starved.”
In October 1936, 200 unemployed men began their march to Parliament as part of the Jarrow Crusade. Their aim was to arrive in Westminster at the opening of Parliament and present a petition signed by the residents of Jarrow.
The petition said:
We humbly pray that His Majesty’s Government and this honourable House will realise the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without delay’
Wilkinson was keen to show the marchers in a positive light as they marched through the streets of England. She encouraged the marchers to wear ties, polish their shoes and shave daily.
She recounted her experience in The Town that was Murdered, of how marchers woke up at 6:30am (having slept on the floors of supporters houses), shaved, and then marched from 8:30am until 8:45pm each day (breaking for ten minutes each hour) before finishing the day with a rally
Neither Labour nor the TUC approved of the Jarrow Crusade.
At Labour Conference, Wilkinson launched an appeal:
‘You have no conception of the depth of indignation there is, far outside our party ranks – people whom you would never get in the ordinary way outside party rank…What propaganda speech in your life was equal to the vast object lesson of what had been done in that town which has been murdered in the interests of Stock Exchange and of rationalisation’
Wilkinson presented their petition at Parliament, stating that:
“During the last 15 years Jarrow has passed through a period of industrial depression without parallel in the town’s history. Its shipyard is closed. Its steelworks have been denied the right to reopen’
In 1937, Wilkinson and Attlee travelled to Spain where they documented the German bombing of Valencia and Madrid and gave support to the Republican forces fighting Franco.
‘The Spanish Republic will win through. How soon depends on us. The soldiers of the Republic are fighting the battle of democracy – our battle. It is our task to see that their children are fed’
In 1940, as the War Cabinet formed under Winston Churchill, Wilkinson was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Pensions. She later joined the Herbert Morrison at the Home Office and was responsible for air raid shelters.
Wilkinson took a hands on approach to her role, visiting air raid shelters in London and Liverpool were journalists reported that ‘her womanly sympathy carried further than mere words’.
Despite her previous criticism of the Conservative Party, Wilkinson was in no doubt about the need for parties to suspend hostilities: ‘We are fighting for our very lives’
Following the historic 1945 General Election, Clement Attlee, appointed Wilkinson as Minister of Education, the first woman in British history to hold the post.
Wilkinson’s plans to increase the school-leaving age to sixteen had to be abandoned when it was deemed too expensive.
She did manage to persuade Parliament to pass the 1946 School Milk Act giving free milk to all British schoolchildren. Wilkinson suffered for most of her life from bronchial asthma and in the bitter Winter of 1947 she developed pneumonia.
On 6 February 1947 she died in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington after an overdose of medina.
Leading the tributes to her was Ernie Bevin, who claimed:
“Ellen all her life had been a very great fighter for the common people. She would never accept the inevitably of poverty…Farewell Ellen, great little courageous soul. We will carry on your work’.