Hid­den his­tory of Labour’s women

Mary Rid­dell ad­mires two books about the fe­male politi­cians who have been air­brushed out of the story

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

The Labour Party was born on a damp Tues­day in Fe­bru­ary 1900, when a group of like-minded so­cial­ists gath­ered in a Lon­don hall to set up a body ca­pa­ble of get­ting work­ing-class men elected to Par­lia­ment. No women of­fi­ci­ated at the birth, but a hand­ful watched silently from the pub­lic gallery. Six years later, 29 Labour can­di­dates were elected to the House of Com­mons, and a new po­lit­i­cal force was primed for power. From its in­cep­tion, the party reeked of mas­culin­ity. Its foun­da­tions were dom­i­nated by names such as Keir Hardie and Ram­say Mac­Don­ald, and its his­tory was forged in smoke-filled rooms in which women were ab­sent or voice­less.

On in­clu­siv­ity, no ma­jor po­lit­i­cal party has ever passed the oe­stro­gen test. In 2015, for ex­am­ple, the Con­ser­va­tive Party had 17 MPs called David among its 331 suc­cess­ful can­di­dates, of whom only 48 were women. But even by such stan­dards, Labour tra­di­tion­ally led the field in in­sti­tu­tional misog­yny.

Nonethe­less, as Nan Sloane shows in

her his­tory of the party’s early years, women had a vi­tal part in shap­ing Labour and, by ex­ten­sion, mod­ern Bri­tain. As or­gan­is­ers, cam­paign­ers and lead­ers, an un­sung fe­male task force shaped the mod­ern wel­fare state. And yet male dom­i­nance and, per­haps, fe­male dif­fi­dence en­sured that women pi­o­neers were air­brushed from the record by the very Labour move­ment they helped to found.

Be­tween 1868 to 1918 – the span of Sloane’s book – the is­sues cam­paigned on by these women were any­thing but soft. Chil­dren rou­tinely died in in­fancy, and while the poor suf­fered dis­pro­por­tion­ately from dis­ease, mal­nu­tri­tion and pol­lu­tion, rel­a­tive af­flu­ence of­fered no guar­an­tees ei­ther. Hardie, Labour’s found­ing fa­ther, and his wife, Lil­lie, lost a two-year-old daugh­ter to scar­let fever. Em­me­line Pankhurst, the suffragette leader, saw one of her sons die at the age of four and the other at 20. Of the cam­paign­ers whose record Sloane seeks to ex­ca­vate, many died be­fore the age of 40.

Ephemeral and largely unchron­i­cled lives are hard to res­ur­rect – an en­deav­our not helped by the Women’s Labour League’s in­ex­pli­ca­ble de­struc­tion of many of its own records in

1918 when it merged into the Labour Party af­ter some women gained the right to vote. Where the male fire­brands of the day re­main vi­brant char­ac­ters, Sloane some­times strug­gles to flesh out her shad­owy sup­port­ing cast. As she notes, even Margaret Bond­field, Bri­tain’s first woman cab­i­net minister, barely gets a foot­note in Labour his­tory. Oth­ers ap­pear as hardly more than ci­phers whose cam­paigns some­times seem more wor­thy than in­spir­ing.

Yet when Sloane can muster suf­fi­cient de­tail to weld the per­sonal to the po­lit­i­cal, her story is fas­ci­nat­ing. Margaret Mac­Don­ald, for in­stance, the wife of Labour’s first prime minister, emerges as a lu­mi­nous force in the party’s life. A well-heeled statis­ti­cian, she pro­posed to her so­cially un­cer­tain fu­ture hus­band – the il­le­git­i­mate son of a ser­vant and a farm­hand – on the steps of the Bri­tish Mu­seum and bankrolled the fledg­ling Labour Party. Chaotic in ap­pear­ance, she spurned lux­ury and ser­vants to com­bine bring­ing up four chil­dren with her own po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Sylvia Pankhurst, Em­me­line’s daugh­ter, re­called ar­riv­ing at a meet­ing at the MacDon­alds’ flat. “We heard a slight cry from the bed and found that the guests had been pil­ing their coats on top of two lit­tle Macdon­alds (sic) asleep.” Though Margaret died at 41, of sep­sis from a cut finger, her legacy was a baby and tod­dler clinic whose suc­cess prompted cam­paign­ers to de­mand that the model be rolled out else­where.

Heart­en­ing as such sto­ries may be, Sloane is also an un­spar­ing chron­i­cler who never glo­ri­fies her cam­paign­ers as a seam­less sis­ter­hood. Labour was born bick­er­ing, and its women an­tag­o­nists were no ex­cep­tion. The main fault line lay be­tween mid­dle-class evan­ge­lists for suf­frage and those who thought that votes would not help work­ing-class women un­less they first got eco­nomic power.

Protests by suf­fragettes such as Mary Richard­son, who en­tered the Na­tional Gallery and slashed the Velásquez paint­ing known as the Rokeby Venus with a meat axe, meant lit­tle to an im­pov­er­ished fe­male work­force labour­ing in con­di­tions far worse than those en­dured by male work­ers.

One vis­i­tor to a small chain­mak­ing fac­tory re­ported ba­bies scream­ing in wooden boxes as they were show­ered with sparks from the anvils.

As Sloane notes, men might grad­u­ate to big, unionised work­shops. Women toil­ing at sweated labour would work at do­mes­tic anvils for life. Nor did get­ting the vote (a par­tial fran­chise was granted in 1918 and equal fran­chise brought in a decade later) prove the panacea some had hoped for. No woman took her seat in the Com­mons un­til Nancy As­tor’s elec­tion in 1919, and the num­ber of fe­male MPs did not reach dou­ble fig­ures for an­other 10 years. Af­ter Margaret Mac­Don­ald died, a friend re­called her com­mit­ment to putting women in power. “Are we strong enough to jus­tify her faith?” Sloane leaves the ques­tion hang­ing in the air.

By way of an­swer, Iain Dale and Bri­tain’s first fe­male home sec­re­tary, Jacqui Smith, have com­piled an an­thol­ogy of pen por­traits of ev­ery woman MP elected be­tween 1918 and 1996,

This huge vol­ume, with a fore­word by the Prime Minister, of­fers a se­quel to the work of Sloane’s cru­saders and a trib­ute to their legacy.

Among es­says on the fa­mous – Bar­bara Cas­tle, Bessie Brad­dock and so on – and the many more who have been for­got­ten, there are am­ple re­minders of the debt owed to Labour’s first women ac­tivists by those who fol­lowed. The late Dame Tessa Jow­ell in­tro­duced SureS­tart, a mod­ern suc­ces­sor to Margaret Mac­Don­ald’s child clin­ics, and fought for the NHS. The vi­sion of Jow­ell haunt­ing A&E de­part­ments, count­ing the num­ber of pa­tients on trol­leys, of­fered an echo of the early ac­tivists.

And yet this vol­ume also il­lus­trates how much is left un­done. Not un­til 1987 did the pro­por­tion of women MPs rise to above 5 per cent. Al­though Labour’s sub­se­quent quota pol­icy of all-women shortlists sharply in­creased that pro­por­tion, with 45 per cent of Labour MPs be­ing women in 2017, the UK Par­lia­ment ranks 40th in the world for fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Out­side Par­lia­ment, the #MeToo cam­paign and wage in­equal­ity show that the bat­tle be­gun by the for­got­ten women of all par­ties has not yet been won. At West­min­ster, Labour has had two act­ing lead­ers in Margaret Beck­ett and Har­riet Har­man, but has so far failed to elect a woman to the post. Is­abella Ford, one of the few women who watched from the gallery on the day Labour came into be­ing, wrote that “women have greater cause to cry for vengeance than men have”. More than a cen­tury on, with the NHS in cri­sis and the poi­son of poverty still present, in­jus­tice still pre­vails.

The Women in the Room (IB Tau­ris, £20), Labour was born bick­er­ing, and its women an­tag­o­nists were no ex­cep­tion The Hon­ourable Ladies (Bite­back, £30). To or­der ei­ther of these books at a dis­count, call 0844 871 1514

TRAIL BLAZERBar­bara Cas­tle at the 1963 Labour Party con­fer­ence in Scar­bor­ough

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