At first sight , a new life of Ellen Wilkinson appears to offer readers a return to ‘old Labour’ principles, as articulated and put into practice by one of the party’s most famous women leaders. Wilkinson came from the north, represented the shipyards of Jarrow and always spoke for the workers. Yet this well-written biography surprises us: she may have been a founding spirit of the party but her interests, associations and beliefs took her a long way from the straightforward defence of the Labour Party as we have come to know it. At one point a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and sympathetic ever after, she had many close friends who scorned parliamentary politics. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she remained close to the radical European left and the anti-fascist Marxist underground. This dual loyalty was even reflected in her love life: she had affairs with both Herbert Morrison, the Labour minister and fixer, and Otto Katz, a Czech spy and Marxist whose every move in Britain in 1938 was followed by Special Branch.
Wilkinson was born in Manchester in 1891. Her father, Richard, was a devoted Methodist and teetotaller (like so many of those who founded the Labour Party), with a sense of social justice that he passed on to his precocious, rebellious daughter. The family was upwardly mobile – Richard Wilkinson started work in the cotton mills and ended up as an insurance agent – and Ellen was encouraged to think for herself. She had begun training as an elementary school teacher when she won a scholarship to read history at Manchester University, which then had one of the most intellectually adventurous departments of history in the country. She joined the university Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party, whose foundation in Bradford in 1893 had predated that of the Labour Representation Committee in London in 1900 (the latter became the Labour Party proper after the election of its first 29 MPs in 1906). After graduation, she became an organiser for both the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the non-violent wing of the movement, and for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees, which later became the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. She kept the union position until her death, which gave her an income as well as a firm foothold in the movement.
She was elected MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924 and, as the only woman out of 151 Labour MPs in opposition to Baldwin’s government, spoke up for women and workers, often treating the two together. Both groups were victims of exploitation, prejudice and postwar economic stagnation and, as she saw it, there was no need to develop a politics that distinguished between their interests. So she earned the respect of her shipbuilder and steelmaker constituents as well as their wives. She became known for using her voice for all working people – Somerset miners and London shopworkers just as much as Middlesbrough shipwrights – on the platform and in Parliament. She couldn’t be ignored: though less than five feet in her stockings, she had a shock of red hair, dressed in bright, voguish clothes, and was written about in the fashion columns of the weekend press. Known to the nation as ‘the mighty atom’ or ‘the fiery particle’, she turned a good education into hundreds of articles and newspaper columns. She was one of the founding editors of Tribune, the once great Labour organ, and in the early 1930s wrote a book of humorous essays on Parliament and its occupants, Peeps at Politicians, as well as a political thriller, The Division Bell Mystery. She may have come from the outside but, like many 20th-century parliamentarians on the left, she loved the procedures and mystique of the House. Thanks to her earnings from writing, she had a flat in Bloomsbury, a country retreat in Buckinghamshire and an Austin 7 which she drove very badly.
Wilkinson lost her seat in the October 1931 electoral debacle for the Labour Party, when she faced a single National Liberal opponent in her Middlesbrough constituency. But she was back in the House in 1935, this time as MP for Jarrow, the town with which she will always be associated. She took a leading role in the Jarrow Crusade of 1936, a march to London undertaken by two hundred unemployed shipbuilders and other industrial workers. The march caught the attention of the press and imagination of the country. When Wilkinson presented the marchers’ petition in the Commons, having tried but failed to get permission for the workers themselves to address the House, she broke down in tears. But what she could not say she could write, and in 1939 she published, for the Left Book Club, her most notable book, The Town That Was Murdered: The Life Story of Jarrow, an assault on the economic system which had left so many skilled men and their families destitute. The book did more than draw attention to their plight: it explained why Jarrow’s economy had collapsed and how, through nationalisation and reform, it could be regenerated. Her solutions might be questioned, but Wilkinson knew enough both from books and experience to take issue with the orthodox political economy of the era.
Here is Wilkinson as the pioneer socialist and feminist at the heart of working-class culture, a left-wing Labour MP who respected the parliamentary road to socialism. But there is another Wilkinson in Laura Beers’s biography who could easily be claimed by those who have taken charge of Labour since the 2015 election. As an undergraduate in Manchester, and perhaps under the influence of a boyfriend who was briefly also her fiancé, a manipulative and unattractive figure called J.T. Walton Newbold, she was introduced to pacifism and Marxism. Pacifism wasn’t that rare in Labour circles in 1910, but, as Ross McKibbin has shown, Marxism was. It was seen as alien, unpatriotic, confrontational, even unChristian. The sober, cautious and socially conservative middle-aged men who founded the Edwardian Labour Party were entirely opposed to it and Marxists found themselves marginalised in organisations like the Central Labour Colleges and Plebs League, both movements in which Wilkinson was active. Rather like members of the Stop the War coalition or Momentum today, the young Wilkinson was involved with several pressure and reformist groups including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which opposed the First World War.
From this rather different perspective, it was natural for her to join the CPGB when it was founded in 1920 and she fought her first parliamentary election as a Labour candidate in 1923 while still a Communist Party member. Several delegations of socialists and Labour leaders went to the new Soviet Union after the First World War: in its criticisms of authoritarianism, and its defence of natural political evolution over enforced revolution, Ramsay MacDonald’s short book, Parliament and Revolution, published in 1919, had established Labour’s official and enduring policy and vindicated the party’s ‘parliamentary road to socialism’. But this wasn’t Wilkinson’s response when she visited the Soviet Union in 1921. She defended the regime, and its excesses, excusing them by reference to the circumstances of its birth as well as its many enemies. She denied rumours of famine in the Volga provinces, was thrilled at hearing both Lenin and Trotsky speak, wrote optimistically about the Soviet future and seemed fully behind world communist revolution. Like many, she distanced herself from her youthful enthusiasms over the coming years, but she had communist friends and sympathies for the rest of her life.
Anti-imperialism and anti-fascism were a less surprising part of her worldview, and when she was out of Parliament in the early 1930s she made the most of them. She went to India and later to Spain during the Civil War, as did many other Labour MPs, and she was hardly alone in her calls to respect India’s desire for independence and to end the policy of non-intervention in Spain. But many of her foreign associates and friends had radical and Marxist leanings. Several seem to have worked for the Comintern; others were part of a network of front organisations set up by Willi Münzenberg, a German Marxist in exile and a pan-European political entrepreneur of the left. In these fights against fascism she found herself on occasion in a surveilled demi-monde of agents, spies and activists with multiple identities. She liked clandestine relations of all sorts, and it’s easy to admire the pluck and commitment – unusual, then as now, in Labour MPs – that led her to these people.
In a book that was written before Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, it isn’t surprising that there is no discussion linking Labour’s present situation to its past. But anyone writing Labour’s history will be abundantly aware that the party has always been, in the phrase of an earlier era, ‘a broad church’. To make sense of Wilkinson’s politics we therefore need to see her in relation to other MPs and to the Labour Party as a whole. Beers’s otherwise enjoyable biography lacks this context, and it also lacks a conclusion: barely a page is offered at the very end after the account of Wilkinson’s death in 1947 – which, it would seem, was caused by an inadvertent overdose of the sleeping tablets and tranquillisers she took to bring herself some peace after overwork. This book shows us a remarkable life lived by someone with an abundance of energy and charisma, but offers no reflections on that life’s real import, either now or then.
Perhaps something of this import can be found in the life of a third Ellen Wilkinson, Wilkinson the minister. She began as parliamentary private secretary to Susan Lawrence, the minister of health in the second minority Labour administration of 1929-31. In May 1940 she entered the Churchill coalition as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Pensions. Her patriotism was never in doubt and once in government she was quick to shake off any residual hostility to the Conservative politicians whose policies at home and abroad she had so vigorously opposed in the 1930s. Her loyalty to a war-winning government, even when its policies clashed with the interests of the labour movement, brought her some hostility from colleagues and friends. Her long affair with Morrison, though it had ended years before, had led her to support various plots to replace Attlee as party leader. Though Morrison tried again to supplant his leader in the aftermath of the 1945 election, Attlee saw him off – and appointed Wilkinson minister of education, only the second woman to have sat in cabinet.
Labour’s implementation of the 1944 Education Act, and especially Wilkinson’s role overseeing it until her death after only 18 months in office, have prompted criticism from both historians and today’s activists. The issues are still with us: indeed, the new generation of grammar schools Theresa May promised – before June’s election result made the promise untenable – would have taken us back directly to the 1944 act. The legislation was designed to ensure that every child would receive a secondary education up to 14, with the school leaving age rising to 15 in a matter of years. It was premised on ideas that had their origins deep in Labour’s history and which were set down in Secondary Education for All, a 1922 book largely written by R.H. Tawney which imagined a range of secondary educations suited to all abilities in several different types of school. The early Labour Party challenged the prevailing educational philosophy not by making schooling the same for all children, but by making more of it available to every child according to their abilities. Labour fought to ensure that the best of the working class would get an education that would fit them for social and civic leadership. They saw grammar schools as a way to break the monopoly on power held by those educated in public schools: when clever children from the working class received an excellent education it would be possible to unseat the elite and undermine fee-paying education itself, or so it was hoped. (One might argue that the era of comprehensive education has had the reverse effect, entrenching independent schools still further.) Wilkinson herself, with her upper-second-class degree, was an example of what would happen if working-class children had the best. But even while Labour’s leaders worked with Rab Butler, minister for education in the wartime coalition, to win support for the 1944 act, a new idea – what became known as comprehensive education – emerged among the younger generation and was adopted by Labour at its 1945 conference.
It was Wilkinson’s job to implement the 1944 Education Act – and she set about it with enthusiasm. An end to academic selection might be an aspiration for the future, but for many in the Labour Party the first job was to construct a decent secondary system where none had existed before: in the 1930s many children still left school long before the age of 14. But the change in educational thinking in the 1940s has made Wilkinson and the Attlee administration seem anachronistic for imposing socially divisive educational policies, though they themselves believed that they were giving the children of workers educational opportunities hitherto denied them. Beers, in telling this complex story, appears to be in two minds. She accepts that ‘in 1944 … the principle of selection was almost universally accepted, even by critics of the bill.’ But later she criticises Wilkinson for her ‘blithe acceptance that three-quarters of the population could be classed as unfit for a classically academic education’.
As minister, Wilkinson did as Parliament had bidden and cabinet expected, so criticism for enacting policies that have been opposed by the Labour Party since then is unwarranted. Nevertheless, the controversy shows us how far Ellen Wilkinson had come since her student days. In her third and final guise she turned herself into a hardworking minister, loyal to the government, tolerant of colleagues with differing political views, national rather than sectional in her outlook, patriotic as well as socialist in her spirit and resolve. For some readers her transformation will be further evidence of the establishment’s inescapable embrace and of the essential conservatism of even the most celebrated Labour government in British history. This, they will say, is what happens to traditional socialists and feminists like the first of our Ellen Wilkinsons when they assume power. But it is possible to read the story rather differently and to see the way the second Wilkinson – the activist with raffish friends and Marxist sympathies – was able to transform herself into an effective minister of the crown, the third Wilkinson, and get something done. Those who would write off the Corbynistas as student poseurs and natural backbenchers take note: Wilkinson’s story can also be read as one of their possible futures.