Labour People: Red Ellen in Opposition

Labour Woman

One of the more surprising things about Ellen is her close friendship with the Conservative MP Nancy Astor. Although when you think they were two of the only four female MPs it is understandable that the sisterhood was strong, all the female MPs of this period were extremely close, and not only because you couldn’t swing a cat in their room.

Ellen and Nancy became the Parliamentary Spokeswomen for feminist reforms and both cared deeply for promoting women and worked with feminist groups outside Parliament. Allegedly they were both known for two traits “a booming voice and the ability to annoy the male members of the commons.” Traits any female politician would be proud to claim as their own.

The two formed a double-act fighting the injustices of legal treatment of women and Ellen often annoyed members of her own party by siding with Nancy and prioritising gender over class. In many ways this was the age-old struggle of left-wing women all over writ large. Is gender more important than class or vise versa? As you could expect, a former suffragist activist such as Ellen was passionately committed to the equalisation of the franchise and allowing both men and women over 21 to vote. Just a few months after she had entered parliament Ellen seconded a private members bill designed to give women suffrage equality, prior to this she prepared the ground well, raising the issue in the labour party, speaking at public meetings, demonstrating and leading a deputation to the Home Secretary. However the bill was opposed by the government and therefore fell to strong opposition but not before they had been embarrassed enough to confirm that they would honour Baldwin’s electoral pledge to provide equal suffrage.

Nancy at this point was willing to believe the Home Secretary and let the matter lie. However Ellen, with the knowledge born of her long experience in the Suffrage movement continued to put pressure on the Prime Minister to stick to his word. She repeatedly asked at PMQs (In February, November and December 1926) when the bill to provide equal suffrage would be introduced, broadcast a speech from the Eiffel Tower and traveled all night to be the only MP to take part in a suffrage procession of 3,500 women which included Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett and Charlotte Despard.

Despite an announcement by Baldwin that the government would extend the franchise Ellen kept up her campaigning. Thanks in no small part to her persistence William Wedgewood Benn (father of Tony) introduced the Representation of the People (equal franchise bill) in March 1928. There was little opposition although one Conservative expressed his deep held fears that the bill would result in a female Chancellor of the Exchequer, in response Ellen shouted “Why Not?” The position of Chancellor is the only one of the four great offices of state that has never been held by a woman.

Having achieved this aim Ellen continued to fight for women, including campaigning for;

  • more women to be allowed to join the police force
  • equal treatment of men and women in prostitution
  • legitimising children who were illegitimate but their parents went on to marry
  • pensions for widows with young children
  • stopping the decrease in funding for women’s training centres
  • Amending nationality laws to allow British women who married a foreigner to retain their citizenship
  • continuing to regulate the hours worked by shop workers and against a longer working day
  • a family allowance for married women
  • protective legislation including a Factory Bill that would require; a 38 hour working week, safer machinery, better health, lighting, ventilation and sanitation. Unfortunately it was defeated by the Conservatives.

One of the most contentious issues Ellen was involved in around this time was that of birth control. Indeed this is an issue which historians use to claim she sold out and sacrificed her feminism on the altar of power and socialism. During this time it was not only illegal to sell contraception but also to give out advice and the debate over the issue was fiery and vitriolic, especially in the Labour Women’s group. In many ways Ellen attempted to steer through the rocky waters, publicly she said little due to a fear of being accused of immorality (and her previously largely Catholic constituency) but privately she worked to obtain the reforms needed. She provided the leading birth control campaigner Dora Russell with information she needed in an unofficial capacity and worked on Labour Party bigwigs to get the changes in the law that would allow advice to be given.

It must be noted that in 1929 she was the only female MP to vote for a private members bill designed to allow local authorities to “incur expenditure in conveying knowledge of birth control methods to married women who desire it”.

Scourge of Tories

Unusually for a female MP Ellen was no stranger to the rough and tumble of economic debate. She had many strong words for the government including how they seemed to be led by the nose by the bankers and the Chancellor “just moved up and down as a barometer or puppet of the bankers’ little games”.

“I feel we are paying a very high price for the smiles of the financiers of America”


“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for an unemployed man to get his insurance benefit”

In 1926 The TUC called a General Strike to support the miners and Ellen was in the thick of it. For nine days she flew around the country speaking at meetings and generally trying to bolster the spirits of the strikers. From Oxford to the Midlands (10 stops)  to Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough and York, everywhere she was well received with people walking often over 10 miles to hear her speak. But to her disgust after those 9 days the strike was called off and only the miners remained on strike for a further 6 months.

As the Minister of Health, Neville ‘appeasement’ Chamberlain swore that the striking miners would not receive “one scrap of assistance” and reduced benefits men, women and children went hungry. The women and children were able to get some relief with food coupons or food banks being set up, however this was not enough. So Ellen yet again threw herself into raising money to alleviate the hunger and was profoundly affected by the scenes that she saw. Stories she told included children to hungry to walk to school, barefoot children walking to the soup kitchen because their shoes were in the pawn shop, babies with malnutrition and women going without so their children could eat. By Jan 1927 she had raised £313,844 including £1000 raised at a single meeting, however this was not enough so she went to america to try to raise more.

It was around this point where she started being referred to as ‘Red Ellen’. One of her most shocking columns (Cheaper than Horseflesh) described the state of miners forced to drag a wagon nude with ropes round their waists rubbing them red raw and a chain between their legs. Denounced by critics as a liar she later found an unusual way of responding, on 28th June 1926 during the second reading of the Coal Mines Bill she held up the self-same device she had described in her article

“This is the rope that goes round the man’s waist; this is the chain that passed between his legs, and this is the crook that is hitched onto the tub… The collieries in which these men are working are very hot. The wearing of either no clothes or the very barest minimum of clothes is an absolute necessity, because the heat is so great. There is no proper ventilation”

In 1927 the Conservative government passed the much hated Trades Disputes Act, an act that still draws disgust from Trade Unionists to this day. The Act included

  • Banning sympathetic strikes
  • banning civil servants from joining unions affiliated to the TUC
  • protected blacklegs
  • made striking almost impossible
  • made workers contract into the political fund (side effect of reducing the income of the Labour Party by 50%)

The Act was a calculated and deliberate attack designed to cripple trade unions and destroy Labour with one stroke. It managed to do a lot of damage.In response to this Ellen came out with a clear and precise depiction of the situation.

“People who denounced the Conservative Party as stupid make me tired. In the things that they care about, the Tory leaders are clear-sighted and determined men.”


A description that still holds water to this day.


Labour People: Red Ellen part 2

Apologies for the amount of time it has taken to get to this.

We last left Ellen Wilkinson having lost her attempt to become MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in the General Election of 1923. Luckily for Ellen the 1923 election resulted in a hung parliament so there was another one called less than a year later.

In 1921 Ellen had become a member of the 6 point group, a cross-party and cross-class group whose main aim was to fight for an equalisation of the age of female suffrage. Although women had gained the vote in 1918 this was restricted to those over 30, a quirk of law that meant women such as Jennie Lee could stand for election but not vote for themselves.

The 22nd of February 1923 saw Ellen on a platform, in Central Hall, Westminster, one she shared with Nancy Astor, Millicent Fawcett and Eleanor Rathbone. The result of this weekend meeting was the agreement to campaign for equal age, equal pay, equal moral standards and equal opportunities in work. Although she was sharing a platform with middle and upper class women such as Lady Rhondda Ellen remained fiercely class conscious contrasting the opportunities and experiences of the middle class women to those of the working class women she knew and worked with.

In 1924 reforms to the Labour Party constitution has made the communist party a proscribed organisation and Ellen had to chose between the two. No member of the communist party would be endorsed as a Labour Party candidate and by this point Ellen wrote clearly wanted to become an MP. In correspondence she claimed that “It is a bitter thing to have to do… I do not hope for mercy. Goodbye Ellen Wilkinson”

Despite leaving the communist party in September 1924 (she claimed due to the methods employed by them) she continued to be a fellow traveller, promoting members of the C.P within her union and continuing a close friendship with their Manchester organiser Rajani Palme Dutt.


Having decided to stick with the labour party Ellen’s next opportunity came quickly. By October 1924 the minority labour government led by Ramsey Mcdonald had dissolved parliament and on the 29th Ellen was elected as the Labour Party MP for Middlesbrough East by 927 votes. She was only 33, the only woman (and lonely) on the opposition benches, one of only four women in parliament in total.


For a time, she said, it was as if she was dropped like a stone into a quiet pond. As a stylishly dress woman, with her bright red hair and diminutive stature, Ellen appeared a completely different kind of MP.

As she was such a small woman her feet were around 6 inches too short to reach the floor. But ever creative she started using her dispatch case as a footstool to stop her legs dangling over the edge like a small child, a position which she found ‘of extreme discomfort ‘.

Ellen made her maiden speech on the second day of parliament, in itself a rarity, to a mostly male audience (one woman) who crowded in to see her due to her youth and attractiveness. They were soon to learn that behind a demure appearance was a fiery, powerful woman who had no time for being treated as a “pet lamb”. Indeed, breaking with convention (a trend for labour women of the 20s) she delivered a rousing speech about things that made her indignant. Expecting an inoffensive and beige speech the men were blown away by her arguments for suffrage equality, increased unemployment benefits, better insurance and factory law reform. She managed to raise a cheer and her speech was week reported in the press.

Well informed… She is one of what we call the common people. She has lived among them and the whole dynamic urge of her actions is a burning passionate desire to better their lot.

Unlike many Ellen’s background in the trade union movement accustomed her to the rough and tumble which makes up Westminster. However the one thing to which she could not become immune to was the press’ fixation on what she wrote rather than what she said and would write reviews on her new frock or hair do. Indeed at one point Nancy Astor took her aside and gave her motherly advice on dressing “dull”. Sadly Ellen took good notice of this and started wearing the black and white quakeresque attire worn by other female MPs to the “great disappointment of about 600 honourable members” (Empire news)

Even with her adopting a plain dressing style Ellen was able to shake up the staid members who made up the commons. Previously women members had been squeezed into the tiny dressing room that has been put aside for Lady Astor’s use when female MPs made up a singular figure. Eventually there were 10 women using the room which had only one single pane window for ventilation, a washstand, a tin basin, a jug of cold water and a bucket. Ellen took especial offence to the lack of a mirror and the fact that women members were expected to avoid the bars, smoking rooms and members cloakrooms where the majority of the politicking was done. Certain women were also excluded from the Strangers’ dining room. It took her four years hard work but by late 1928 women were able to eat dinner there, not lunch though.

Ellen put in a large amount of work and by January 1929 had worked herself into ill health contracting a throat infection which pre-penicillin was hard to view and contributed to her lifelong condition of chest and throat infections.