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.

Labour People: Red Ellen

A while back I bought a book by Kenneth Morgan called Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants, Hardie to Kinnock, Out of the 36+ people this book covers only 3 of them are female and one of these is only mentioned in association with her husband. So I thought I’d do my version of Labour People, a whistlestop tour of some of the people (especially women) who make our politics so interesting but often get left out.


jarrowIt’s taken me a while to write this as I had major difficulties finding books about Ellen Wilkinson, so few have been written about this titan of Labour History (unlike her male contemporaries). Luckily I was signposted to Paula Bartley’s Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister which is available direct from Pluto Press for less than Amazon. I recommend this book for all Labour History fans! Pretty much all my info about Red Ellen comes from this book which goes into far more detail than I am here.


To start at the beginning Ellen was born on the 8th October 1891 in the traditional two up, two down Chorlton-on-Medlock an area of Manchester known for it’s slums, factories and exploitation. “Only to classes mattered in Chorlton: the industrialists and the workers. Ellen was born into what she called the ‘proletarian purple’.” Her youth was spent in difficult circumstances, the family were unable to afford a midwife when she was born and it was a dangerous labour resulting in a life of ‘agonising suffering’ for her mother and Ellen herself was sickly. The poor health of Ellen and her mother put extra strain on the family’s finances.

The three foremost inspirations to Ellen can be said to be her faith, education and Katherine Bruce Glasier.

Ellen was a Christian Socialist of the old school, brought up in the Methodist faith she learnt her politics at a young age, the “basic Christian principles of social justice and egalitarianism undoubtedly shaped her later socialist compassion”. Like many of her contemporaries she learnt her oratory at religious meetings and in later life her political speeches still contained the fervor and passion of a Methodist preacher.

While her religion had a positive effect on her unfortunately her education had a distinct negative one. She referred to the ‘vast educational sausage factory’ and fought to be appointed to the board of education precisely to tackle the problem of that type of teaching. The best education Ellen got was via the books her father gave her and the lectures he took her to, he was self taught himself.

At 16 she enrolled in Manchester Pupil Teacher’s Centre where she quickly stood out due to her sharp intelligence. During this time she was asked to stand as a socialist candidate during a mock election, this was to be one of the defining points of her life. After researching her subject and reading Robert Blatchford she became a convinced socialist.

Her experiences in the mock election, especially combating hecklers, had convinced her to get involved in politics. So dressed in her Sunday best she went to her first ILP meeting and had an experience not uncommon to women nowadays. First to arrive she was soon baffled by all the acronyms flying about and left thinking this wasn’t for her. Luckily she decided to attend a big meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. At this meeting she was enthralled by Katherine Bruce Glasier and at the end of the meeting Katherine encouraged her to ‘come out and speak at our meetings. We need young women for Socialism’. This was inspiring to Ellen and depressing, although she believed with all her heart and soul she knew she would not be able to further socialism’s cause “Only you fellows, will be able to go to parliament and do the job, and they won’t even let me vote for it” despite this she joined the ILP in 1907.

In 1910 Ellen won a Scholarship to Manchester University and it was here she truly developed her political voice, she founded the University Socialist Federation, organised meetings including ones featuring Mary McArthur, joined the Manchester Sociery for Women’s Suffrage, ran the local branch of the Fabian Society and joined the Tyldesley branch of the Woman’s Labour League. Understandably her politics had a detrimental effect on her studies and she graduated with a second. However her time at university meant she could abandon teaching as a career and instead focus on her politics. In 1913 she was appointed assistant organiser in training by MSWS which brought with it a decent wage of two guineas a week. The timing of her appointment was perfect, she joined in time to help organise the July Suffrage Pilgrimage, she spoke at meetings to advertise the Pilgrimage and this increased her knowledge of how to capture attention and deal with hecklers ‘go home, Carrots, and darn the stockings” and in a further coup she was appointed to the post of Liaison to the Labour Party, combining her feminism and socialism in one role.

Then the first world war broke out and with it potential disaster for Ellen. With the breakup of the NUWSS and the cessation of Suffrage activity by MSWS Ellen was out of a job. However thanks to the MSWS she was found a job helping to organise voluntary help for the relief of distress caused by war. Ellen showed her organisation skills and seeing high female unemployment in Stockport, caused by the collapse of the two main industries (cotton and knitting), she created a sewing room by commandeering, borrowing and begging so as to be able to employ 150 women.

By 1915 Ellen was aged 23 and found the ideal job, national organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees, with special responsibility or organising women shop assistants and factory workers, despite having never worked in a Co-op or been active as a shop steward.

Between 1915 and 1918 Ellen:

  • fought for equal pay and by late 1916 had negotiated male rates of pay for women in 57 different coops
  • Organised Laundry Workers and improved their terms and conditions
  • Negotiated with the government over compulsory arbitration
  • Was involved in a bitter dispute between her union, the coop and craft unions in Plymouth and then the nastiest of the internecine fights in Longsight, Manchester
  • Was elected to the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations (was elected onto the Exec by Feb 1923 and chair by July 1925)

In December 1918 she was fired for her role in Longsight however Branches, groups and individuals protested this, a deputation of union reps asked for a withdrawal of notice and a Special Delegate Meeting challenged the dismissal. After negotiation she was reinstated after an apology.

In the post war period Ellen was just as busy working in the TU movement (NUDAW), helping found the Communist Party and campaigning for peace and equality. In the early 1920s she was a member of both the ILP, the Fabians, the Labour Party and The Communist Party!

In 1923 NUDAW decided to finance an extra four MPs and Ellen came top of the poll for candidates. She unsuccessfully ran for selection by Gorton Labour Party. In November she became a Manchester City Councillor whilst running for parliamentary selection in Ashton-under-Lyne. Successfully selected she came third in the poll.



Next Labour People

Who should be the next candidate for Labour People? Take your pick of the ones below or add your own

Labour People 1 – Jennie Lee

A while back I bought a book by Kenneth Morgan called Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants, Hardie to Kinnock, Out of the 36+ people this book covers only 3 of them are female and one of these is only mentioned in association with her husband. So I thought I’d do my version of Labour People, a whistlestop tour of some of the people (especially women) who make our politics so interesting but often get left out.


Jennie Lee

I kinda have to start with Jennie seeing as she’s emblazoned across the top of my blog.

Often dismissed as Nye Bevan’s wife Jennie Lee is an intensely fascinating woman and one of my heroes. The daughter of a Scottish Miner Jennie was brought up in a fiercely socialist household where such leading lights of the ILP such as James Maxton and Robert Smilie were frequent visitors.

Jennie was often known as the high priestess of socialism, never bending in her principles.  Jennie Lee was elected to Parliament at a by-election in February 1929 when she turned a 2,028 Conservative majority into a Labour majority of 6,578. At twenty-four she was the youngest member of the House of Commons. She was also too young to be able to vote for herself.

Immediately Jennie found herself at odds with the PLP and broke convention, both by choosing to reject the sponsors chosen for her in favour of her old friends and by launching a blisteringly ferocious maiden speech attacking the government.

In 1931 Jennie lost her seat due to the Conservative landslide and in 1932 she left the Labour Party in the ILP split, although torn she stuck to her friends in the ILP a move which provoked Nye Bevan’s famously misquoted retort

As for you, I tell you, what the epitaph on you Scottish dissenters will be – pure, but impotent. Yes, you will be pure all right. But, remember, at the price of impotency. You will not influence the course of British politics by as much as a hair’s-breadth. Why don’t you get into a nunnery and be done with it? Lock yourself up in a cell away from the world and its wickedness. My Salvation Army lassie… Poor little Casabianca! That was a hell of an intelligent performance, wasn’t it? I tell you, it is the Labour Party or nothing. I know all its faults, all its dangers. But it is the Party that we have taught millions of working people to look to and regard as their own. We can’t undo what we have done. And I am by no means convinced that something cannot yet be made of it. (Michael Foot – Aneurin Bevan)

After the unexpected death of her lover Frank Wise in 1933 Jennie married Aneurin Bevan in 1934.

Between her defeat and re-election in ’45 Jennie wrote articles for left-wing journals and newspapers and lectured in America, Canada and Europe. She raised funds and awareness of the Spanish civil war and international brigades, worked with Lord Beaverbrook on defence, factories and blimps, was House of Commons reporter for the Daily Mail, maintained a regular column in Tribune and stood for election in Bristol Central on a promise of full implementation of the Beveridge Report.


However when re-elected in ’45 Jennie had made too many enemies and wasn’t given a position in the new government. Instead she chose to support her husband and step out of the limelight.

It is easy for me to behave in a way that would smash both our lives. I see no way in which I can save both. If only one is to be saved it must be yours … You cannot adjust to suit me. You simply could not do it. Not only your own ego would be outraged. All the external pressures of the contemporary social framework would be on your side. It is the woman’s part to give way, to make life smooth, to walk by your side.

Although she often disagreed with Bevan’s more pragmatic socialism (when compared to her holy flame) she attempted to remain in this position until his death in 1960. Although she was often blamed for Bevan’s walkouts and resignations she may have merely been an easy target, “the dark angel at his shoulder”.

Near the end of Nye’s life and after his death Jennie was able to resume her own career, She became a member of the National Executive Committee from 1958-1970 and was chairman from 1967-1968.

More importantly she was able to create a lasting legacy which continues to this day. In 1951 Harold Wilson had joined Bevan in resigning from the cabinet over health service charges and Korea. This can be seen as the moment which truly created Bevanism. During this time Wilson had got to truly know and appreciate Jennie and in 1964 invited her into his government. The position of Minister for the Arts was created especially for her and she threw herself into it with gusto.

One of the early problems she faced was that the Arts Council had settled into a position of excellence over access, rather than arts for the many it had become the best for the few. This led to them favouring professionals over amateurs, London over ‘the provinces’, and within London they focused on the national companies over smaller ones. Jennie refused this mindset and refused the idea that there was an inherent conflict between excellence and access, more did not mean worse. Although the establishment was scared of the wide eyed, fiery radical they soon began to appreciate her once she’d trebled their budget in six years. They still sneered about her lack of artistic credibility but once she had pushed through the South Bank National Theatre, a half century old project, they came to respect and even admire her. To Jennie no was not an answer and she used every means at her disposal to get her own way, including funneling most of the money she gain to the regions (no more snarky comments about provinces were allowed around her).

She encouraged local authorities to support not only libraries and museums, but art, music and drama in their schools; to aid amateur groups; to run local arts centres even in the smallest towns. A doctrine of ‘response’, it meant that the Arts Council would not parachute into a city to impose some version of London high culture; rather it would only respond to and support local initiatives, local bids, grounded in the local community.

In many ways we owe Jennie a lot for her championing of local art and regional centres of excellence.


However she was not finished there. Harold Wilson assigned her to finding a way to make his ‘University of the air’ a physical possibility. And so Jennie poured her immense energy into creating what has been called the greatest achievement of Wilson’s Labour Government, The Open University.

She felt that adult education should be more than ‘dowdy and mouldy… old-fashioned night schools … hard benches’. Lee was mindful of the fact that Adult Education was, as the OU’s first Vice-Chancellor, Walter Perry, put it, to be ‘the patch on the backside of our educational trousers’. Her 1966 White Paper, A University of the Air made it clear that ‘There can be no question of offering to students a makeshift project inferior in quality to other universities. That would defeat its whole purpose’.

Lee was defeated at the 1970 election in Cannock by Patrick Cormack and she retired from frontline politics when she was made Baroness Lee of Asheridge, of the City of Westminster on 5 November 1970.

She died in 1988 from natural causes at the age of 84.

jennie lee




There is so much more that could be said about Jennie, so below I have linked places where I have gotten quotes, information and general knowledge that I hope will be of interest.

Jennie Lee: A Life – Patricia Hollis

History of the OU – Jennie Lee

Archive Hub – Jennie’s Papers

She Blogs – Jennie Lee

My life with Nye – Jennie Lee (one of my favourite political autobiographies)

Aneurin Bevan – Michael Foot