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.




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A fair and faithful fighter, she smouldered with the will to save the world

This article has been sparking some interest and as the blog I originally wrote it on is defunct I decided to republish it on here.

Article originally published 05/02/12 some details may be out of date.

When I speak to people about politics, especially in the Labour Party, a common complaint is that Young Women just aren’t interested in politics. To many being interested in politics is all about attending Branch or G.C meetings and running for office.

To which my reply is always the same “well have you asked them?” This gets varying responses from ummm… to well we did once but didn’t get any response back so didn’t bother again. They then go on to complain about young people in general which gives you an idea of what the real problem is.


People expect that young women won’t be interested in politics and therefore don’t put the effort in to welcome them to meetings or invite them to events. Many young political women I have spoken to have at some point attended a meeting and had a bad experience. In my own experience my first Branch meeting scared me off for a year despite already being politically active within the Labour party. There is this expectation that if you are new to a group your role is to sit down, shut up, listen and learn. Very few people felt welcome in their first meeting which is a major issue for any new member let alone young or female ones.

Going to a branch meeting where you don’t know anyone is a scary experience that could be made easier simply by people greeting you with a friendly word and a smile. There is an already acknowledged problem of male members monopolising any discussions, added to this is the idea that young people don’t know what they’re talking about and a tendency to talk down to them unless they are a member of long standing or to chastise them like a small child.

With experiences like that is there any wonder that young women don’t tend to go to branch or G.C more than a couple of times? Yet this doesn’t mean they aren’t politically active; many are involved with single issue campaigns, electioneering, online activism and protests. All of these methods of political activism are just as valid as working within the party system.

The main issue as I see it is the lack of young women running for office. I have been told that at 23 I am the youngest women elected at borough level and above. (This has recently changedCompare that to the case of Jake Morrison elected councillor at the age of 18, the difference between 23 and 18 may not seem much but as much as “a week is a long time in politics” the same can be said for years of age. So why are young men running for, and getting elected, office and young women not doing the same? Could this be due to their lack of participation within the Party organisation? The sexism and ageism inherent in the system? A lack of confidence in young women resulting in them not being put forward? or simply because they cannot be bothered?

Firstly I don’t believe that it is because they cannot be bothered, I know many capable and amazing young women within the Labour Party some of whom have run for election. If we draw comparisons with the workplace, studies have shown that men will apply for jobs when they have around 20% of the qualifications needed whereas women will only apply when they have closer to 80%. There is a confidence gap between the genders and women tend to perceive themselves as less skilled or able than they are. Because of this women who run tend to start in unwinnables and go on to become a better “bet” as they get older and more experienced in electioneering.

The sexism and ageism within politics has been handled many times by writers and academics more skilled than myself suffice to say a quick google search will bring up many excellent articles
Intelligence Squared Debate
LSE Blog
The Guardian

It is all well and good discussing the sexism in politics but what can we do about getting young women involved? Rather than spend all my time criticising I would like to suggest some practical methods that I have found have worked personally.

  1. Form a new members committee with a mixture of ages whose job it is to welcome new members, possibly by taking them for coffee or to the pub so they get to discuss things in a less structured and pressured environment.
  2. If you see a new member, go up and introduce yourself. Have a chat, make them feel welcome and share your agenda if they don’t have one.
  3. Don’t judge them, don’t talk down to them and don’t assume they have no experience in the Labour Party and that they don’t know anything.
  4. Get to know new members, it’s basic but it works. All it needs is some time. I recently got tickets to a preview of an art exhibition and invited a young female member as I knew she’d enjoy it. Afterwards we had an amazing conversation in the pub and found how much in common we had. Now she has a friend she is more likely to attend meetings.
  5. Get active on Social media, many young people are more likely to be contacted on facebook than by post. A simple tweet “are you coming to the meeting tomorrow” is more likely to get em to attend than a sheath of minutes, agenda etc
  6. Organise social events outside of meetings, this could be a women’s group or simply a meetup in a local cafe for young women to meet, compare battle stories and feel like they aren’t alone. If you have particularly crafty young people a regular stitch and bitch could work here. There is actually a labour knitters group on ravelry
  7. Don’t automatically nominate them for youth officer, it’s patronising and overwhelming. I have been told so many stories about people turning up to their first meeting, being elected youth officer and then being expected to be responsible for all the young people and organise things.
  8. Support them, I wouldn’t be a councillor if it wasn’t for the support of two amazing party members who got to know me and then convinced me to not only run but to go for a winnable seat and apply to be a joint Labour and Coop councillor. Mentoring can also play a big role here. Ask young women who have achieved in the party if they would be willing to do this.
  9. Introduce them to the world outside the local party. For instance, being a member of the Fabian Society can better arm them to take part in debates, the Coop Party can be an amazing experience for young people, especially summerfest.
  10. Don’t let meetings be all business, yes it’s important but people get involved in politics for more than Apologies, Minutes, Matters Arising, Officer Reports and AOB. Having a discussion on a issue that interests them is more likely to make them attend more often in the chance of more.
  11. Don’t always moan about All Women Shortlists, the more that men talk about how sexist they are the more likely young women are to feel that they aren’t as able to run and shouldn’t even try because “they are taking places from capable men”. I understand you have concerns but the SAME ARGUMENT has been going on for TWENTY YEARS. What do you think you have to say that is so original and going to overthrow the whole system?
  12. If you have capable young women for Bevan’s sake ask them to run.
  13. If you have young women who have got elected make a big deal of them, nominate them for conferences, positions, get them speaking gigs and make them as visible as possible. The more visible women are the more likely they are to inspire other women to run.
  14. When they are elected don’t just pigeon hole them as the young person who only does youth issues.

But most importantly, going back to the beginning, Ask them! Ask them to attend, ask them why they aren’t attending and ask them what you can do to encourage them to attend.

You never know until you try!

Also published on Labour Rose and Young Labour Councillors


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

Is there anybody out there?

Hey blog,

long time no see.

I know I’ve been awful at updating this thing, all I can say is I was busy, also uninspired and flat out lazy.

I was inspired to give this lark another go by this post Supporting Johanna Baxter, you should read it. It’s great.

I have made it very obvious on a number of media that I am opposed to the whole idea of slates. People urging me to support a slate really puts my dander up, I feel like they aren’t asking me to think for myself, just follow this predetermined line. In internal Labour Elections I work at finding out who the candidates are, if anyone can vouch for them personally and what their record is like. Then I vote for Ken Livingstone because Ken. I make no apologies for my total political fangirling around Red Ken, when first elected I was given a copy of his first autobiography and told to read it as “the most complete and in-depth book available on local government” (one day I hope to get him to sign it).

So Johanna standing as an individual, not on any slates intrigued me. I felt rather inclined to vote for her simply because of that. Then I learnt more about her and was very interested. A Labour activist since she was 16, growing up in a Scottish CLP as the granddaughter of a Killoch Pit miner, then a London CLP Secretary for 9 years and also a national officer for the Prospect Union. Having never met a representative of the NEC she was determined to shake things up and give members more of a stake in their National Executive Committee. Now in the Labour Party independent candidates don’t win, the slates have money and strength. (She didn’t win, but due to the elevation of Oona King to the Lords she got on as the next highest supported candidate.  She lost by only 172 votes In itself a huge achievement)

When she took her seat on the NEC expectations were high, and she didn’t disappoint. From the start she maintained a steady flow of communication in both directions, few active members can claim not to have heard of her regular reports. She publicised what she was doing and what decisions were being made, both through her reports (sent to CLPs, published on Labourlist, advertised on twitter) and her blog. You can also contact her directly on Twitter, she’s one of the most accessible people I know on there!

Apart from her skillful use of electronic media she did something which surprised and delighted me, in her first 52 weeks she visited 52 CLPS (you still owe Gedling a visit Jo). Not only was this something that had never been done before. but she did it off her own bat, in her own time and using her own money.

Two exhausted campaigners at the Feltham and Heston By-election


Not only was I impressed by her hard work and dedication but I was starting to class her amongst my good friends (bias alert) So when the 2012 election came up I was very happy to pitch in and campaign for her. But really her work speaks for itself and that’s why she was re-elected, not due to any campaigning, but due to her.

So hopefully if you read this you will click on some of the links i’ve scattered like confetti through this article, contact her and make your mind up.

I will remain #TeamJohanna