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.




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