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.


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

Let’s talk about AWS baby


Jennie Lee, MP, Baroness, Legend, Woman

All Women Shortlists, that bogeyman within the Labour Party. The sole thing that is stopping men from becoming MP’s.

Or so you would think if you listened to the conversation which proliferates around events. Apparently it is now harder for a white, middle-class, male to get into parliament then it is for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle. Women are being put into place purely because they are women, it’s sexist to have a Labour Women’s Network and not a Labour Men’s Network and look at all the advantages they get from the LWN training scheme. They even get their own conference for Bevan’s sake!

There seems to be this view that AWS are giving women an unfair advantage, it’s not about leveling the playing field so much as women taking over. Yet studies have shown that a woman won’t apply for a job unless she has over 85% of the qualities asked for whereas a man will apply if he has only 20%.

There’s an awful lot of privilege denying going on, women are automatically less likely to be selected on an open shortlist, not because of lack of ability, but because selection panels often reflect the makeup of the G.C. G.C’s often tend to be male dominated as they are more likely to put themselves forward or attend meetings. Interestingly this often doesn’t reflect the makeup of the CLP, women are more likely to be silent members, they would go to meetings but were scared off, have to look after the kids or a million and one other activities which are automatically designated “women’s work” even in the most egalitarian and feminist of couples.If CLP’s aren’t gender balanced then how can we expect selections to be genderblind? As Ann Black said in her response to the LWN “Around 75% of parliamentary candidates in non-target seats are also men, worrying because these can often be the first step towards a parliamentary career.”

Men are also more likely to take part in more high-profile campaigning than women, leaflet folding, photocopying and phone canvassing are just as vital to voter ID as doorknocking but have less kudos when selecting people for positions in branch, G.C or as candidates. This is something which needs to be looked into, doorknocking is intimidating enough as it is but as a woman you are constantly reminded that you are not safe. Be it through ad campaigns that blame victims for their own attack or other forms of media which use women as victims. Most men I know have never had to consider their safety in detail before leaving the house, grasping keys in their hand as a defence against attack or ringing a friend before walking home, getting in a taxi or leaving the house when it’s dark.Putting yourself in a situation where you are meeting strangers at their own house automatically rings alarm bells of “not safe, not safe” even if you are in a large group, it does for me even though I have been doorknocking for years. This is one of the reasons women tend to do the backroom work and leave the high-profile stuff to the men. However this counts against them when going for selection.

If you’re a youngish woman, that can count against you. Even though it is no longer asked assumptions are made about your reproductive capabilities and whether you would be able to commit to the role if you had a baby. This is despite some high-profile female MP’s managing to combine both childcare and politics well. I doubt that this is thought of when it comes to male candidates.

As a party we often have an aggression towards AWS based on what is seen as them being imposed by on high. The NEC sets a target and Regional Office tells CLP’s what to do.

  • What we need to start working on is a grassroots approach, we need to start valuing the input women make to campaign work and remove the hierarchy of contributions.
  • There needs to be work on gender balance at the branch and CLP level as well as on selection panels.
  • There has been some excellent work on reformulating the structure of branch and g.c meetings but more has to be done. Thought needs to be paid to the time most of these meetings are and pooling childcare.
  • Women need to be encouraged to stand, when I stood it was the result of a lot of arm twisting on behalf of my CLP chair and secretary who thought I was a good candidate. Without that support I doubt I would have stood or even be considering standing until I was past my 40’s.
  • We also need to start promoting the women within our party, those who have been elected need to start speaking at CLP’s and writing about their experiences, no one person’s experience is the same but we can all support and learn from each other.

Most importantly we need to stop talking about AWS as if they are some giant evil on the level of Beveridge’s Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Do you think a woman is going to stand after years of being told that she isn’t as good as a man? Do you think that after 20 odd years that someone is going to say something so shocking and new that it will overthrow the entire system?

What we do need to talk about is what other ways we can get women into politics and make it so that AWS aren’t needed but can be considered a relic of the past.

On the Living Wage


I was recently fortunate enough to be able to second Gedling Borough Council’s motion on the living wage

English: View from Arnot Hill Park The main la...


Madam Mayor,

I’m delighted to

second this motion which demonstrates the Labour Group’s commitment to ensuring that the Council is a fair and enlightened employer.

I would like to start by congratulating the Cabinet in being in a position to be able to pay £250 to our lowest paid staff.  This payment recognises the hard work that our employees do, especially in this difficult period.

In his report to Cabinet the Corporate Director highlights the numerous savings made through staff co-operation such as the £90,000 annually saved on travel costs, £300,000 annually saved by freezing posts and the collaboration with the unions to reprioritise the activities of the council and streamline management which resulted in over £160,000 of annual savings.

Local Government pay has been frozen since March 2010.  In real terms we have seen a pay cut for every single employee.  Since March 2010 RPI has risen 11.3% and CPI by 8%.  Despite this I have yet to hear our employees complain.

Let’s look at the context.  The Chancellor recognised that the pay freeze for public sector was particularly harsh for staff paid less than £21,000 and offered the scope to increase pay for these staff by £250 per year.  65% of our staff fall into this group.  The Local Government Employers organisation was convinced that most councils could not make this payment and did not make a pay offer nationally.  It’s a sign of a well run council that we can afford the payment.

Having spent some time below the line on the Nottingham Post website I’m sure the argument will come up that this is a waste of council taxpayers’ money.  I would like to suggest that this is a fallacy.  A large number of the employees of Gedling Borough Council live in the Borough and we can assume that some of the money we are awarding will come back into the Borough by our employees taking advantage of the two hours free parking to do some last minute shopping on our high streets.

There are some 88,000 electors in Gedling.  If you divide the total amount of the payment by the number of electors it comes out as 90 pence each per year.  Under the previous administration I recall that it was 60p for an hour’s parking in the Borough and we were told this was cheap.

But those who still think this is too expensive might want to have to look at the priorities shown by local conservative run councils.  Rushcliffe Borough has just given £810,000 to Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, a privately owned business.  The Conservative Controlled County Council has also recently given Trent Bridge a grant of £900,000.  This works out at £1.7 million of taxpayer’s money given to a private business.

But this one-off bonus is only the start. I’m delighted that the Council is committed to introducing the living wage for our employees as soon as possible and aiming to ensure Gedling becomes a living wage borough.

The Living Wage Foundation calculates the income that is needed to achieve a minimum acceptable standard of living.  For example, it calculates that a single person outside needs an income of £7.20 per hour (£16,800 per annum) and parents with two children £36.700 (£18,400 each) to have a minimum acceptable standard of living.  Nationally some 20% of workers are paid below the living wage but for Gedling Borough it around 28% of our workforce.  Paying such low wages is immoral and must be addressed.

I do not expect this to be a bone of contention, after all, all three of our political parties support raising the pay of low earners.  During the General Election campaign in May 2010 David Cameron referred to the Living Wage as ‘An idea whose time has come’.  Ed Miliband is committed to delivering a living wage as part of his programme to give everyone a stake in the economy and promoting growth.

Some of the biggest commercial firms such as KPMG, Barclays have already signed up to the living wage.  Even firms with large numbers of low paid employers like Intercontinental Hotels have signed up.  Firms like these wouldn’t do so if they thought it would damage their businesses.  Many public sector employers such as the Greater London Authority, where Boris Johnson has carried on the work of Ken Livingstone, the devolved administrations and many large local councils are signed up.  . The DWP has announced that it will actually introduce the living wage for its low paid cleaners and catering staff, while the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice have given indications that they might soon follow suit.

The Living Wage has benefits – employers who have implemented it believe that the Living Wage enhances the quality of the work of their staff, and reduces absenteeism.  Two thirds of employers reported a significant impact on recruitment and retention within their organisation, as well as saving money by reducing staff turnover and increasing loyalty.

We know that there is a growing gap between rich and poor and that the current Government’s austerity policies are making this worse.  Too many people are having to do more than one low paid job and are still dependent on in-work benefits if they and their families are to survive.  Even in areas as relatively wealthy as Gedling we are seeing the obscenity of people depending on food banks.

I don’t know about Councillor Barnfather but I don’t feel particularly merry knowing that some of our citizens are relying on charity in order to be able to eat. Or having to chose between food and fuel to heat their house.

If we are to make progress as a nation then a fair pay for a fair day’s work has to be part of the basic deal.

This is something we must lead on, if we as a council are not paying a decent, living wage to our employees then what right do we have to expect businesses in Gedling to do the same. And more shame on us if we don’t pass this motion and make sure we do end up as a living wage council as soon as possible for both our in-house and contracted-out staff.

Thank you