From Red Suffragist to Government Minister
Revolutionary Lives Series
London: Pluto Press, 2014
Paperback. xiv+153 pages. ISBN 978-0745332376. £12.99
Reviewed by Deborah Mutch
De Montfort University, Leicester
In the Preface to her biography of Ellen Wilkinson Paula Bartley recounts two examples of the disappearance of Wilkinson from history: a taxi driver who only knows her name because his children went to a school named after her [xi] and a female Labour Party member who had not heard of Wilkinson [xii]. And I am afraid that, apart from Wilkinson’s 1929 novel Clash, this reviewer was in the same sorry state of ignorance. Fortunately for all three of us, as well as the legions out there who are still waiting to be introduced to this immensely interesting and influential woman, Paula Bartley and Pluto Press have come to our aid with this short but engaging biography.
Suffragist, socialist, communist, Labour Party MP and cabinet minister, Ellen Wilkinson was born in crowded, industrial Chorlton-on-Medlock in Manchester in 1891. Despite the ‘sausage factory’  educational process for working-class children, Ellen displayed considerable intelligence and at the age of sixteen she began a pupil-teacher training course. It was during this training that she was asked to stand as a socialist candidate in mock elections and in her preparation for the debate she read Robert Blatchford’s socialist treatises, Merrie England and Britain for the British. Thus, Ellen Wilkinson became one of the many converts to socialism through Blatchford’s persuasion and was drawn into the movement by Katherine Bruce Glasier’s ‘great soul’ . Not one to cheer from the sidelines, Wilkinson was instrumental in founding the University Socialist Federation during her scholarship at Manchester University, joined the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage (MSWS) and ran the local branch of the Fabian Society. After graduation she was employed by MSWS as an assistant organiser and stayed with the society after it transferred to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom during the First World War. Her fight for the female vote continued after she became the national organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees (AUCE) but now she was able to promote her socialist ideals as well. She worked for the AUCE, which amalgamated with the Warehouse Workers Union to form the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW) in 1923, between 1915 and 1924 – when she was elected to Parliament – and again during her time out of Parliament after losing her seat in the 1931 election. From 1935 to her death in 1947 she remained a Labour MP, was voted vice-chair and then chair of the party’s National Executive Committee, given the Ministerial brief for education in the 1945 Labour government and was instrumental in the foundation of UNESCO, only missing the first official conference in 1947 because of illness.
Such a long and busy career in politics gave Wilkinson the opportunity to do immense amounts of good for those she cared passionately about: women, the poor and working class. She worked to alleviate the suffering of many by bringing issues to the attention of those in power of the circumstances borne by the poor. For instance, she showed Parliament a harness worn by young boys in the mines to pull coal wagons to demonstrate the inhumanity of mine work and mine owners as MPs debated the Coal Mines Bill in 1926; as the MP for Jarrow she was instrumental in organising the 1936 Jarrow Crusade when the unemployed steel workers marched to London to petition the government; she introduced the Hire Purchase Act of 1939 that made the hire purchase system, used by many working-class people to furnish houses, fairer. She campaigned passionately and tirelessly for equality in both class and gender and against the harsh economic and political decisions of the Conservative Party. She was a vocal critic even within her own party when she thought it was failing the working class. Ramsay MacDonald’s continuation of Conservative austerity in the 1931 National Coalition government and the introduction of the Means Test, for instance, were subject to Wilkinson’s vociferous criticism.
Nevertheless, Ellen Wilkinson was clearly a divisive character and the author does not allow her admiration to blind her to Wilkinson’s faults. Indeed, in the Preface the author states: ‘I have no desire to write a hagiography’ [xiv] and so the reader is also shown Wilkinson’s actions and decisions based on political self-preservation: for instance, her treatment of Stafford Cripps. Wilkinson and Cripps had co-authored a memo calling for the uniting of the Labour Party with left-of-centre groups to enhance their chances of success in the 1939 general election. Cripps circulated the memo to party members despite it being rejected by the NEC – a breach of party procedure – and was subsequently expelled from the Labour Party. Despite being part of the call for unity and co-author of the memo she refused to support Cripps’s campaign for reinstatement because she ‘did not want to risk her political career for Cripps’s seemingly hopeless cause’ . There was also a good deal of what appears to be political opportunism in order to keep her position within the Labour government/s. Although the author argues that Wilkinson was motivated by political expediency, particularly in her role as government minister in the Wartime Coalition government, Wilkinson made decisions to support rather than challenge government policy and action that went directly against her earlier stances. For instance, Wilkinson supported Herbert Morrison’s ban of the Communist Party paper, Daily Worker, despite her past passionate support for free speech: ‘she retracted her views, justified the ban and accused the Daily Worker of undermining the war effort’ . Similarly, she worked to uphold the ban on strikes in the Second World War under the Emergency Powers Act and Defence Regulations when she had fiercely opposed similar measures during the First World War.
The author’s attempt to give a clear, unbiased account rather than a hagiography is admirable but there are many reversals and contradictions in Wilkinson’s working life that could have been pressed further to either dispel or to prove political opportunism. The list is fairly long and includes Wilkinson’s apparently sudden shift from a critic of the Labour Party to party member, her close working relationship with Nancy Astor when it meant getting feminist Bills placed before the House of Commons, her support for Winston Churchill during and after the Second World War, her vacillation over the availability of birth control arguing against it in 1938 and advocating it in 1945. The author makes clear in the Preface that ‘In this short book I cannot make an exhaustive study of her life’ [xiv] and that there will inevitably be omissions. The focus on Wilkinson’s political life is rightly chosen as the subject for this biography even though it leaves the reader curious about the ill-health which is periodically mentioned, the car crash that left her with a fractured skull and, more salaciously, her assumed affair with Herbert Morrison. While these tantalising glimpses of personal life are understood to be simply indications of life outside of her work there are areas of that work that could have benefited from further examination. An early example is that of Wright Robinson’s accusation that Wilkinson and John Jagger lied during the campaign to protect Co-operative workers’ wages. This reader would have welcomed some discussion of the basis for this accusation, consideration of whether the accusation may have been true and some justification for the claim that this was based on Wright Robinson’s jealousy. Similarly, some discussion of why Wilkinson chose to perpetuate the divisive and tri-partite system of education set out by the Conservative Party in the post-war Labour government would have been useful.
A book of this length can only be introductory and cannot cover everything therefore it would also have been useful to have had some further and clearer information on the sources. Information in the endnotes as to where sources are located would help the future researcher as, although there is a comprehensive list of archives in the Acknowledgements and an offer of an additional bibliography if the author is contacted through a provided email address, more information on where the sources are located would also have been useful. Some of this is already provided in the endnotes for the letters between Wilkinson and Holtby, Wilkinson’s correspondence and the Foreign Office documents but, for instance, where would the interested researcher find the Wright Robinson diary, the source of the quotation on page 101 on Wilkinson driving around bomb-torn London cheering those in shelters or a later quotation on the same page from the Daily Herald which gives no indication of the specific issue?
These are minor issues, though, in a publication that is both engaging and timely. The author notes that ‘Ellen’s life carries deep resonance for our times’ [xii] and so, for instance, the similarities between the aftermaths of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the banking crisis of 2008 are made (depressingly) clear. Wilkinson’s criticism of the Labour government’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Snowden’s response to the financial crisis echoes down the decades: ‘We are told … that the Budget doesn’t balance, that there are going to be terrible things happen unless you are prepared to accept cuts – cuts everywhere except in the dividend of the Bankers’ . I would urge readers interested in left-wing British politics to read this biography not only for the information on Wilkinson’s life but also for potential insight into today’s political attitudes towards austerity and, perhaps, a way out.
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