From militant to minister

Issue: 146

Andrew Stone

Paula Bartley, Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister (Pluto, 2014), £11.50, and Matt Perry, “Red Ellen” Wilkinson: Her Ideas, Movements and World (Manchester University Press, 2014), £75

Ellen Wilkinson led an extraordinary life. The daughter of an under-employed insurance collector and Methodist minister in Manchester, she took on many guises in her political life: suffragist, teacher, trade union organiser, Communist, Labourist and ultimately cabinet minister. She was an ardent and persuasive public speaker, and a journalist, novelist and writer of several influential books, including her account of the Jarrow Crusade—The Town That Was Murdered—that has lived on in the popular memory as ­epitomising ­depression-hit 1930s Britain. She was also one of the foremost anti-imperialist voices of the inter-war years. She once commented that she had “heard Hitler orate, talked to Gandhi in gaol, picnicked with terrorist leaders on the run in Bengal, lunched with tribal chieftains on the Khyber Pass” (Bartley, p83). But this underplays the active solidarity that she prioritised—from helping to set up the anti-fascist League for Italian Freedom in 1925, to assisting refugees from Nazi Germany and promoting support for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War.

Any biographer of Wilkinson therefore takes on a challenge—both in pinning down their subject and in the wide-ranging research needed to substantiate their account. In particular the fact that her MI5 file and personal papers were both consigned to the flames—the former when, as a cabinet minister, she asked to see them, and the latter by her brother on her death—leaves frustrating gaps. Matt Perry and Paula Bartley both, in their different ways, live up to this task impressively.

Bartley’s account is the more conventional, largely chronological narrative. It is very readable and full of lively quotes and anecdotes. For example, at 16 Wilkinson enrolled as a trainee teacher. Bartley relates how, on her first day of teaching, she saw a “vindictive old cat, grey-haired and spinsterish” slap one pupil who was not praying, insisting that he “Say Gentle Jesus, you little nuisance, say Gentle Jesus” (p5). Wilkinson’s personal attributes—her courage, hard work and hatred of poverty and injustice—are well illustrated, as are her foibles. While Bartley gives a little more prominence to aspects of Wilkinson’s personal life than Perry, it is only insofar as they enrich our understanding of her political journey—for example, the long-term affair she likely had with Labour deputy prime minister Herbert Morrison might have played a role (albeit limited) in her eventual move to the right.

Perry’s structure meanwhile is thematic, with chapters dealing separately with her socialism, feminism, trade unionism, anti-imperialism, parliamentarianism, response to the Great Depression, solidarity with Spain and her time in government. This has the benefit of demonstrating continuities and changes within those areas more explicitly, though with the risk of losing the thread of the other influences and campaigns that she was juggling simultaneously. Perry does his best to make these connections, though the general reader might be advised to read Bartley first.

After graduating from Manchester University (having won a scholarship to study history), Wilkinson threw herself into activism, joining the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage (MSWS) in 1912 and then the Women’s Labour League, which focused on social welfare issues such as free school meals. This was a prime time to marry her labourist and suffragist goals, as in 1912 the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS—of which the MSWS was an affiliate), frustrated at years of Liberal Party obstruction, signed an alliance with the Labour Party. Perry and, to a lesser extent, Bartley are fairly brief on this formative period of Wilkinson’s political development, which probably reflects a lack of sources rather than of curiosity. Both authors have little time for the argument that Wilkinson’s interest in women’s issues soon waned once she entered parliamentary politics. They show how over her career her form of socialist feminism may have altered in focus but remained one of her principal concerns. First elected in 1924, for several years she was the only female Labour MP. She felt a responsibility to speak out for women on a range of issues, including against work bans for married women and for widow’s pensions. This entailed some tactical alliances, for example with the Tory Lady Astor over educational opportunities and the equalisation of the franchise. But she also remained fiercely independent and sought to link women’s rights with those of the working class more generally.

She did so practically in her role, from 1915, as an organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees (AUCE). She was responsible for recruiting and organising shop assistants and factory workers. Committed to industrial unionism, Wilkinson contributed to a large growth in AUCE membership in 1916, through militant campaigns of strikes and protests (with some similarities to Unite’s recent “leverage” strategy). They did so by challenging the conservatism of the traditional craft unions, relating to the grievances of the growing army of female workers filling wartime shortages and refusing to be hamstrung by a misplaced sympathy for Co-operative employers (the third sector equivalent of the day). However, the end of the war brought harder times for women’s trade unionism, and some bitter defeats, notably of a strike at the Longsight printing works, led the AUCE executive to censure and temporarily fire Wilkinson (she was reinstated after pressure from allies within the union). Perry gives a much better sense of the possibilities of the preceding period, and is clearer than Bartley that it was the ­government’s outrageous use of the wartime Defence of the Realm Act to terminate the printers’ strike that proved crucial. Wilkinson may deserve some criticism for a lack of accountability in the dispute, but her instinct—to spread the strike far and fast—was surely a good one. Bartley appears to assume that such a strategy was doomed to failure, but does not really explain why.

Wilkinson’s commitment to left reformist guild socialism was transformed under the impact of war, class struggle and the example of the Russian Revolution. She attended the establishing conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, speaking in favour of democratic centralism because “a revolution meant discipline and obedience” (Perry, p24), a quote which (for good or ill) would not always characterise her own activity in the coming years. Perry does point out that the CPGB’s position of affiliation to the Labour Party (as a means of influencing the working class base it then had) was a major issue of the conference. Wilkinson could thus retain ambitions for parliamentary change alongside revolutionary language, but it is notable that she left the CPGB in 1924 just as the Labour Party definitively rejected this attempt at entryism. Critics would say that this was an opportunist move to stay in the running for Labour Party candidacy, though Bartley comments more approvingly that “Ellen was slowly becoming aware that parliament might be the institution through which to advance her socialist cause” (p22). Her view of the centrality of this aspect of Wilkinson’s activity is reflected in Bartley’s chapter titles such as “On the Opposition Benches, 1924-29”, “In and Out of Power, 1929-35” and “In Parliament Again, 1935-39”.

However, the most fascinating accounts in both books centre on Wilkinson’s extra-parliamentary activity, particularly in the crisis years of the 1930s. Though Wilkinson had retained links with former CPGB comrades throughout the 1920s, the impact of the Depression led to a flowering of joint work around anti-imperialism, anti-fascism and radical trade unionism. Perry convincingly presents this as Wilkinson’s second radical period, fuelled by world crisis and disillusionment with the betrayal of the Labour right in following Ramsay MacDonald into a National Government with the Tories. One of the many victims of Labour’s 1931 electoral defeat, Wilkinson drew the conclusion that it had lost because “it was not Socialist enough” (Bartley, p56). She therefore threw herself into radical journalism—including two very serious analyses, “Why Fascism?” and “Why War?” (both 1934) and speaking tours—in revolutionary Spain, to the French Popular Front strikes of 1936 and the 1936-7 General Motors strike. She saw the threat of Nazism with great clarity and in the summer of 1933 helped to organise the “Legal Committee of Inquiry into the Burning of the Reichstag”. This was a pressure group rather than an institution with any official status, but in publicly examining the evidence surrounding the alleged arson by former Communist Marinus Van der Lubbe she helped to discredit Nazi claims of Soviet involvement, and saved the lives of Van der Lubbe’s Communist co-defendants (this would be the last significant act of judicial independence before Hitler’s death). Despite being subsequently banned from Germany, Wilkinson snuck back into the country as a correspondent for the Sunday Referee and in February 1936 was the first to break the story about Nazi plans to remilitarise the Rhineland (crossing an important red line established by the Treaty of Versailles). She telephoned the story from under a pile of bedclothes to stop her voice being heard.

So ubiquitous does she seem around the key moments of her age, at times Wilkinson resembles one of those fictional characters sometimes inserted into historical productions for dramatic effect (such as Angelica Fanshawe in Peter Flannery’s 2008 drama The Devil’s Whore). To mention just three more examples; she was instrumental in the Labour Party’s (belated) opposition to non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War,* provided publicity and support for Indian independence alongside Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi, and organised the Jarrow Crusade to highlight the extent and impact of unemployment in her constituency.

Such relentless activity inevitably impacted on her health, and her severe asthma (combined with the contemporary practice of treating it as a psychological condition) surely contributed to her early death in 1947 at the age of just 55. The proximate cause was an overdose of sleeping pills, but her motive remains an issue of historical curiosity. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death, and this was widely accepted at the time. Observers from a more suspicious age might point to the political cost the governing Labour Party, already suffering economic woes, might pay from an admission of suicide. But Perry and Bartley both prefer to maintain an open verdict, which seems appropriate based on the evidence available.

The fact that Wilkinson was in the cabinet by this time reflects her conversion from a parliamentary rebel to a key player in government. This journey was arguably presaged by her support for the Popular Front rather than the revolutionary militias in Spain. The ultimate defeat of that struggle also (rather paradoxically) reinforced her belief that conventional warfare was necessary to defeat the threat of fascism. She therefore threw in her lot with Winston Churchill, entering the wartime coalition government as the left face of “national unity”. She played a prominent role in organising fallout shelters, though ministerial responsibility fostered a suspicion for the spontaneous self-organisation on the underground, and—ultimately—condemnation of wartime strikes. She was later elected to chair the Labour Party NEC, entrusted with one of the key pre-election broadcasts in 1945 and appointed to Clement Attlee’s cabinet as minister for education (despite her open intrigues against his leadership). In that role she implemented the Butler Act, a Tory-devised scheme for a tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and (in theory) technical schools. Although she achieved the noteworthy parliamentary goals of raising the school leaving age (to 15) and introducing free school milk to deal with childhood malnutrition (a reform infamously reversed by the second female education minister), her defence of the 11-plus system was founded on a long held attachment to the type of grammar school that she had attended herself. Much to the dismay of the Labour left of the time, who were already arguing for “multilateral” (comprehensive) schools, her attack on educational privilege only went so far as to advocate a selective system based on parity of esteem and blind to class background; needless to say, neither of these hopes were borne out.

The life of Ellen Wilkinson is fascinating in its own terms, but also as a window into our own world. Of the two biographies, Bartley’s is more specific in applying lessons to the present. She draws parallels with Wilkinson’s battles against a coalition government bent on austerity, and hopes that she can inspire us with “the need for engagement, compassion, energy, concern and courage—freshened with a dash of utopian thinking” (p136). Perry agrees that “the desire to combat injustices and the movements attempting to do so in the context of global capitalism—remains today as fertile as ever” (p390). It’s a little disappointing that Bartley concludes that “revolutionary socialism is not a plausible alternative given the experiences of it in Eastern Europe, Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere” (p137). Her approval of Wilkinson’s ultimate acceptance of the “pragmatic” road of piecemeal reform does not invalidate an engaging account, but readers of this journal will probably find more to agree with in Perry’s analysis.


* British non-intervention made a significant contribution to undermining the Republican war effort, and in providing Stalinism with a pretext for strangling its revolutionary impetus. Bartley actually minimises the complicity of Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain in this, writing that “Almost immediately [after the Republican surrender on 1 April 1939] Chamberlain recognised Franco and his fascists as leaders of Spain” (p82). In fact this took place formally on 27 February 1939, with de facto recognition dating from much earlier.